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12 ways to speed up the cruise embarkation process

July 26, 2022
12 min read
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The last thing you want to do upon arriving at the cruise terminal is wait in a long queue to board your ship and start your vacation. Yet cruise ship embarkation can be lengthy and cumbersome, especially when cruising on megaships with thousands of people.

Do not fear. There are many ways to avoid -- or at least minimize -- delays at the cruise port terminal.

These 12 tips will have you through the embarkation process quicker -- and enjoying umbrella drinks poolside sooner -- while your fellow cruisers are still lined up waiting to board the ship.

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Book accommodations in an exclusive area of the ship

One of the easiest ways to get whisked through the embarkation process is to book a stateroom or suite with privileged access and perks. Many lines offer priority boarding when you upgrade to a suite or stay within a line's exclusive "ship within a ship" retreat.

MSC Yacht Club's many amenities include luxurious private spaces reserved only for Yacht Club guests and 24-hour butler service. When you arrive at the cruise terminal, one of the ship's butlers will assist with your luggage and guide you through the dedicated priority check-in process, making embarkation a breeze.

Staying in a suite at The Retreat on Celebrity Cruises also has a long list of unique amenities. Features of this luxury enclave include a private restaurant, lounge and a private sundeck. You'll also have a dedicated pre-cruise Retreat concierge, a personal Retreat host and concierge on the ship -- and priority check-in when it comes time to board.

If you're sailing with Royal Caribbean, passengers booked into the line’s Royal Suite class receive priority boarding, with expedited boarding for the highest-tier Star class.

If you’re booked in a stateroom in Norwegian Cruise Line’s The Haven, you’ll be privy to private venues like The Haven Restaurant and Lounge. You’ll also have a 24-hour butler and other perks that include a personal escort to bring you on board the ship during embarkation.

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Carnival Cruise Line also includes priority check-in at embarkation when you book deluxe suite accommodations. Your boarding pass will be marked "Priority," and you'll be granted access to the Captain's Lounge or another designated area, depending on the cruise terminal.

Related: How to turn a mass-market cruise into a luxury experience

Purchase priority access

With programs like Holland America Line's Club Orange, you can also opt to pay for priority access -- even if you're not staying in a suite or in a ship’s private retreat. This exclusive offering includes priority check-in at the cruise terminal, a complimentary stateroom upgrade, an intimate dining venue on two of the line's ships and a list of other perks and onboard amenities. You'll also have invitations to special events, such as a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship.

Royal Caribbean offers a similar program with The Key. Passengers have priority access at the terminal within their booked arrival time. Once on board, you can drop your bag in the main dining room (they will deliver it to your stateroom) while you enjoy a welcome lunch featuring the menu from Chops Grille. Other perks of the program include VIP access to shows, priority departure and more.

Carnival has previously offered a Faster to the Fun priority access pass, but it's currently unavailable due to the pandemic.

Become a loyal cruiser

Priority boarding is one of the many amenities you get for being loyal to a cruise line. (Photo by Lisa-Blue/Getty Images)

Some special perks and privileges come with being loyal to one cruise line. Savings on future voyages, exclusive cocktail parties, discounts on shore excursions and priority boarding are a few of the many amenities you'll have as a member of the Latitudes Awards program at Norwegian Cruise Line.

Princess Cruises' Captain's Circle is another loyalty program that features exclusive savings on spa treatments, discounts on the MedallionNet Wi-Fi package, early access to restaurant reservations, a private lounge (for Platinum and Elite members) and priority boarding.

With the cruise lines that offer these programs, the more you sail, the more benefits you'll receive.

But, what do you do to speed up the embarkation process if you don't want to book a suite or pay for upgrades, or are a first-time cruiser? There are several things you can do.

Book a private transfer in advance

Schedule a private transfer to the port, so you're not scrambling for a ride to the terminal at the last minute. Even if it costs a little extra to schedule a car or van to pick you up at a specific time, it's worth the peace of mind to know that you won't be competing for Ubers or cabs with thousands of other people trying to arrive at the cruise terminal on embarkation day. If you book a cruise line transfer, know that you might spend quite a bit of time waiting for other passengers to fill the bus. It’ll be faster to arrange a transfer just for your travel party.

Check in online

Most cruise lines have apps where you can check in online before your cruise. Checking in ahead of time streamlines the boarding process, so complete as much information as possible and upload photos or travel document information on the app. Even if you need to go through the checkpoints at the terminal to board the ship and show your passport, QR codes, boarding pass, etc., checking in online still speeds up the embarkation process.

Related: 14 things you should do before every cruise

Don't board at peak times

Depending on what time you arrive at the port, you might be joining hundreds or thousands of guests trying to board at the same time, creating long lines and lengthy waits. Many lines offer a window for the arrival time in an attempt to mitigate the crowds, but there are always some people trying to beat the system and sneak in early.

