11 Cruise Boarding Tips You Need to Know

11 cruise boarding tips you need to know

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All You Need to Know About the Cruise Boarding Process

As you prepare for your cruise, you probably have some questions about the cruise ship boarding process. If it’s your first cruise, you may want to know the specifics, like exactly what happens and what you can expect on embarkation day.

cruise boarding tips

I’ve been cruising for awhile, and the truth is, sometimes those of that have cruised a fair amount, forget what its like to do this for the first time.

This occurred to me recently when my clients asked me some cruise questions that I had glossed over.

Things like:

How do I get to the cruise port?

Can my luggage get lost if I leave it with the porters?

Is it better to arrive at the ship early or later?

What can I expect when boarding my cruise ship?

and more…

So, I wrote this to cover the A-Z of the cruise boarding process, and answer every question first time cruisers may have about this. If you still have a question at the end, please leave it in the comments section and I will answer it, and possibly even include it in this post.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my full disclosure policy for details.

What to expect from the cruise boarding process

1. Cruise ship boarding passes

Before you even arrive at the cruise ship on your cruise embarkation day, there are some steps you need to take.

Make sure to complete your online check in and print out your cruise boarding documents. I recommend getting this done about 2-4 weeks before your cruise. In this way, if you notice any little issue, you still have time to get it fixed.

To do your online check in, simply have your cruise reservation number on hand and go on your cruise line’s website. Then follow the instructions until you can print out your cruise documents. This only takes about 15-30 minutes, so don’t put it off.

passports and identification for cruise

2. Cruise ship luggage tags

Once you’ve completed your online check in and have printed out your cruise documents, you’ll be able to print out your luggage tags. Yes, your luggage tags will printed on be a piece of paper, but we’ll get to this in a minute.

On the luggage tag, you will see the cruise ship, sail date and your cabin number. Once your luggage is on the ship, it will be delivered to your stateroom.

If you’re wondering how these printed paper luggage tags will stay on your luggage, you’re not alone. There are instructions on how to fold and staple them so that they hold up and don’t rip. Overall, they’re actually pretty good and surprisingly sturdy.

However, if you would rather not worry about this and travel with a stapler, I recommend buying and using reusable plastic luggage tag holders, which are made to fit the printed cruise luggage tags. Beware that some are only good for specific cruise lines, due to size.

See my recommendation for reusable cruise luggage tag holders that can be used for several cruise lines: Luggage Cruise Tags are available on Amazon.

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3. Cruise ship luggage restrictions

Cruise lines really don’t restrict how much luggage you can bring, although they do have guidelines. Most cruise lines suggest you limit your luggage to one or two pieces per passenger, with a luggage weight limit of 50 lbs.

That being said, your luggage won’t be weighed so don’t over-stress about it. However, you don’t want your luggage to be too heavy. If you’re flying in, just follow the airline’s guidelines. If you’re driving the port, use some common sense (you or the porters need to carry it).

On a 7 day cruise, 1 suitcase per person will be more than enough. I overpack (really I do) and we can do it! Here’s my easy and simple packing list that may be helpful.

cruise port terminal

4. Cruise line prohibited items

Obvious items that you are not allowed to pack or bring on your cruise include weapons and illegal drugs. I’ll let you check the cruise line’s website if you need more info on that.

Less obvious items that are not allowed on your cruise include irons, clothes steamers and candles as they are fire hazards. Power bars with surge protectors are also prohibited and will be confiscated.

Tip: If you think you’ll need extra plugs (and you may), this is the Cruise Power Strip (with USB Outlets) – non surge protected & cruise ship approved that I recommend.

It actually gets all 5 star reviews and has 2 USB outlets along with extra plug spaces- check for current price on Amazon HERE.

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5. Cruise carry-on luggage

In addition to your checked luggage, you’ll want to bring along a carry on bag of some sort. You’ll want to make sure that you keep your valuables and electronics in your carry on, as well as medications and anything that you may need for the first few hours of the cruise.

I have an entire post that goes into a ton of detail, so if you do want to know more its a good reading suggestion.

Recommended: Cruise Carry on Packing Tips

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6. What time should you plan to arrive at the cruise port?

Although cruise lines may give you  recommended boarding time, you can usually board your cruise ship anytime between about 11 am and 2 hours before your ship is due to leave the cruise port. So plan on arriving at the cruise port within those times, possibly a little bit earlier if you need to park at the cruise port.

My personal recommendation is to plan on arriving at the cruise port early, so you can get on board as soon as possible, and fully enjoy the first day of your cruise vacation.

These days the embarkation process is much quicker and better organized than years ago, so don’t worry too much about long lines. Arriving between 12-1 will likely be the busiest so plan accordingly.

