Cruise Ship Tips

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Embarkation Day Guide – what to expect when boarding a ship

The day is here, time to cruise! The first day of a cruise can be overwhelmingly exciting and sometimes a bit confusing. Every port is different, every ship is different and the massive amounts of people seemingly everywhere only adds to the confusion. Knowing ahead of time what to expect will help you get on the ship without stress. Here is my cruise embarkation day guide, so you know what to expect the first day.

Getting to the port

Depending on where you live in respect to where the port you’re sailing out of, arriving at the port will vary. Some people choose to drive to the port and park their vehicles in the cruise port parking lot. Others prefer to take a car service and be dropped off at the port.

If you plan to take an airplane to your port city, it is highly recommended that you fly in the day before embarkation day. This is to allow time for any delays due to weather or an emergency. Cruise ships are very punctual and will leave on time. It is extremely important that you be there a few hours before the scheduled sail away- or you risk missing the ship.

Many hotels that are near cruise ports will offer shuttle services, for a low cost or sometimes free. They usually do this for airports as well. Just ask your hotel and they’ll tell you which services they provide.

At the port

Firstly, the luggage porters will whisk away your checked luggage. (Always tip these people. They work very hard making sure your personal items get to where they need to go.) This is important to know because once you arrive on the sidewalk of the port, you’ll be separated from your luggage. Always keep your necessary items, such as your passport/ID, money, cruise paperwork, medications, and anything you’ll need for the first few hours of your cruise with you in a personal purse or carry-on.

You will also need to make sure your luggage is tagged properly. Before your cruise, you will receive your personalized luggage tags from the cruise line. These will display your name and stateroom information. Make sure you affix them to your luggage properly and have this done before you head to the port.

Checking in

There will be signs and people directing you where to go. Ports will often have multiple cruise ships leaving the same day, so it can be a bit crowded at the port. Just look for the cruise line you’re booked with and follow their signs.

You’ll go through a bunch of security type checkpoints, so be prepared and have your passports, IDs, boarding passes/paperwork all in hand and ready to go. Do not be that person holding up the lines by rummaging through your giant carry on bag, looking for your passport. Have those items in an easy to find place, ready to go. It will help speed the process up and everyone will thank you.

After you’re through security, you’ll approach the check in desk. Here you will get checked in, fill out customs forms, put your method of payment down for onboard spending, and receive your sail and sign cards -this is where the fun begins!

After that, you’ll be ushered to a waiting area, where you’ll wait to board the ship. It is so exciting at this point because you will likely see the ship right outside the windows!

Boarding the ship

Every embarkation day is different, and every cruise line has its way to board passengers. You may be given an actual boarding time, or a group number and will be called to board at that time. Sometimes you can get on right away, depending on what time you arrive at port. Usually there is an order, such the guests who have booked suites, the high loyalty guests, and handicapped/assistance required guests. After those groups are called, you’ll start hearing group numbers being called.

When your number or group is called, make your way to the line and flash the security people your ship card. Keep this handy because you will need it again soon. Make your way up the gangway and onto the ship. Once you step through the balloon arch (I don’t know if there is always a balloon arch but there has been in all my experiences!) you will be greeted by the ship’s staff. There will likely be music playing and a festive vibe in the air. You will then swipe your ship card into their card readers and be officially welcomed onboard. Now the fun really begins!!!

Now what?

Your vacation has begun and you’re standing on the ship! This is the best part, the very beginning. Start exploring! Or head to the buffet and grab some food! Go check out the lido deck and get some sun! The choice is yours.

At this point you’ll have your carry-on luggage with you and your room probably won’t be ready just yet so you’ll need to bring it with you as you explore. This is a great time to familiarize yourself with the ship layout. Go for a tour of the ship, check out the common areas, restaurants and venues.

You won’t likely have your checked luggage for a few hours so this is the reason to pack necessities in your carry-on luggage. At some point there will be an announcement that rooms are ready and you can go to your room. Sometimes your luggage will be outside the door waiting for you, but often it may take a few more hours to arrive.

