Cruising is incredibly exciting, especially for those who know what to expect. If you’ve never boarded a cruise ship, you might be nervous about the boarding process, where you should go, and what you need to know before you get started.

Fortunately, you’re in the right place to learn all of that and more.

When you board a cruise ship, expect to line up at the port from about 12 PM to 2 PM, show your ID and boarding pass, and review the schedule.

Some cruises have planned events and dining, but most cruise ships offer food and drinks all day. Make sure you stick to your membership amenities.

This article will also teach you the following details about what to expect onboard a cruise:

  • What you need to have and where you should go before boarding
  • What happens throughout the cruise (events, dining, and more)
  • Where you’re allowed to go when onboard the ship

Plunge pool at the back onboard MSC Seaside ,  - view from our cabin, on deck 14, on the first day just after getting our luggage on the first day at embarkation dayMSC Seaside


The process of boarding a cruise

Anyone who’s gone on a cruise knows the basic expectations, but each ship operates differently.

Once you’ve gone on a few cruises, you’ll feel more confident about the process.

However, boarding a cruise ship is much more about waiting around than doing too many things simultaneously.

Here’s the general process of boarding a cruise:

  1. Get your ID, loyalty card, and boarding pass ready before you arrive.
    You’ll need these three items, though your cruise line might require more or less. Ensure you’ve checked your email, so you know what you need to bring. As long as you have your ID and boarding pass, you should be good to go.
  2. Check the departure schedule and arrive 2 hours early.
    We recommend arriving much earlier than the departure time since hundreds or thousands of passengers will arrive at the same time.
    Arriving too early will leave you waiting for previous passengers to get off the ship, so schedule your time wisely. 
  3. Go to the terminal at the port, board the cruise, and wait with the passengers.
    You’ll have to show a crew member your boarding pass and ID, so keep them somewhere easily accessible like in a ticket holder, or your hands. Once you’ve finished the process, you’ll have to go through the first-day procedures listed in the following section.

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What happens on the first day?

After you’ve gone through the first day onboard your vessel, everything else is smooth sailing.

You don’t have to learn anything new, other than upcoming events and possible docking at new ports.

Let’s dive into the details and tips of what you should expect after you board the cruise for your first time below.

1) There’s usually an emergency drill, so everyone is prepared for worst-case scenarios.
The Muster Drill is designed to let everyone know what to do in case of an emergency.
It’s not the most exciting part of cruising, but it’s essential to protect everyone’s well-being.

2) You might arrive in your cabin a bit later than expected.
Don’t expect to walk into your cabin the second you board the ship.
Muster drills, boarding events, and many other things will take an hour or so. Sometimes the crew are also still cleaning the cabins.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of food and drinks to enjoy while waiting to go to your assigned cabin.

3) Most cruise lines offer a first-day departure party.
These parties follow the theme of the cruise, whether it’s a weekend getaway or a party cruise.
You don’t have to attend the departure party, but it’s one of the most interesting and exciting parts of cruising.
Everyone’s in a positive mood and ready to enjoy the holiday!

4) Dining room and dining reservations
If you are on a ship that has fixed dinner seating, you have the option of changing your dining reservation time with the Maitre D'. S/he can normally be found doing this in the main dining room during embarkation day. 

5) Book your shore excursions, speciality dining and entertainment
It is a good time to look for specials on shore excursions, drinks packages and the spa. There are always some great discounts on the first day.

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What to wear?

You most likely will be doing a lot of walking and standing in line, which is why it's important to wear comfortable shoes.

Dress casually, and don't worry too much about what you're wearing.

Keep in mind that the vessel is air-conditioned. The difference between the outside temperature and the inside of the ship might be quite substantial.

To avoid catching a cold wear, an extra layer when you get on until you are used to the inside temperature.

You should also ensure that you check the weather beforehand.

Tips: 12 Things You Need in your Cruise Carry-on Bag


When can you eat food or get drinks?

Ask before you cruise how flexible your vessel is with mealtimes.

Some cruise lines will leave you complete freedom of choice when you would like to eat, while others have fixed times.  

All the major cruise lines will have some sort of buffet around the clock. 

For all vessels, there’s usually always something to eat on the ship. There might be speciality restaurants that open during specific preset hours, but you can find this out onboard.

Not only that, but you can dine wherever you’d like to when the cruise gets to a destination.

When it comes to drinks, you might be limited by the times you can consume alcohol.

However, there’s always water and other non-alcoholic beverages to keep you comfortable and hydrated throughout the holiday.

Embarkation day on MSC SplendidaReady to embark on MSC Splendida!


How to know where to go when on board a cruise ship

Are you concerned about feeling lost when everyone else knows what they’re doing?

Rest assured, you’re not alone.

Every cruise is filled with people who’ve never set sail, so you’re not alone.

Not only that, but cruise companies make it as seamless as possible to make you comfortable and knowledgeable while you’re at sea.

Try these tips to find your way around a cruise ship:

1) Attend the first-day ceremony or event 

As mentioned earlier in the article, you’re not required to enjoy the departure party, but the part leading up to it often explains everything you need to know about locations. It’s good to plan your schedule, too.

2) Get a copy of the ship layout 

This will allow you to know where to eat, drink, swim, relax, and have a good time.

Don’t forget to look for bathrooms, too!

Many people forget the small details, but it’s smart to know where several bathrooms are, especially during busy nights when there are parties, shows, and other events.

3) Look for maps placed throughout the ship

One of the obvious places you will find a map of the ship is next to the elevator. 

Find out where the maps are so you don’t get lost when trying to find important locations.

Don't hesitate to ask any crew members for help, they can point you in the right direction if you don’t know what to do or where to go.

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Check your loyalty program

Not all cruises have loyalty programs, but it is worth joining if they do, in the event that you cruise again.

However, if you want to go on a major cruise line, you should stay current with membership costs, rewards, perks, and so on.

Below, we’ll answer three of the most common questions about cruise memberships and what to know when you’re on board.

  • What amenities are on your membership?
    Some cruise companies offer unique perks, such as all-inclusive dining, special shows, deals for drinks, and so on.
    Check your membership level before you board the ship, so you know what you’re allowed to do with it.
  • Can you upgrade it while onboard a cruise?
    Unfortunately, the vast majority of cruises won’t let you upgrade your membership after you’ve boarded the cruise. However, you’re not out of luck. If you want to enjoy exclusive shows, you can inquire about paying the premium cost since it’s not included in your membership.
  • How do you prove your membership level?
    Almost all cruise companies with memberships will indicate your level on your boarding pass. You’ll carry it around like an ID (some of them have pictures, names, dates, membership levels, and so on).

Two people standing at the back of a Carnival Cruise vessel enjoying the view looking forward for their coming vacation just after coming back from a shore excursion and ready to sail away   | 600x400



Now that you know what to expect when you’re on a cruise ship, you can plan your schedule accordingly.

Cruising is all about relaxing and having a good time, so don’t get overwhelmed by the boarding process or planned events.

Cruise companies do everything they can to remove stress.

Here’s a quick rundown of the post:

  • Most cruises run an emergency drill on the first day, so everyone knows what to do.
  • Keep a copy of the cruise’s events, schedules, dining halls, and so on.
  • Ensure your cruise card / smart bracelet is with you at all times.


First Published on 15 February 2021, updated 12 May 2021