Cruise embarkation: what you need to know about boarding a cruise ship

Georgina Smith / 28 July 2016

Embarkation is easy when you know what to expect. But avoid leaving anything to chance; plan your boarding ahead and don't let oversight scupper your dream holiday on the high seas.



How long before we sail should I arrive at the port?

Your cruise line will give you a window of time within which you can show up to board your ship. This will normally be a few hours spanning from late morning to mid-afternoon. If you're keen to be the first on board so you can explore and settle in before the ship fills up, then you'll want to arrive before check-in opens. Though bear in mind – great minds think alike – you won't be the only early bird trying to catch the worm. It may actually be quicker and less stressful to check in later in the day, after the flock of early birds have squeezed through the cruise terminal and the bottleneck's been dispersed.

Preparation pays

Cruising is all about shedding the cares of daily life and escaping on an extraordinary adventure. Your day of embarkation is one of the most exciting moments in your trip as you settle into your room, explore the surrounds of your ship and look forward to the destinations you'll be visiting throughout your voyage.

The obvious key, however, to being able to enjoy the excitement of your first day is making it to the port in the first place. Planning your day of embarkation and watching out for life's little curve balls, like heavy traffic on the roads, proves prudent if you want the first day of your cruise to be as stress free as possible.

Some cruise lines will include travel to the port, such as the chauffeur service offered by Saga. 

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Don't miss the boat

Arrange your transport and plan your journey to the port well in advance. If you're travelling by train and need to make any connections, check with your rail operator if there are any planned engineering works. Avoid travelling through peak hour, so you have a better chance of securing a seat and a place to put your luggage.

Finding a hotel for the night before you sail

If your journey is going to be a long one, or has a number of connections, it's wise to set off a day early and stay in a nearby hotel the night before you embark. Your cruise line may be able to recommend local hotels, or simply search online. There are Holiday Inns, Travelodges or other similar large, dependable hotel chains near all major ports in the UK. And although it adds a bit of extra cost to your holiday, the peace of mind knowing you'll reach your ship on time is priceless.

Traffic stacked against you

If you're travelling to the port by car, check for traffic updates; don't just rely on route planner journey times, as these won't take road works and congestion into consideration. And if your cruise is departing from Dover, it's particularly wise to check the status of the M20 and M2; Operation Stack is becoming a semi-regular occurrence. It knocks out whole sections of the M20, and alternative routes get snarled up quickly. You may be better off taking the train; though bear in mind that the line between Folkestone and Dover is currently closed for major works, so you may need to travel via Canterbury.

If you're using a chauffeur service, talk to your cruise company if you have any concerns about the traffic en route to ensure your driver picks you up with plenty of time to spare. And if you think contesting with traffic jams will be too much of a headache on your day of embarkation, it may be worth arriving the day before and staying the night in a local hotel.

How much is port parking?

If the price of your cruise includes port parking, then all you have to worry about is arriving in your car in time for embarkation. If not, then you'll have to pay for the privilege. Always book in advance to make sure you can secure a space for the duration of your trip, and weigh up the benefits of parking over alternative travel like catching a train or bus to the port.

Prices vary, but normally a day's parking starts at around £30. Longer stays may start from around £60 for a week, and £100 for two weeks.

Flying? Leave nothing to chance

If you're catching an internal flight to near your port, arrive the day before embarkation. Flying brings its own stresses to the table; cancellations, security checks and baggage collection are just some of the hurdles between you and your cruising holiday. Again, simply ask your cruise company if they can recommend a local hotel – or look for one online. The cost of a night's stay in a basic hotel greatly outweighs the stress of flying on your day of embarkation – not to mention the stress of missing your cruise and the cost of unused, non-refundable tickets.

What can I expect during embarkation?

When you reach the cruise terminal, you'll need to have your documentation ready. Check you have everything your cruise line requires before you leave your house. Check again. Then check one more time as you close your front door behind you. This documentation will most certainly include your tickets, passport and proof of identity, but your cruise line may require additional documents as well, so always check first. Some cruise lines require you to print your own luggage tags while others, such as Saga, will send them in advance.

After showing your documents you'll go through security. This involves having your luggage and carry-ons scanned, just as they are at an airport. You won't, however, have to go through such rigorous checks as you would before boarding a flight, such as removing your shoes.

You'll then be ushered into a departure hall, where you'll join a line for your room type or area of the ship. You'll then show your cruise representative your documents and they'll check you in. During check-in, you'll probably be asked a couple of questions about your health. These won't be embarrassingly probing, they're just to check you've not been recently sick with any illness such as norovirus, aka the winter vomiting bug. These calamitous contagions can spread like wildfire on cruise ships, ruin the fun for everyone and put the ship's services under a lot of strain.

You'll likely also have your photo taken for security purposes, and be given an electronic access card. This will work as your boarding card, room key and even an on-board credit card to help you make purchases during your cruise.

After check-in you'll wind your way up to the ship for boarding. You may have an opportunity to have your photo taken as a souvenir. You'll be able to pick your boarding pic up and pay for it later, but don't feel obliged to have one taken at all: it's an added cost, and you won't be short of memorable moments to capture on your own camera.

When you board your ship you'll likely arrive in one of the large communal areas. Your representative will point you in the direction of your room, and if porterage is included in your cruise, your luggage will be taken to your room for you. And then? Well, the ship is your oyster. It's time to relax and look forward to your splendid high-sea adventure ahead.

How long does it take to embark and disembark when taking a cruise?

All in all, embarkation – from the moment you arrive at the cruise terminal to the moment you're free to explore on board – can take a couple of hours, if not more. It depends on how big your ship is, how many passengers are queuing, and how efficient the check-in process is. It will also depend on what time you arrived. Generally, queues are less severe later in the day; but don't leave it to the very last minute and risk missing the boat.

Disembarkation takes less time. Once the ship is cleared for passengers to disembark, you can expect it to take about an hour until you're on terra firma and through the departure terminal. Which means it's wise not to have any connecting travel booked too soon after your return to port. You want to revel in your relaxed post-voyage refrain for as long as possible, not ruin it by frantically trying to reach the shore before anyone else.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.