Boarding a Cruise Ship: What To Do on Embarkation Day

Me on embarkation day outside the Quantum of the Seas, smiling and dragging my carry-on luggage behind me.
Me on embarkation day, happy to be boarding a cruise ship.

Ah, cruise embarkation day. Is there any sweeter moment than when your taxi pulls into the parking lot of the departure port and you see that empty, beautiful vessel awaiting your arrival? Every time I walk down the gangway on my way to boarding a cruise ship, I squeal with joy. It’s the first day of my long-awaited cruise vacation.

I want any cruise I go on to be as relaxing as possible. No problems, no worries, no stress. I’m sure you do too, right? And while there’s no way to guarantee a problem-free cruise, there are some ways to tip the odds in your favor.

It all starts with the cruise boarding process. When you first step foot on the ship, if you take an hour or two to organize, prepare, and orient yourself, you’ll be able to kick back and toss your worries overboard for the rest of the trip.

These are my top ten tips for boarding a cruise ship that’ll pay off as soon you set sail.

1. Get your documents in order

Before you’re allowed on the ship, you’ve got to pass the security screening process. This can involve a lot of documentation.

At a bare minimum, you’ll need:

  • Passports. For certain closed-loop cruises leaving and departing from the United States, you can use a birth certificate and government-issued photo identification. I always recommend sailing with a passport, though, for reasons I’ll get into in a later post.
  • Boarding passes. You can either print these out or show the digital copies on your phone.
  • Vaccination cards. This one might change given the fluid nature of COVID regulations on cruise ships, but as I write this, most people still need to be vaccinated to set sail.
  • Proof of negative COVID-19 tests. Another requirement that could change at any given moment, but if your particular sailing requires pre-cruise COVID testing, you’ll need proof of a negative result before you can board.

In some cases, you’ll need additional immigration documents. For example, certain cruises that stop in Canada will require you to provide an ArriveCAN receipt, and if you’re going to Bermuda, you’ll need an approved Bermuda Travel Authorization.

Once you’ve determined exactly what documents you need for embarkation day, gather them all together in one easily accessible place. Since I’m a dinosaur, I enjoy printing my documents out. So I store my boarding passes and test results along with my passports and vaccination cards in this convenient family passport wallet.

If you prefer to keep things digital, try taking screenshots of all your documents and storing them in a designated folder in your photo gallery so you can pull them up quickly when asked. And you’ll be asked to show them several times before you’re finally welcomed aboard.

2. Connect to the ship’s Wi-Fi

Being on a cruise ship is an excellent opportunity to disconnect from the rest of the world. But even if you don’t plan on purchasing an internet package on your cruise, it’s still beneficial (and sometimes necessary) to connect to the ship’s internal Wi-Fi.

Cruise lines are increasingly doing away with paper schedules, like Royal Caribbean’s Cruise Compass. Instead, cruise ship activities, entertainment, and services are posted online and accessed via an app on your phone. Make sure you download this app well before you arrive at the port so you’re ready to use it as soon as you step on board. Then, when you connect to the ship’s Wi-Fi, the app will populate with all the latest info about your sailing.

If you do decide to purchase an internet package, or if internet connectivity is included with your cruise fare, take a moment to sign in and set that up immediately. If you encounter an issue, head to guest services right away. Get it resolved while the ship is still relatively empty (and the guest services line is still relatively short).

3. Get the muster drill over with

A muster drill on a cruise ship is sort of like a pre-flight safety briefing on an airplane. It’s an opportunity to learn what to do in case of an emergency on board. I know it’s annoying, but you’ve seen Titanic. You know how it goes when people aren’t prepared for an emergency. And even though the odds of an emergency happening on your cruise are extraordinarily slim, every passenger needs to attend the muster drill or the ship can’t set sail.

Years ago, you’d have to actually put on a life vest and gather together at your assembly station at a designated time. Nowadays, muster drills are pretty easy-peasy. First, watch the safety videos in your app. It only takes a minute or two and they’ll show you how to put on a life jacket and identify the emergency horn.

After that, you’ll head to your assembly station. This is usually out on deck or in a public venue, like a theater or lounge. If you have a hard time finding it, ask any crew member and they’ll point you in the right direction. (They’re eager to get this muster drill over with, too.)

Once you’re there, check in with the person at your station. They’ll scan your boarding pass, and then you’ll be free to go.

Some activities and entertainment will require advance reservations, and the popular stuff fills up quickly. For example, when I went on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas for a seven-night journey through Alaska’s Inside Passage, there were a few activities that were already filling up for the week before the ship had even left port: like the North Star viewing deck, the RipCord by iFly skydiving simulator, roller skating, and laser tag.

Similarly, if there are any shows you know you want to see, you should reserve seats as soon as possible. Not all shows will require advance reservations, but if they do, snag your seats early before it’s too late.

If you plan on doing cruise excursions but you didn’t book them ahead of time (though you should definitely book these ahead of time), now might also be a good time to swing by the excursions desk to see if there are any openings for tours or adventures that look fun.

