If you’re a first-time cruiser, you might be wondering what is embarkation day on a cruise? Embarkation day is a cruising term meaning the day you get on board the ship. It’s a super-busy day for both passengers and crew, and it can be a lot of fun!
Embarkation day doesn’t have to be stressful. You’ve been looking forward to your cruise for a while now, right? You deserve to relax! With these tips and a little planning, you can get your vacation started off right.
You’ll arrive at the cruise terminal, drop your bags and then proceed to the check-in desk to pick up your cruise card before boarding the ship. Once you’re on board, you’ll have so many opportunities for fun (or for lounging and doing nothing) before the ship leaves port.
But, there are a few things you’ll need to do to make sure your day (and the rest of the cruise) goes smoothly. Here’s how to make sure you have the best embarkation day on your cruise.
Have all your documents ready
You’ll need to check in online at least a couple of days before your cruise to print your boarding documents and luggage tags. Don’t leave this until the morning of your cruise, because access to the online portal will shut down when the ship files its passenger manifest.
Be sure you have your documents printed and in an easy spot to access. I put mine in a small folder in my carry on bag, along with my passport, vaccination card and COVID test result, and any tickets and receipts for the cruise. This makes check-in a breeze, because everything is in one place.
Tip: Have a couple of pens in your purse or carry on bag for embarkation day. You’ll need to fill out a health questionnaire before you board, and there are never enough pens to go around!
Make reservations before your cruise
When you’re on vacation, the last thing you want to do is waste your time standing in long lines. Same goes with being stuck on a long phone call to the shore excursions desk to make a reservation when you just want to enjoy your cruise.
If you want to book shore excursions for your port days, specialty dining, or spa reservations, take care of these before you leave home. You usually don’t need to wait until you’re on the ship to make reservations!
Most major cruise lines allow you to make some reservations online or over the phone before your cruise. In the event that you have to wait until you board to book something you really want to do, be sure to do it as soon as you can on embarkation day. Popular specialty restaurants and activities can fill up quickly.
Tip: Want to know what I do before every cruise to save time, money, and aggravation? Read my 37 Cruise Tips: What to Do Before Your Cruise
Get to the port city a day early
My number-one tip for cruisers is always to get to the city that your cruise is leaving from a day early. If you’re flying or have a long drive ahead of you, it really makes sense to get to the area at least the day before embarkation day.
Flights are often delayed or canceled. Or, an unexpected traffic jam on the highway can cause your journey to take significantly longer than you planned.
Play it safe and plan to arrive early, so you won’t have any unnecessary stress on the day your cruise leaves. Plus, adding an extra day to your vacation will give you time to explore the port city!
Tip: Don’t skip buying travel insurance for your cruise that covers travel delays and cancellations.
Pack an embarkation day bag
Packing a lightweight cruise carry on bag is a must for embarkation day. Just don’t fill it up too much! Remember, you’ll probably have to carry it around for a few hours until your room is ready, so you won’t want something heavy or bulky.
I like to throw in all the necessities I’ll need on day one, like sunscreen, a swimsuit and a swim coverup. I also make sure that any valuables like jewelry and electronics go in the bag, along with any medications I’ll need access to before our luggage is delivered to the stateroom. It can take several hours for your luggage to arrive, so don’t leave things you’ll need in your suitcases.
The shops on board the ship won’t be open until you sail into international waters, so think carefully about what you’ll want to have with you on that first day.
Tip: If you want to learn more about what should go in your embarkation day bag, my article What to Pack in Your Cruise Carry On Bag explains it all. I’ll even send you a free printable PDF to make packing super-easy!
Don’t get to the cruise terminal too early (or too late)
Unless I’m doing some last-minute sightseeing in port, I like to get to the ship as early as I can to get my cruise started ASAP! But getting there too early often means you’ll be doing a lot of waiting around.
Many cruise lines will give you a window of time that they recommend you show up at the terminal for your cruise. In my experience, they’re often very lenient with cruisers arriving a little early – to a certain extent.
Embarkation day for you is also disembarkation day for the last group of passengers. This means that passengers will still be getting off the ship that morning. Plus, the cruise ship needs to be cleared by the port authorities before new passengers are allowed to embark.
If you get to the port too early (like 10-11 AM), you’ll probably have to wait for some time at the terminal before you’ll be allowed to board. Unless you have priority boarding, it’s a good idea to wait until about midday to get to the cruise terminal.
Whatever you do, don’t show up late on embarkation day. If you don’t get on the ship by all-aboard, it can (and will) leave without you. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the cruise terminal in case you run into any delays.
Tip: If you’re sailing on Carnival, you can buy a Faster to the Fun pass to skip those long embarkation day lines.
Drop your suitcases with a porter
Unless you feel like dragging your bulky suitcases around for the first few hours, drop your suitcases with a porter before you enter the cruise terminal.
Porters will usually come right up to your vehicle as you’re unloading your bags. So, it’s a good idea to attach your luggage tags to your bags before you leave for the terminal. You can staple the paper tags around your suitcase handles, but I prefer attaching them with waterproof luggage tag holders so they won’t fall off.
Be sure to tip your porters! They’re not employees of the cruise line, so they don’t receive any of the automatic gratuities that you pay. A dollar or two per bag is fine, based on the size and weight of your luggage.
Ship’s crew will deliver your bags to your room several hours after you drop them with the porter. (They usually leave them in the hallway outside your door, so don’t pack any valuables in your checked luggage).
Have a relaxing lunch in the main dining room
If you can, avoid the buffet for lunch on embarkation day! Many newer cruisers don’t realize that there are other options for lunch, so the buffet is always super-busy. Add in the fact that most people are dragging their carry-ons around with them at lunchtime, and you’ll see why it’s much more relaxing to eat somewhere else.
