If you are taking a flight, then you likely know the rule of thumb on when to arrive — get there three hours early for an international flight and two hours early if flying domestic. Meanwhile, you’ve got to deal with potential long lines in security screening, waiting at your gate, and then standing in another long line to actually board the plane.
The actual flight can be shorter than the time spent in the airport!
The good news is that the same rules don’t apply for taking a cruise. Check-in and security are usually quick and with no boarding process like you see for an airplane, it’s easy to get onboard without waiting in long lines. Compared to flying, boarding a cruise is like a vacation. Expect to spend about 15 minutes on the boarding process if lines or short, or about 45 minutes if lines are long.
So does that mean you should just show up a few minutes before the cruise ship sets sail? Absolutely not. When you arrive to the cruise port can make a big difference in how long you’ll wait to board. Below, we’ve laid out when you’ll want to arrive at the cruise port to make boarding go as smooth as possible.
General Boarding vs. Staggered Check-In
Before we get too far, you should know that cruise lines use two different methods of boarding these days. The first is general boarding, in which the ship has a wide-open boarding window (usually about 3-4 hours) during which any passenger is free to arrive an anytime and board. So if you want to arrive right at the start of boarding to maximize your time on the ship, then you are welcome to do so.
The second style of boarding — which many cruise lines are now switching to — is staggered check-in. Here, each passenger has a designated window of when to arrive. So while the ship might board from 12-4 p.m., a passenger’s boarding window might be from 1:30-2 p.m.
Which style of boarding you have will make a difference on when you should arrive to the port. The cruise line will let you know when you book your ticket what time you are eligible to board.
When to Arrive for General Boarding
General boarding gives you a broad window to board. For example, a cruise ship might be scheduled to depart port at 5:30 p.m. and have a boarding window from 12-4 p.m. Guests are allowed to arrive anytime during that window.
So when should you get to the port? That depends on how badly you want to start your vacation.
With large boarding windows, many people choose to arrive right when boarding begins (or even before!). That leads to long lines right at the start of the boarding window. While security and check-in are designed to move quickly, it still takes some time to process hundreds or thousands of passengers.
So if you want to board early, you can arrive at the port but be prepared to wait in line. That’s why we usually recommend waiting until about an hour before the end of the boarding window.
By this time the large initial rush has died down and lines are minimal. At this point you can usually breeze through security and check-in without any fuss. The entire process takes only about 15 minutes when there is no line. If you arrive early and have to wait in line, it might take up to 45 minutes, however, the cruise line will do everything they can to move you through line quickly.
Note: One thing you should never do is arrive late to the boarding window. That can cause delays and stress on trying to get on the ship. All passengers are required to board at least 90 minutes before the ship departs.
When to Arrive for Staggered Check-In
If your cruise line is using staggered check-in, then things are much more simple. With staggered check-in you will select (or be given) a 30-minute boarding window. Your only requirement is to show up during this time.
Cruise lines have started to move toward staggered check-in to combat the long lines that are seen at the start of traditional boarding. By spreading passengers out along the entire boarding window, no one time sees and mass of people trying to board. That means lines are shorter, especially at the beginning of boarding.
Once you have your staggered time, do not arrive at the terminal beforehand. If you arrive early, cruise lines will ask you to wait until it is your time to board. But what if you arrive late? In that case it’s no issue. If you arrive after your boarding time (but before boarding closes!), you will be allowed to board as usual.