Your room steward will likely introduce themselves to you in the first hours of the first day. He or she will be taking care of your room for the length of your cruise and will be a familiar face every day. At this point you can make room requests and establish your needs with your steward. They will help make your stay as comfortable as they can, so be kind and courteous.

Muster Drill

There is this safety drill called the muster drill on every cruise. It is done by law, on every cruise you will ever take. You MUST attend the muster drill. Every ship handles the muster drill in its own way, but it will be done. Listen for announcements, follow the orders. Your sail card will have your assigned muster station printed on it. When prompted, go to the place you’re assigned. There will be a crew member assigned to each station, taking attendance. You must report to them and check in. Once you’re accounted for, wait for the drill to begin.

They will go over what to do in an emergency. Where to go, how to put on a life jacket, how to evacuate in a life boat if necessary. This drill is usually quick and to the point, but informative, so be sure to pay attention. If you ignore the orders to report to the drill, expect your name to be called on the ship’s announcement system. They know who is missing and they will call you out. And if you ignore that and somehow manage to evade the muster drill, you will be tracked down and be held accountable. They will force you to attend a make-up muster drill. Just go to the drill. Everyone has to go. Just go.

When you see the pilot boat, get ready to set sail!

Sail Away

After the muster drill, the fun really begins. Get ready to sail away! There will be an announcement and you’ll hear the ship’s horn blasting away, signaling it is about to pull away from the dock.

Being outside for sail away is a lot of fun. Get to one of the outside decks, or witness sail away from the privacy of your own balcony. Wave goodbye to the people on land, and those watching from nearby ships. Watch the city skyline get smaller and smaller as you move out to sea.

Sailing out of Boston

There will likely be a sail away party on the lido deck, where the cruise director will charm the guests and the DJ will play music to get everyone in a vacation mood.  Dance, grab a drink – you’re on vacation!

Bon voyage!

21 Replies to “Embarkation Day Guide – what to expect when boarding a ship”

  • I have always loved sailing. I have visited more than 10 different destinations and I want to visit more. Boarding a ship is relatively easy depending on the type of ship you want to board. All that you mentioned is exactly what one needs to know before boarding a ship. This information will really help thos who are boarding a ship for the first time

    • Linus,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I am glad I am able to help anyone new to cruising with what to expect. I love cruising and hope more people give it a chance. -Kate

  • I know embarking on a cruise ship adventure is definitely fun-packed. I’m even planning one with my family members especially with my girlfriend. I had to read through everything you wrote twice so to familiarize myself with what I should be expecting or what I’m going to face on board. 

    You did a great job giving a detailed explanation of everything one should expect to see… 


    • Thank you Sammy! I hope you have a great time on your upcoming cruise! Check out the rest of my page for more informative posts and enjoy your time onboard! -Kate

  • Thanks for writing this article on embarkation day guide. I must comment you for writing all things to expect when boarding a ship for vacation. Truly, I have not had a vacation on a cruise ship before. But reading this article it really sound interesting and great.moreover it can be a life time opportunity to be there with all the excitement that comes along with it

    • Ajibola,
      I would absolutely recommend a cruise vacation, it truly is a fantastic experience and different every time you go! I would try it sometime if you ever get the chance. Thanks for your comment! -Kate

  • I’m so inquisitive and I have been asking questions on how it is to board a ship. Since my boss told me I will be following him for a business trip and we will be boarding a ship since then I am always interested in anything that has to do with sheep because that will be the first time I will be traveling through ship , so everything there won’t catch me unaware.What if one lost his personalized luggage tag.what will happen?

    • Lok,

      If you misplace your luggage tag, you can simply print a new one. If you booked your trip through a travel agent, they can do this for you. Or, if you did it yourself, log into the website planner on whatever cruise website you booked through, and you can print yourself a new tag. In the instance that you’re going through work, I would assume your boss could point you in the right direction to get new tags. I hope you have a great time!!