7. What to expect when arriving at the cruise port

You may be arriving by taxi, uber, hotel or cruise line shuttle (if you’ve flown in on the day of your cruise). You can also drive to to the cruise port and park on site in secure parking garage.

No matter how you arrive, be sure to have your cruise boarding documents and passports/government issued ID on hand. There may be security as you enter the port area and this will be requested.

If you drive in on your own, you’ll find ample parking on site. Check with your cruise port for parking rates (as they vary) and other specific information.

cruise ship at terminal

Luggage drop off

Once you are at the cruise port, you’ll notice that there are several cruise terminals. Your ship’s berth or terminal will be clearly indicated on signs and local drivers will be well aware.

I will let you in on a little secret. It is soooooo exciting when you see your ship for the first time – so look out for it! Heck, take a picture.

As you arrive at your ship’s terminal, it may be well organized chaos, but these folks know what they’re doing. You’ll be guided to drop your luggage with the porters before entering the building for check in. It’s a good idea to have a few small bills on hand as its customary to leave a small tip.

I’ve been asked before if this is secure and yes it is. Plus, your luggage is being put directly onto your ship so don’t worry – you’ll see your luggage again in a few hours when it’s delivered to your cabin.

Important: Remember to keep your cruise documentation, passports and ID and carry on with you. Do not give it to the luggage handlers in the midst of the excitement.

Luggage screening process

There is a screening process and luggage will be scanned and xrayed. In some cases suitcases may be opened so make sure not to lock them. Don’t pack any prohibited items to avoid any issues.

11 things to know about cruise boarding process

8. Cruise ship boarding security

Yes! Time to board your cruise ship! Almost…

Before you are officially allowed onto your cruise ship, you’ll go through a cruise ship boarding security as you enter the cruise terminal. The security check is similar, but less intrusive then at the airport. Basically they’re scan your carry on bags and any other items you have with you, and you’ll walk through a scanner as well.

9. The cruise check-in process

Checking into a cruise ship is way more fun than boarding a plane! Plus, cruise port staff is so helpful at guiding you to check in quickly, give you directions and answer any questions you may have.

There will be several check-in stations and usually some roped off lines where you’ll wait to check in. We have rarely had a long wait, and usually arrive before 11 am.

Once at the check in desk, you’ll need to show your cruise documents and identification, as well as to secure your credit card on the reservation for any additional expenses.

You’ll receive cruise cards which will be your stateroom key, onboard credit card and personal ID. In this way you can put away your cash and other identification while you’re on the ship.

I LOVE this! It’s so freeing not to have to walk around with cash and a purse or wallet. Cruising is the best!

To note: some cruise lines, like Princess Cruises, are beginning to use a new technology and system rather than a cruise card. However the basic check in process is the same, although you’ll likely find it even faster. If you’re cruising with Princess, you can read about our Ocean Medallion cruise experience.

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10. Boarding your cruise ship

With your cruise cards in hand, you’ll be boarding your cruise ship soon! There may be a short wait, but there is lots of seating.

Tip: You’ll often receive a little folded cruise ship map along with your cruise card. That’s super handy to help get around for the first few hours on the ship, or day if you’re like me ;-).

Boarding time

This is always an exciting time for us that just never goes away. When we are finally called to board, we hop up like its our first cruise!

As you head towards the enclosed gangway (in most cruise ports), you’ll pass the ship’s photographer’s who’ll encourage you to take a boarding photo. We often still take a photo, as for us its a great souvenir. However, you can simply pass by and opt not to have a photo take.

As you enter your cruise-ship, you may have a quick photo taken as the security scans your cruise card.

And voila – welcome aboard – you’re on your cruise vacation!

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11. What to do when you first get on your cruise ship?

Keep in mind that often the cabins are not ready for passengers, and are off limits until about about 1 pm. However, you are able to go around the rest of the ship and grab some lunch, which is what most people do.

Want a Tip? Research your ship ahead of time and find out what restaurants, other than the buffet, are open for lunch. It’s a great way to avoid the crowds and try out a restaurant while it’s still a well kept secret. We did exactly this on our recent Regal Princess cruise when we enjoyed a delicious lunch at Alfredo’s.

Recap: 11 cruise boarding tips you need to know

We’ve gone through the cruise boarding process; from doing your online check in, to embarking on your cruise ship.

Have you cruised recently? Are you going a cruise soon? Let me know your tips and ask me any questions (I respond to every comment).

Happy Cruising!!

Ilana xoxo

If you enjoyed this, you may want to know more about what happen’s next. Read this post to get some great embarkation day tips.

P.S. If you found this post helpful, I’d really appreciate if you’d share it on social media so others can see it as well. Thanks so much!!