Many cruise lines do have at least one main dining room open for lunch service. MDR meals can take a little longer than at the buffet, but the level of service, quality of the food, and the peace and quiet are worth the extra time.
Check your daily newsletter to find out which main dining room is open for lunch on embarkation day.
Tip: If you’re planning your first cruise, my article What New Cruisers Don’t Know About Cruise Food & Drinks will get you up to speed with dining on board.
Find your room and meet your steward
Sometime in the midafternoon, your stateroom will be ready to access. Your room steward will often be eager to meet you, so expect a knock on your door while you’re getting to know your new home away from home on your cruise.
This is a great time to let your steward know if there’s anything you need, like extra hangers, a bathrobe, or a bucket of ice. Your steward can also push the beds together or pull them apart if you forgot to request this previously (or if they made a mistake and set them up wrong).
If you have guests in your stateroom who’ll be sleeping on a pull-out sofa or a pullman bed, let your steward know what time you want them to make up the bed. I like to have them do it while we’re at dinner (we tend to eat late), so the bed isn’t taking up too much room as we’re getting ready.
Read your daily newsletter
Each evening, you’ll get a newsletter in your room that tells you everything you’ll need to know for the following day. But on embarkation day, your newsletter should be in your stateroom with all the info for that day, plus an overview of all the fun you can expect on your vacation!
Update: Many cruise lines have suspended delivery of the daily planner during the pandemic. You can now find the planner right on the cruise line’s smartphone app, or head to guest services to pick up a paper copy.
Be sure to take a minute or two to read it over, so you can plan what activities you’d like to do that day. Be on the lookout for any specials they’re offering for embarkation day. You’ll often see discounts for specialty dining that are only available if you make a reservation for that evening.
Also look for specials at the spa. Some cruise ship spas will offer first day discounts and drawings for free services if you attend their embarkation day open house.
The newsletter will also tell you what time each of the dining venues and bars will be open that day.
Tip: Pack a couple of highlighters to mark activities you’d like to join in your newsletter.
Check what time muster drill will be
You won’t have many responsibilities once you step on board your cruise ship. But on embarkation day, you’ll have one: muster drill.
Muster drill is a mandatory safety meeting that all passengers need to attend. It’s usually in the midafternoon, and restaurants and bars will temporarily close during this time. Your newsletter will list the muster drill time – don’t be late!
Muster stations are assigned by your stateroom location. Your muster group is usually printed on your cruise card, and also on the back of your stateroom door. Check the newsletter for your muster station location, or ask a crew member.
If you miss muster drill for some reason, there will be a mandatory makeup drill, usually the next morning. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires that all passengers attend muster drill (even kids and babies) within 24 hours of sailing.
Missing the makeup drill usually means that you’ll be involuntarily disembarked at the next port, and you’ll have to find your own way home. Not fun!
Visit the kids’ club
If you’re cruising with your kids or grandkids, you’ll want to visit the kids’ club that’s available on most major cruise lines. Check your newsletter to see what time the club will be open for open house or to register your kids for the rest of the cruise.
Older teens might not be too thrilled about a kids’ club, but encourage them to visit on embarkation day to meet other teens. Even if they never go back to the club, it’s an easy way to meet new friends their own age at the beginning of the cruise.
You may also like: Cruising with Kids: 19 Essential Tips
Explore the ship
Especially if you’re cruising on a mega-ship, it will take some time for you to get to know everything the ship has to offer. I like to take an hour or so to just explore the ship on embarkation day.
While you’re exploring, keep an eye out for venues you’d like to return to during your voyage. I always make sure to look for quiet places to relax, lounges with comfy seating, and of course where I can get my specialty coffees!
I also like to find the restaurants, theater, and quieter pools just so I know where they are for later on. On many large cruise ships, you can only access certain locations from a particular set of stairs or elevators. Finding out these little quirks is always part of the fun on embarkation day.
Tip: You’ll sometimes get a small map of the ship when you check in, and there are also maps posted around the ship, usually near the elevator banks. If you’re lost, don’t be afraid to ask a crew member – getting from point A to point B can be confusing on your first day!
Unpack your suitcases
Unpacking your suitcases doesn’t sound like a fun thing to do on embarkation day, but you’ll thank yourself later if you take care of it early.
Getting everything stowed will make a small cabin feel so much roomier. Even small staterooms have ample closet, drawer, and shelf space for you to organize your clothes and toiletries.
I like to use packing cubes for smaller items. I just take the cubes out of my suitcase and put them in a drawer. So easy and quick!
If you hang your dressier clothes right away, they’ll have fewer wrinkles when you need to wear them. Plus, you can just stow your empty suitcases under the bed to make it easier to walk around (and easier for your steward to clean your room).
Tip: If you’re worried about how to keep your clothes looking pressed, How to Prevent Wrinkled Clothes on a Cruise has all my best tips and hacks.
Find a spot to enjoy sailaway
If you followed my tip to spend an hour or so just exploring the ship, I bet you spotted some perfect places for enjoying sailaway. Leaving port on embarkation day is always a festive event!
If you want to be right in the action, the Lido deck near the main pool is always exciting. That’s usually where the sailaway party is, and it’s always the busiest spot when the ship leaves. Partygoers can grab a drink from the pool bar and enjoy live music and dancing in the sunshine.
But if you’d rather a quieter location to watch as the ship heads out to sea, you’ll have tons of options. Some cruisers enjoy finding a comfy chair by the window in the library. Others prefer finding a small bar in an out-of-the-way location to have a celebratory cocktail away from the crowds. Have a balcony stateroom? Sailaway is a great opportunity to relax and enjoy your own private space.
You may also like: What Should You Wear on Embarkation Day on a Cruise?
What are your favorite tips for embarkation day on a cruise? Let me know in the comments below!
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