What is the best time to get to the cruise port to board your cruise? After all, you likely want to get your vacation started as soon as possible, but you also don’t want to face huge crowds or long lines to get on the ship.
We’ve personally sailed dozens of cruises and arrived at all times — both early and late. In that experience, we have a definite time that we prefer to arrive at the port.
To be sure, there is plenty to do from the time you arrive at the terminal until you actually board the ship. You’ll have to go through security, likely meet with a check-in agent, then make your way up the gangway to the ship.
The good news? Cruise lines have the procedures down to a science that typically don’t take that long between the time you arrive and the time you board… if you show up when you should.
With a security and boarding process that’s much easier than you’d see for an airplane, it’s usually simple to get onboard without waiting in long lines. But get there too early and you could be with thousands of others who want to board early.
Bottom line is that you need to arrive to the port within the boarding window provided by the cruise line. Do not try to show up earlier than allowed. But showing up later in the day (but before the cutoff time provided) can help you board more quickly.
In general, expect to spend about 15 minutes on the boarding process if lines are short (usually when boarding later), or at most about 45-60 minutes if lines are long (usually when boarding earlier).
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 get to the cruise port to make boarding go as smooth as possible.
What Happens When I Get to the Port to Board?
Wondering what to actually expect when you arrive at the port for check-in?
First before you even enter the terminal, you’ll drop any bags that you want delivered to your room. They should have tags on them (the cruise line will send you tags to print at home). If not, the baggage handlers can get you all squared away.
From there, you’ll enter the terminal and have your ID checked against your boarding documents. You’ll then go through security where your bags will be x-rayed, and you’ll have to walk through a metal detector.
After security, you’ll continue walking to the check-in desk. There are typically dozens of agents there to process passengers, and you’ll need to wait for the next available. The agent will get your room keycard, attach a credit card to your onboard spending account, take a photo of you, and also have you fill out a health questionnaire. Then, you are free to continue walking to the gangway to board the ship.
Many cruise lines are also moving toward online check-in, which allows you to input your information ahead of time. The advantage is that you can then skip the check-in desk and simply head right to your cabin where your keycards will be waiting in a sealed envelope. This can save a lot of time, especially when lines are long.
In general, the entire process of completing all the steps doesn’t take long; it’s just a matter of minutes. What can cause delays, however, are longer lines where you spend much of your time waiting. When to arrive to avoid these lines depends on your cruise line’s boarding style.
General Boarding vs. Staggered Check-In
Cruise lines use two different methods of boarding these days. Which style you see will depend on your specific cruise line.
The first type 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 at any time 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 have now switched to using — 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.
The 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 Cruise 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 at any time during that window to get on that ship.
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 thousands of passengers.
So if you want to board early, you can arrive at the port right when boarding starts, but be prepared to wait in line.
That’s why we think it’s best to wait until about 60-90 minutes before the end of the boarding window to arrive at the port.
By this time the large initial rush has died down and lines are minimal. 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. Aiming to arrive an hour before closing also leaves you plenty of time in case you are delayed on your way to the port.
Note: One thing you should never do is arrive late to the boarding window. All passengers are required to board at least 90 minutes before the ship departs to comply with government rules.
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 the selected time.
Cruise lines have moved 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 as big a rush and mass of people trying to board. That means lines are shorter, especially at the beginning of boarding.
As well, you can simply select whatever available time you want to board. If too many people are in one particular time slot, then that time window will be closed. So no matter what time you choose, it shouldn’t be too busy. (In general, later times seem to still be less busy.)
What if you show up early for your check-in window? At worst, you will be asked to wait until it is your time to board. In some cases, however, you will simply be allowed to board when you get there.
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.
Are There Advantages to Arriving Early?
We’ve covered that if you show up to the port later during the boarding window you will see shorter lines and a faster time to get on the ship. But are there advantages to getting on the ship sooner?
The reason that people arrive early is to get a head start on their vacation. Many people are excited to board, and with the ship is open for passengers, you can hang out poolside or get a bite to eat. Boarding early gives you a few more hours of your trip.
If you decide to face the lines and board early, you should know that your cabin may not be ready the moment you get on the ship. In that case, there will be a spot to check your luggage so that you can explore the ship without having to lug around a suitcase.