Cruise Planning – Embarkation Day – Part 1

It’s finally arrived! Today is the day you board your cruise ship and take that vacation that you have been planning for months (possibly for more than a year). But you can’t quite relax yet. There are a few last minute details to finalize to ensure that you get the most from your cruise vacation.

First, make sure your carry-on bag is packed appropriately. By carry-on, I mean the bag you will personally carry onto the ship yourself. While you can roll all of your luggage with you, you will find that most people do not do this, because it is heavy and cumbersome. Additionally, some cruise lines do not let you into your stateroom until 2 pm or later, so if you board early (I recommend that you always board as early as possible; you might as well make the most of your paid vacation by enjoying what the ship has to offer as soon as you can!) you may well be dragging your luggage around with you for a couple of hours. While I advocate never checking a bag on an airplane (packing tips will be coming up in future blogs) it is convenient and easy to give your heavy luggage to the porters at the cruise dock. Your bags will be delivered to your stateroom with minimal fuss.

This being said, you have no control over when those bags are delivered. Arriving at the cruise port early and dropping off our bags early usually means that our luggage is delivered before sailaway, however there can be exceptions. In our dozens of cruises, the most significant exception to this experience was on our most recent cruise, where we embarked out of San Francisco. Apparently, the unions there were unhappy with management, and as such were staging a work slowdown, stopping for interminable breaks and purposely delaying boarding the luggage. Our bags were not delivered until very late at night, even though we had been among the first passengers to arrive at he cruise terminal. You never know when such a thing might happen to you, so it is always prudent to pack certain items in your carry-on bag.

Firstly, any money, ID (including your passports) and tickets/travel information should be in your carry-on bag. Next, make sure you have packed any personal electronics, such as cell phones, tablets, cameras and laptops, as well as their charging cables and batteries. The same goes for any other valuables you might be carrying, such as jewelry. Medications and prescription glasses (or contacts) are other important items for your carry-on bag, as they can be difficult to replace at sea, should something happen to your luggage. You may also wish to carry your toiletries with you, for the same reason.

After these primary items, if you can, I would recommend packing a swimsuit and a change of underwear, and possibly some nightclothes, just in case the worst happens and you find yourself without your luggage for that first night. Chances are that you won’t need such items, but if you do, you will be happy that you have them.

Lastly, if you are carrying any alcohol onboard, cruise line policy requires that you carry it on yourself.

Once you have been ushered onboard, you may be allowed into your stateroom (some cruise lines, such as Princess and Holland America, allow you to head to your cabin immediately) or you may be forced to wait (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Disney cruise lines do not make staterooms available to passengers until 1:30 to 2:30 pm). If you can, head to your stateroom to drop off your carry-on bags, after which you should go to lunch. If you can’t get to your stateroom, then head directly to lunch, carry-on bags in tow.

Every cruise I have ever sailed, during the boarding hours there are ship personnel in public areas, directing passengers to the buffet for lunch. If asked, the majority of these personnel will state that there are no other options, and that you must head up to the buffet. As a result, the buffet is packed to the gills with arriving passengers (and often, their luggage) and can be a noisy, crowded affair. Hardly a relaxing start to your cruise! I suggest avoiding the buffet if at all possible. Many ships will have a sit-down lunch with table service in the main dining room. This is the most elegant and relaxing way to begin your cruise, and as such, I recommend that you pass nearby the main dining rooms to see if they are open. If so, you will be seated and enjoying a leisurely lunch with plenty of room, while everyone else pushes and shoves upstairs.

Unfortunately, many cruise lines have begun doing away with allowing embarking passengers into the dining room for lunch on the first day, reserving such meals for people who rank highly in the past passenger club, or who are traveling on back-to-back cruises. But don’t worry! There are other options as well. Some cruise lines offer bistro-type food options in the main atrium, and these are often open for lunch when you board. If the dining rooms are not open, walk through the atrium/piazza/concourse on the lower decks of the ship. You may well find something to your liking. Our favorite options of this nature are Bistro on Five on Celebrity’s newer ships (a $5 per person charge, the International Café or Alfredo’s Pizzeria on Princess ships (both complimentary) and the ‘alternate buffet’ that takes place in the Enchanted Garden/Carioca’s/Parrot Cay on the Disney cruise ships (complimentary).

If you are unable to find any such options (and it happens, particularly if you are on a new cruise line and are unfamiliar with the ship before boarding) then I would advise you to head to the upper decks, and look for a pizzeria and/or grill restaurant that can usually be found near the pools. Trust me, when you see the chaos that is the buffet on embarkation day, you will be glad that you knew of options elsewhere!

Of course, once you have finished lunch, there are still other things to do to ensure that you are ready for your cruise. I’ll cover that information in my next blog.