If you're eager to get on the ship early, reserve the earliest time slot available for your stateroom category. If you can't book a specific time, then plan to arrive at the terminal early -- when you know you can first begin to board your ship. When you board early in the process, you’re less likely to encounter backups and you can get to the buffet or the shore excursions desk before most of your shipmates arrive.

Another way to beat the crowds and have a faster embarkation process is to arrive later in the day when most people are already on board the ship. Just be sure to find out the latest time you can check in and board because the gangways close long before the ship sets sail.

Related: Cruise ship embarkation day do's and don'ts

Stay organized

Keep all your paperwork, boarding passes and travel documents easily accessible during the boarding process. (Photo by Israel Sebastian/Getty Images)

With the ever-changing COVID-19 regulations for cruise lines -- and destinations -- you'll need to know all the vaccine and testing requirements before booking your cruise. For example, some European countries still require that travelers from the U.S. are fully vaccinated (with a booster shot), even though they may not need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival. You also may need proof of vaccination -- and a booster shot -- to sail with some cruise lines.

Before embarkation day, organize hard copies of the required COVID-19 paperwork (negative COVID-19 test results, proof of vaccination and/or booster shot, a recovery letter from your doctor, etc.) -- or electronic records -- where they are easily accessible. Keep them with your passport (or other required forms of photo ID), boarding passes and other documents you'll need to board the ship. There's a good chance that you will have to show these documents more than once during the process, so keep them together in a handy spot.

Take your photo before embarkation day

Most photos taken at the port of embarkation aren't flattering, so plan to take a selfie -- or have a spouse or friend snap a photo -- at home to upload on your ship's app. Doing this in advance will save time and avoid the awkward moment of posing for a picture at the cruise terminal. Aim for a passport-like photo, with your face in the center of the shot, looking straight at the camera. Otherwise, the port agent might make you retake the photo at the terminal.

Be prepared to drop your bags at the terminal

Embarkation will be faster if you hand over your suitcases to the porters at the terminal, and only carry a backpack or small bag on board yourself. You won’t have to lug large bags through the queues, hoist them onto the security X-ray machines or carry them up escalators.

You can speed up the drop-off process by being prepared. All cruise lines provide luggage tags; they either send the tags through the mail or send you an electronic file to print at home. No matter how you receive the labels for your bags, be sure to have them on your luggage with all the information filled out before handing them off to porters. Otherwise, you’ll have to spend time at the port writing out your name and cabin number and affixing the tags to your bags. Fail to fill out the correct information, especially cabin number, and you’ll waste time on the first day hunting down your lost luggage.

It's also customary to tip the porters a dollar or two per bag. Have tip money ready in hand, so you don’t waste time hunting through your purse or pocket for small bills.

Know what’s allowed to bring on the ship

All cruise lines have lists of items -- including certain types of beverages -- that are permissible to bring on board the ship. They also note those that are considered contraband. Your carry-on bags will go through a security X-ray machine at the port, so if you don't want to get pulled out of line so your drone, bottle of 20-year-old bourbon, steam iron or other forbidden items can be confiscated, then check to see what's allowed on board before you begin packing.

Make sure reusable water bottles are empty, and that nonalcoholic beverages are in acceptable containers and amounts. Some lines also limit the number of bottles of wine you can carry, so know the rules. Don't play with fate while trying to smuggle additional bottles of vino or items that aren't allowed on board. Getting held up at security will take precious time out of your first vacation day.

Pack a bag to entertain the kids

Pack a small bag with snacks, drinks, toys or an iPad to entertain and keep the kiddies content until you can reach your cabin. (Photo by d3sign/Getty Images)

Little ones traveling with you may get antsy during the boring boarding process as you navigate your way through several checkpoints at the cruise terminal. With this in mind, pack a small bag with snacks, drinks, toys or an iPad to entertain and keep the kiddies content until you can reach your stateroom, get settled in and grab lunch. Parents know that a massive meltdown can derail your schedule and make everything take longer. Even without a tantrum, whiny children can make the embarkation process feel like it’s taking forever, even if it’s not.

Learn your stateroom number

It sounds so simple, but if you don’t know your cabin number, this too can delay your embarkation process if you're fumbling around looking for where you'll be sleeping for the next week. Chances are that someone will ask you for your stateroom number during the boarding process. If you can’t memorize it in advance, jot it down on a piece of paper and slip it into your pocket or put it in your notes on your smartphone -- anywhere that you can refer to it quickly. Your cabin number will not be printed on your cruise card for safety reasons.

Bottom line

The easiest way to guarantee a smooth and quick embarkation is with dedicated priority check-in that’s offered with many suites and upper-tier cabins, to frequent cruisers or by purchasing a program that includes faster check-in as one of the perks.

If you're not up for splurging on the added expense, you can still navigate the embarkation process with a few simple tips to board the ship more quickly -- and get your cruise vacation started as soon as possible.

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Featured image by Check-in line at Miami cruise port for MSC Cruises. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.