This page was created for first time cruisers. It is a more or less chronical outline of what to expect on your cruise - from embarkation day to your return. Hopefully this will remove some of the mystery of what will be happening on your first cruise.
The big day has finally arrived. Depending on how you got to the port city; whether you flew or drove, or spent the previous night at a hotel and are taking a shuttle, your arrival time may or may not be flexible. However, there is no need to arrive at the cruise terminal before 11AM. If you are any earlier, you will just be in the way of those still leaving the ship, and you will simply add to the congestion at the port.
Arriving at the cruise terminal. When you arrive with luggage in hand, make sure that you have your passports and cruise documents in hand, and you have packed your essentials in your carry-on luggage; medication, jewelery, cameras and electronics, and a change of clothing. We also pack our swimwear in our carry on. Next, after you make sure you still have your luggage tags affixed to the luggage you will be checking (it can fall off during transit), find a porter - tip them say $1 for each piece of luggage - and hand your heavy luggage over to them. Also, make sure you are handing your luggage to a porter as an incoming passenger and not an outgoing passenger, or you may find that your luggage managed to find it's way to the local airport.
Check-in. Next, you will need to find the check-in line, and as you get near the entrance, someone will want to check your passport (or other form of identification) and your cruise tickets. Depending on if you have a suite or are a repeat customer, there may be a separate line for you as you receive priority treatment.
At some point during your check in, you will have to go through a metal detector and your luggage through an x-ray machine. If you have a laptop, you will have to pass that through the x-ray machine separately. This is pretty standard, and no different than if you were going on an airplane. Do yourself a favor and leave all of your jewelry, watches, and money in your carry-on or purse so that you will not have to be "wanded" through. There will be plenty of time to put those items on after you go through the detectors.
You will then go into a line to do the actual check-in. Again, you will need your documents and passports, and with some cruise lines - your credit card (others will pre-approve your credit and put a hold on a block of money). The credit card will be used to pay for all of your on-board purchases, and will be billed at the end of the cruise. You can optionally establish a cash account, so make sure you ask about that when you check-in.
When you complete your check-in, you will be issued a card, called a SeaPass card or other name - again, depending on the cruise line. This card is your room key, used for all on-board purchases, identifies your lifeboat, and your boarding pass. It is essential that you keep this card with you at all times. We purchased inexpensive ID card holders with a lanyard that is very useful for keeping these cards on us at all times.
At some point during the check-in process - and after you receive your SeaPass card, you will have your photo taken, so that you can be positively identified.
Depending on whether or not the ship has started the boarding process, you might be able to board at this point, or be sent into a waiting area. For this reason you do not want to arrive at the port too soon, or you will just end up waiting. The waiting area normally is segregated into normal passengers, those that have suites, and those that are repeat cruisers. When boarding begins, the suite and repeat cruisers are allowed on-board prior to everyone else, and since you are a first-time cruiser, you will be at the end of that line.
Boarding. When you first get on board, again depending on the cruise line and time of arrival, you may or may not be allowed to go to your cabin. If you are, then drop off your carry-on luggage so that you don't have to carry it around with you. The first thing you will want to do when you arrive on board is to explore the ship. You will have a couple of hours to do this, and you may wish to go to the "buffet" resturant, where you can get lunch. Also, drink packages, spa packages and tours, open dining reservations, and similar offerings are only usually available during this time, so check out those offerings if you are interested.
The US Coast Guard requires all passengers to be checked on board 90 minutes or so prior to departure, so you will not be able to arrive at the last minute. Again, the cruise line should be able to tell you when the last arrivals are accepted, so just be sure you arrive prior to that deadline.
Muster. International regulations require a mandatory muster (lifeboat drill) for all passengers within the first 24 hours of the cruise - even if you have cruised before. While most cruise lines do the muster prior to leaving port, since the Costa Concordia accident in Jan 2012, the cruise lines have taken a proactive approach to safety and have decided that all cruise lines will perform the muster prior to sailing.
Muster is serious, and is essential to your safety. Therefore, take it serously and pay attention - your life is at stake. The muster is mandatory, and cruise lines have removed passengers from the ship if they refuse to partake in muster. It only lasts for a few minutes, so it should not be huge inconvenience - especially that it may save your life.
By now, you should have met your cabin steward as they typically introduce themselves within the first couple of hours after you board. If your luggage has not yet arrived, it should shortly. The ship typically has to load 10,000 pieces of luggage or more, so it does take a few hours. Your steward will typically handle the luggage for the last part of it's trip to your stateroom, so ask them if you have not received it. At any rate, we always pack a change of clothing and our swimwear in our carry-on bag so that if our luggage is delayed, we won't miss out on any pool time.