5. Visit the maître d’

Now it’s time to think about your cruise dining choices. If you have flexible dining (on Royal Caribbean, this is known as MyTime Dining) and you haven’t pre-booked your reservations, you can do that now. And yes, while the whole point of flexible dining is that you don’t have to make a reservation for dining, I highly recommend you do so, unless you’re okay with the fact that you might have to wait on a long line during peak times.

If you have traditional dining and you have preferences about your seating arrangement – such as being seated alone, or by the window, or with passengers from a separate reservation – you can ask the maître d’ about being accommodated.

And if you’ve decided to partake in specialty dining, you should book your reservation now before all the popular times are taken.

Generally, there will be a few stations set up in a central space, like the promenade or the pool deck, but you can also go to the host stand outside the main dining room. They can handle reservations for specialty dining, too.

6. Make spa appointments

Like the popular activities and the common dining times, spa appointments fill up quickly, too. So if you’re looking to pamper yourself during your cruise vacation, swing by the receptionist at the spa to set up your couples massage or your pedicure or your facial (or all three!).

It’s especially important to do this right away if you received a voucher for included spa services with a package deal like those offered by Costco Travel. That’s because there are often restrictions on when they can be used; they’re commonly only valid on port days. And if you read my post on how to save money on a cruise ship, you’ll know port days usually offer discounts on spa services, which means those time slots will fill up fast.

7. Register at the kids’ club

If you’re traveling with little ones, you’ll probably want to drop them off at the kids’ club at some point, right? After all, this is your vacation, too. You deserve some much-needed adult time.

During embarkation day, the kids’ club hosts an open house. This is a time for you and your kids to visit the facilities, meet the staff, and learn about their schedule and rules.

You’ll be asked to provide the names of people who are authorized to pick up your children. They usually don’t have to be on your reservation, either, so if you’re traveling with grandparents, feel free to add them so you can extend your alone time even later into the night.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to anyone sailing on the kids-free cruise line, Virgin Voyages.

8. Grab lunch at the buffet

By now, you’ve gotten all your required registrations and reservations out of the way. But if you boarded the ship pretty early, it’s possible your stateroom isn’t ready yet. I’ll bet you’ve also worked up an appetite from traipsing around the ship.

Never fear! The buffet is open.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of cruise bloggers say to avoid the buffet on embarkation day, but I respectfully disagree. First of all, if you get there early enough, you won’t have any problem finding a free table. Second, it’s casual, so you don’t have to worry if you’re feeling disheveled and sweaty from all that walking you’ve been doing.

Finally, it’s a buffet! You can eat however much or however little you want. Sample some of this, a bunch of that. Enjoy the bounty this ship provides.

There’s also a very good chance you’ll score a delicious piece of cake like this:

A giant sheet cake from the buffet that says Welcome Aboard, Navigator of the Seas.

9. Settle into your stateroom

By now, it’s highly likely that your cabin is ready. (If not, hang out by the bar until it is.) Head that way and you’ll find your keycards neatly tucked into a receptacle outside your door.

It’s time to unpack. If you’ve followed my cruise packing hacks, you’ll have all of your belongings on your person and won’t have to wait for a potentially late luggage delivery. You’ll also have an extremely organized suitcase, which should make unpacking a breeze.

I think it’s important to unpack as soon as you get to your stateroom because it instantly transforms your room into a comfort zone. Whether you’re here for a quick weekend getaway or a two-week pleasure cruise, this space will be your temporary home. And it’s easier to feel relaxed and carefree when you’ve got a comfortable place to retreat to.

Here’s a brief overview of my unpacking process:

  • Hang up all my dresses and fancy wear.
  • Put all my shoes in the bottom of the closet.
  • Unzip my packing cubes and put my rolled clothes into drawers.
  • Slide my keycard into a lanyard.
  • Attach magnetic hooks to the walls and hang up lanyards, hats, and purses.
  • Hang my toiletry bag from the hook on the back of the bathroom wall.
  • Stash shower toiletries on the soap dish in the shower stall.
  • Plug in my phone charger and my travel noise machine. If necessary, plug in my outlet expander to accommodate all the electronics.
  • Shove my empty suitcase under the bed. (There’s plenty of room!)

10. Celebrate at the sail away party

Once you’re unpacked, there’s really nothing else to do… but celebrate! It’s time to get this cruise vacation started. Grab your sunglasses and your lanyard and head up to the pool deck, where you can watch the departure port fade into the distance.

Sometimes cruise ships will have a boisterous sail away party, full of music and dancing and cheers. Other times, the departure will be a bit more subdued. Regardless, you can (and should!) honor the occasion with some photos and a cocktail. Your best vacation ever is about to begin.

What’s the First Thing You Do When Boarding a Cruise Ship?

When you board a cruise ship, are you a “let’s take care of business” kind of person like me, or do you just let the first few hours of your vacation unfold without much planning?

Maybe your embarkation day looks a lot different than mine. If so, let me know in the comments!

Boarding a Cruise Ship What To Do On Embarkation Day

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