What to Expect at the Cruise Terminal

by Fran Golden

What to Expect at the Cruise Terminal

by Fran Golden

The day of embarkation has arrived and you can’t wait to get to the terminal to begin your vacation. Slow down. Getting on board the ship takes a lot of steps. Think boarding a plane ... times 10. Here’s what to expect, and how to keep it stress-free.

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Port Everglades cruise terminal in Fort Lauderdale / iStock / Ivan Cholakov
Be prepared to wait
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1. Know you are going to have to wait.

Don’t think you’re going to just walk right onto your ship, grab the best deck chair, and sit in the sun — preferably with a tasty rum punch. If you’re a suite passenger or other VIP you may get priority boarding, and those with mobility difficulties can also sometimes arrange expedited boarding. If you are cruising with Carnival, you can pay an additional fee to get on board first. Everyone else needs to get in line.

In general, boarding typically begins around 11:30 am or noon, and by then the throngs have arrived. If you arrive before 10 am hoping to be the first one on the ship, you’ll find early birds catch long waits.

Tip: Spending hours waiting in the terminal is not the best way to start your vacation. A better plan is to skip the mob scene by getting to the pier toward the end of the boarding window. By arriving closer to 2 pm you can avoid considerable hassle and hit the pool in a lot less time. So sleep in, or spend the morning sightseeing before heading to the ship.

Don’t think you’re going to just walk right onto your ship, grab the best deck chair, and sit in the sun — preferably with a tasty rum punch. If you’re a suite passenger or other VIP you may get priority boarding, and those with mobility difficulties can also sometimes arrange expedited boarding. If you are cruising with Carnival, you can pay an additional fee to get on board first. Everyone else needs to get in line.

In general, boarding typically begins around 11:30 am or noon, and by then the throngs have arrived. If you arrive before 10 am hoping to be the first one on the ship, you’ll find early birds catch long waits.

Tip: Spending hours waiting in the terminal is not the best way to start your vacation. A better plan is to skip the mob scene by getting to the pier toward the end of the boarding window. By arriving closer to 2 pm you can avoid considerable hassle and hit the pool in a lot less time. So sleep in, or spend the morning sightseeing before heading to the ship.

Lining up
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2. Being organized is key.

The first thing that happens when you arrive at the cruise terminal is porters whisk away your checked luggage (a tip of $1 to $2 per bag is appropriate here). You can keep a small bag with you, so be sure you have anything you’ll need for the next few hours until the rest of your luggage arrives at your cabin. (See our guide to what to pack in your carry-on.)

As you enter the terminal, you need to show an official ID such as a passport plus your boarding documents. Next you go through an airport-style metal detector and fill out a health form where you swear you haven’t been ill in any contagious form for the past several days.

Now it’s time to actually check in. Cruise lines increasingly have been using handheld technology to ease and speed up the process, but none of the systems are perfect. When there’s a breakdown, staff members are likely to be as befuddled as clerks at the grocery store if the scanner stops working. Your credit card gets swiped and you get your photo snapped for security purposes (smile — it’s stored in the ship’s computer system). You also receive a card that serves as your ship ID, onboard spending card, and room key. Don’t tuck this away — you need it to get on board. 

Tip: While you can’t control a bottleneck caused by other passengers, you can avoid being the problem yourself. Make sure your bags are properly tagged per the cruise line’s instructions. You will have received in advance the paperwork you must fill out and show at the terminal. Have this all completed and at the ready — you don't want to be the one tying up the line as you rifle through your bags for what you need.

The first thing that happens when you arrive at the cruise terminal is porters whisk away your checked luggage (a tip of $1 to $2 per bag is appropriate here). You can keep a small bag with you, so be sure you have anything you’ll need for the next few hours until the rest of your luggage arrives at your cabin. (See our guide to what to pack in your carry-on.)

As you enter the terminal, you need to show an official ID such as a passport plus your boarding documents. Next you go through an airport-style metal detector and fill out a health form where you swear you haven’t been ill in any contagious form for the past several days.

Now it’s time to actually check in. Cruise lines increasingly have been using handheld technology to ease and speed up the process, but none of the systems are perfect. When there’s a breakdown, staff members are likely to be as befuddled as clerks at the grocery store if the scanner stops working. Your credit card gets swiped and you get your photo snapped for security purposes (smile — it’s stored in the ship’s computer system). You also receive a card that serves as your ship ID, onboard spending card, and room key. Don’t tuck this away — you need it to get on board. 

Tip: While you can’t control a bottleneck caused by other passengers, you can avoid being the problem yourself. Make sure your bags are properly tagged per the cruise line’s instructions. You will have received in advance the paperwork you must fill out and show at the terminal. Have this all completed and at the ready — you don't want to be the one tying up the line as you rifle through your bags for what you need.

Passengers boarding Costa Luminosa
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3. Make the most of your last moments on land.

You may encounter even more waiting time at this point, even though you’re all checked in. Take a deep breath – you’re almost there! Use the time to text, Tweet, and make phone calls before you start racking up shipboard fees.

Once you make it to the gangway, you need to pause at security to swipe your shipboard card (we told you to keep it handy). From there, it’s smooth sailing right to the sundeck.

Tip: A ship photographer will try to waylay you for a photo, which you are under no obligation to buy. Unless you want a commemorative photo of finally getting through all the lines, you can just say a polite no and keep walking. 

You may encounter even more waiting time at this point, even though you’re all checked in. Take a deep breath – you’re almost there! Use the time to text, Tweet, and make phone calls before you start racking up shipboard fees.

Once you make it to the gangway, you need to pause at security to swipe your shipboard card (we told you to keep it handy). From there, it’s smooth sailing right to the sundeck.

Tip: A ship photographer will try to waylay you for a photo, which you are under no obligation to buy. Unless you want a commemorative photo of finally getting through all the lines, you can just say a polite no and keep walking. 

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