Sail-away and first-evening events. Your captain will soon announce departure, and there is usually a sail-away or departure party out on deck, if the weather is nice. Otherwise, it will usually be held inside.
Soon it will be time for the first evening dinner in the Main Dining Room. Whle the dining room usually has a dress code, and normally do not allow shorts and T-shirts, the first night is usually an exception as not everyone may have received their checked luggage by dinner time. Also, dinner time may be different on the first evening, again - depending on the ship.
After dinner, there is usually a Bon Voyage or Welcome Aboard show in the main theater. Often this show is only presented once (on normal nites, there is usually a show for both main and second seating dining).
You can go to the main dining room if you wish, or the buffet dining for dinner. Some cruise lines will not let you handle the serving utensels for the first 48 hours as a method of reducing illness brought on board. As well, if the ship has had recent outbreaks of the NoroVirus, they may also adop this policy.
You should also take a few minutes the first evening to go over the excursion list and book any excursions you want. Now days, many passengers book them on-line weeks before the cruise, so it is especially important that you book your excursions as soon as you arrive on board (if you have not taken advantage of the on-line option). The more popular excursions sell out, so book early if you are wanting to go on one of those.
After the cruise ship is far enough out to sea, the on-board shops and casino will be open. If you see what you want at the on-board shop, buy it - especially if you have a clothing size that there is not a lot of quantity. However, do realize that the shops will tend to have items on-sale in the coming days. Also, if you purchase any liquor, it will generally be held for you until the day of departure. You won't be able to take the libation back to your cabin upon purchase.
As you begin purchasing items, realize that you will have to account for any goods you bring back into ths US, including liquor, so keep your receipts and an itemized total as you will have to fill out a US Customs Declaration form (6059B) the last night detailing your purchases.
As the days go by, you will have sea days and port days, the number of which depends on the itinerary. Typically on the evening of the first Sea Day, you will have a formal night, so you can dress up in your fancy duds and impress everyone. This is usually optional, however most people do it. Be aware though that some cruise lines will not let you eat in the main dining room on formal night if you are not appropriately dressed. Of course there is always the buffett.
Port days usually have a more relaxed atmosphere - however, formal night does occur occasionally on a port day.
As you visit the various ports-of-call on your cruise, remember one important thing... the cruise line WILL NOT wait for you if you are late in returning. The exception is if you book a cruise-line based excursion, and if the excursion is late - the ship will wait. However, if you are off on your own, be aware you must return to the ship on time. For that reason, I always take my passports and a credit card so that if we get stranded, we can fly to the next port to catch the ship.
There is a lot of disagreement between passengers whether or not to take the passport with you when you are on shore - because they figure if it becomes lost or stolen - you will have a hard time returning to the US. However, it's my feeling that if you are in a foreign country, you need the passport for not only identification, but in able to board a flight home. Besides, would you rather be stranded in a foreign country if you miss the ship and your passport is on board the ship, or would you rather be stranded at the cruise port upon your return (on US soil) without the passport? I'd rather be on US soil. Besides, if you contact the State Dep't, they might be able to issue you a temporary passport before you return to the US.
The night prior to returning home, the ship will give you luggage tags for the luggage you do not want to carry with you off the ship. Some ports allow "Express Checkout" for those passengers that can carry everything with them, but it is usually restricted to what you can reasonably carry off the ship. Otherwise, you will want to check most of your luggage for the trip off the ship. You should always make sure to keep a change of clothing with you so that you don't end up in the morning of departure and realize that you packed everything with nothing to wear.
Usually you put your luggage outside of your cabin before midnight the night prior, and the ship's stewards and crew will remove it for you. It is also a good time to fill out your immigration form, and total up all of your ship's purchases. You may also receive any liquor you purchased the last evening, although sometimes it may not occur until the morning of departure.
Realize that there are limits to what you can bring back to the US duty-free. If you bring too much back, you may be subject to tax. The ship should provide you with a US Customs Declaration form (CBP form 6059B) that you will need to fill out. Generally only one form per family needs to be filled out.
There is a limit to what you can bring into the US duty free. This differs whether you are a US or foreign citizen. A US citizen may bring back the following amounts per person:
(US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, etc)
You may not bring back certain prohibited items, such as Cuban cigars, fruit, vegetables, plants, or farm produce. You may however, bring back spices and coffee as long as they are not fruit based.
Please consult the Homeland Security - Customs and Border Protection website for the latest concerning Customs and Duty regulations. CBP Website
Typically you will be called off the ship in order of your luggage tags, so that your luggage will be waiting for you when you disembark. After collecting your luggage, you will have to present yourself to US Customs. After you have cleared Customs, you will be on your own.