If you've ever seen the old TV show Love Boat, you might imagine you know what cruising is like. For example, on the show, you see people standing at the railing, throwing streamers off, waving at the people below, and blowing kisses to the people who dropped them off as they leave port.
But here's the spoiler - these days, that isn't how it happens.
If you're planning your first cruise, here are a few tips for what to expect when getting on and getting off your ship.
Arrival - Checking Your Bags Curbside
When you arrive at the cruise terminal, porters are waiting to tag your luggage and transfer it onto your ship. Unless you only have carry-on luggage, the porters are the only way to get your bags on board. So when your shuttle bus, taxi, or ride-share service drops you at the curb, look for a porter. Tips aren't mandatory, but they are appreciated by the porters. Expect to tip them at least $2 per bag.
Be aware that your bags will eventually make it to your room, usually by 3pm or 4 pm. So keep anything that you'll need for those first few hours in your carry-on bags. This includes passports, wallets, medications, sunscreen, sunglasses, water bottles, etc.
Check-in and Boarding
Checking in for a cruise is similar to checking in for a flight at an airport. But it's much faster and much easier. Although the check-in process is slightly different for each cruise line, there are several things you can expect from all of them.
You and your carry-on luggage pass through a security checkpoint with metal detectors. Once through security, you'll then make your way to a check-in desk where everyone in your party must show their valid passports.
Once you've checked in and are cleared to board, you walk on the ship. It really is that simple!
Cruising Tip: To keep up with your keycards, use lanyards with plastic pockets.
When You First Board Your Ship
However, once you're on the ship, what do you do next? We always advise people to board as early as possible the day of your cruise. Why? You're already paying for the food, to use the pool, and for the other amenities. So hop on board and start having fun!
However, your room won't be ready until the early afternoon, maybe 3pm or later. The reason is that the cruise ship staff begin cleaning and preparing rooms as soon as the previous cruise's passengers disembark. So they need a few hours to ready your room. Until then, what is there to do?
Many people seek out food first. Most ships have poolside food options. At the same time, the ship's buffet(s) may also be open. On Disney Ships, the lunch buffet opens around the time people start boarding. So if it's around lunchtime when you board, head to the buffet!
On top of that, depending on the ship and the cruise line, pools may already be open. If you want to swim, make sure you have your bathing suit with you and not in your checked bags. Also, there may be food by the pool as well. On our first family cruise on Royal Caribbean, there was a nacho bar by the pool area!
Cruise ships also have bars, lounges, kids' clubs, and casinos (but not Disney ships). On some of Royal Caribbean's biggest ships, there are attractions like ice skating that you can do. To know the specific attractions, talk to a member of the cruise staff when you board.
Cruising Tip: If you want to board your ship earlier and start having fun ASAP, check-in early online. Although you still go through the regular check-in process at the terminal, Early Check-in reserves your spot in line. Basically, the earlier you check in online, the earlier you can get on the ship!
The Last Morning of Your Cruise
To keep you from having to haul your luggage all over the ship the last morning of your cruise, you have a great option. If you leave your tagged baggage out the last night of your cruise, stewards take it to the ship's cargo area where it stays until your ships arrives in port. On your arrival morning, these bags are taken off the ship and taken into the terminal.
Be aware that you do have the option of carrying all your bags off the ship with you. However, this can be a hassle. Unless you only have small bags or only carry-on luggage, we recommend leaving your large luggage outside your door the last night of your cruise. At the same time, remember to keep anything you'll need before getting off the ship in your luggage (money, medications, passports, etc).
Getting Your Bags
Getting off your cruise ship is similar to debarking a plane. If you leave your luggage outside your room on the last night, it will already be off the ship by the time you're debarking. And just like in an airport, there are luggage carousels where you collect your bags.
And unless your cruise is domestic (only within the US), you must pass through customs and immigration where you declare the goods you purchased during your cruise and show your passport. Once you've got your bags and have gone through immigration, the last thing you need to do is find your transportation.
Finding Your Transportation
Unless you drive yourself to the cruise terminal, you'll need a ride once you're off the ship. Depending on where you sail from, transportation options will vary. In general, when you exit the terminal, you only need to take a short walk to the curb to find transportation.
To reduce your stress, we strongly suggest arranging transportation beforehand. At the same time, if you don't plan ahead, there are always taxis and shuttles waiting to take you to various locations. If you're headed to pick up a rental car, look for the company's shuttle. If you do a take a shuttle and the driver handles your bags, please be prepared to tip him or her a few dollars.
Planning Cruise? Let Us Help!
We're ready to help you plan your first cruise. Or your fifteenth. Either way, if you're planning a cruise, let us help!
Jamie loves cruises because they're easy, hassle-free vacations.
Jo is a travel planner who loves all things Disney! She also has food sensitivities and lots of experience with special diets while traveling.
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