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  1. Laura
    April 28, 2019 / 6:25 pm

    Is there an advantage of putting funds on my cruise card or does it just link to my credit card?

    • April 29, 2019 / 3:24 pm

      Hi Laura,

      Great question. I can’t see any benefit as it will link to your credit card in any case. If you don’t want a large bill at the end of your cruise, you could prepay your gratuities.

      You can also purchase onboard credits, or sometimes family members may want to gift you onboard credits, which are used like cash on board. Do check on the terms and conditions if you do this, as I’m not sure if they funds would be refunded if you don’t use it all.

      Hope that answered your question.

      Enjoy your cruise!


  2. Nancy
    September 3, 2019 / 12:38 am

    I have gift cards. Do I present these with my credit card?

    • September 6, 2019 / 12:55 am

      Hi Nancy,

      I’m not sure what the gift cards are, I’m sorry. I haven’t see these before.

      If they are OBCs (on board credits), they will appear on your account.

      If they are cruise gift cards, please call the cruise line to verify how they can be redeemed.

      Have a great cruise!


  3. Texas 11
    September 22, 2019 / 9:03 pm

    Can you pay on your bill daily at the end of the night so the bill won’t be big at the end of cruise (cash payment)

    • October 11, 2019 / 3:24 am

      Yes absolutely. That’s a great idea to make it more manageable!

  4. December 2, 2019 / 6:27 pm

    I brought the drinks package ans I also paid for wine at the table for fine wines .. I can say that princess was best for this aa I often travel with cunard and just 6 bottles of my fave pouilly fume was 350 dollars plus tax where as princess 788 dollars allowed me ays hassel free unlimited ans my poulliy fume was only 24.14 dollar on board. Per bottle no hassle perfect cruising no stress .chef table was beautiful and wine tasting perfect trips out and the spa was great I used the wonderful deposit system to book asia on new majestic next year. Love cruising

    • December 5, 2019 / 4:32 am

      So glad you enjoyed your cruise! Your Asia cruise sounds like a dream!!


  5. Jennifer
    February 2, 2020 / 8:02 pm

    I checked in on the Royal Caribbean app. Do I have to print off the pass or can I just show it on my phone?

    • February 3, 2020 / 4:12 am

      Hi Jennifer,

      While I’m not familiar with the specifics of the RC app, it’s a good idea to print the boarding passes. Most cruise lines do ask you to and it does make boarding go more quickly.

      If in doubt, I suggest calling Royal Caribbean (customer service) directly for the answer to your question.

      Have a great cruise!


  6. February 23, 2020 / 4:11 am

    I’m going on my first cruise February 28, 2020 is a credit card required or a must have? I have a bank debit card ( ATM/ Debit) and a Chime card both with VISA logos are these allowed? I’m cruising on Carnival cruise line.

    • March 6, 2020 / 11:23 am

      Hi Tangi,

      You a use a debit card, however my understanding is the cruise line will put a sort of hold on it. For your specific situation, it’s best to check with the cruise line and perhaps even your bank, as I’ve heard that it can take a few days after the cruise for the hold to be lifted in some cases.

      Have a great cruise,


  7. March 8, 2020 / 12:02 am

    I leave on my dream 14 day cruise for Iceland in about 80 days. I have been watching the NEWS to see if the virus stops all travel. I booked it over a year ago. Now I hope We can go. I do not know, will wait and see. Hope your cruising is good. NCL texted me saying if I want a full refund, would give it to me up until 2 days before we board. If we go will we be on an almost empty ship. Fun is meeting new and interesting people and seeing things new to me. Will let you know what happens. Love your articles. Keep doing them please.

    • March 10, 2020 / 2:24 am

      Hi Russell,

      That cruise itinerary sounds amazing! Fingers crossed that in 80 days this virus is behind us! I agree a bit of wait and see at this point doesn’t hurt.

      Thanks so much for your kind words! I really do appreciate it 🙂


  8. Jeanette
    October 18, 2022 / 8:36 pm

    Hi. Thank you so much for all of your articles, videos, and packing list! My arrival time at the terminal is 9AM … on NCL Bliss. What time will we be allowed to board?

    • October 19, 2022 / 5:47 pm

      Hi Jeanette,

      That’s hard to say. Our experience was that boarding started around 11:30 or so on a past NCL cruise, however it may be different on your cruise. Enjoy!!


  9. Susan Etheridge
    April 22, 2023 / 4:38 am

    My sister and I are traveling together and she booked the Carnival Caribbean cruise. Will I have to heck in or just her?

    • April 29, 2023 / 4:24 pm

      Every guest needs to check in. However please check the requirements on your cruise line website and cruise documentation to be sure

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