  • This post is indeed filled with lots of information on what to expect when boarding a ship, the cruise port isn’t close to where I live so I think I will settle for arriving earlier than expected as I am planning on one soonest although I have never experienced a boat cruise because I’m always scared of water but I desperately wanna try one, and this post is surely going to be my guide.

    • Seun,
      The funny thing about ocean cruising is, the ships are SO LARGE that you barely even realize most of the time that you’re on water, lol. The ship is basically a giant floating city. Some even have live plants onboard in a park-like setting! You may be timid about it at first, but most people I know that were scared ended up facing their fear and LOVED every bit of their cruise. I hope you do get to go sometime and see for yourself! -Kate

  • A very educated piece here never been on a ship, now I have learnt how to go about it, the fact that I have to be punctual, tag my luggage so I can easily identify them later, after that we get checked in and board the ship. Once boarded we then undergo a safety drill 

  • Thank you for recommending tipping your luggage porters. I think people really do take for granted all of the work these people put in to making their cruise a pleasant and welcoming experience. I love how my luggage arrives to my door after I have had my first drink or two. Lol.

    I do have a question. Do you really need to bring your passport or birth certificate with you every time you exit the boat at one of the stops? Have you experienced or heard of this being an issue? I ask because whenever checking back in, the cruise ships I have been on only scan the ship card. I personally feel more secure leaving those documents in my room vs carrying it around on land.

    • Carlos, 

      Your question about the passports being taken off the ship at each port is a complicated answer, at least from what I have experienced. Most of the time, the ship card is sufficient – many ports will just take that as fine and let you into port.. but on my last cruise to Canada, customs wouldn’t let anyone through without a photo ID (a driver’s license was fine, didn’t have to be a passport.) I guess you need to find out at each port what is required.. and also decide if its worth the risk. I also don’t like taking my passport off the ship, however if something random happens and you get hurt/sick/left behind (hopefully NOT!) you will need your passport to get home.. I’ve heard horror stories about people missing the ship and they were stranded in a foreign country without their passport.. makes it much harder to get home. Just some of my thoughts. 

      Happy cruising! -Kate

  • Embarkation day guide article you have here is so detailed and I wanna say great job. As a matter of fact I have never been on a boat cruise before but with the way you explained the whole process from boarding the ship to getting your luggage in and enjoying the cruise. This article will definitely make anybody wanna have a embarkation cruise.

    • Seyi,
      Thank you for your encouraging comment! I appreciate it and hope I can inspire anyone reading to take a cruise – they really are the best! -Kate

  • Each vacation with family to Certain cities is mostly on ship and it’s always a fun filled one. While in the ship, I love to enjoy the DJ music for a long time with a bottle wine on my hand. After catching some fun with the DJ,  I would place an order for my meal and eat together with my wife. So much fun inside the ship.

  • I absolutely love this insightful article because it is full of great information. This is fascinating and interesting to me.this article makes me to imaging myself on boarding a ship. I never knew ship is somehow fun like I read it. I will be planning my next vacation by boarding a ship and takes a photograph with the exciting features I would see. Thanks for this great review about boarding a ship

    • Adamuts,
      I am happy to hear that you’re considering a cruise for your next vacation! You will have an incredible time! Check out the rest of my page for lots more tips and information about cruising – and bon voyage! -Kate

  • Going on a cruise ship has always been one of my dreams, especially when one of my best friends told me how she and her husband had a lot of fun last summer. She said it was actually one of the adventures she will never forget.

    So I thought going on a cruise this spring with my husband would be a great way to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary. It will be my first time boarding a ship. Just like boarding a plane we have to make sure that we have our passports and all other necessary personal items with us, separate from our check in luggage so.

    Thank you.

    • Alice,
      What a great idea for spending your wedding anniversary at sea! I hope you have an incredible time and wish you nothing but the best on your vacation! I am glad I was able to provide some information for you. Check out the rest of my page for other useful tips and information about cruising. Happy anniversary and happy cruising! -Kate

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