How Early Can You Board a Cruise Ship?

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Passengers embarking on the Queen Mary 2 in Hamburg, Germany

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On your embarkation day, thousands of passengers will be disembarking the cruise ship. After those passengers disembark, the crew must prepare to welcome you and thousands of other guests on board the vessel.

The anticipation can be overwhelming as you wait in the cruise terminal for your turn to embark.

This begs the question: how early can you board a cruise ship?

The earliest you can board a cruise ship is typically 4–5 hours before the scheduled departure time. Still, several factors affect how early you can board a cruise ship.

This post will further explore how early you can embark on a cruise ship and the best time to board. We’ll also compare the experiences of early and late boarding to give you a sense of what to expect when you get to the cruise terminal, so stick around!

How Early Can You Board a Cruise Ship?

Passengers embarking on the Queen Mary 2 in Hamburg, GermanyPin

In cruise ships that allow first-come, first-serve boarding, you should be able to board the ship as early as around 4–5 hours before it’s scheduled to sail. However, if you arrive at the cruise port too early, you may be able to check in but not board until the crew has prepared the ship.

Not all cruise lines follow a first come, first serve boarding process.

When cruise ships resumed sailing during the Covid-19 pandemic, they implemented several safety measures, including scheduled boarding.

If you sail on a cruise ship with scheduled boarding times, you’ll be able to pick a 30-60 minute embarkation window when you can board the vessel.

Regardless of your cruise line’s embarkation process, several groups of passengers receive priority boarding:

  • Passengers with upper-tier cruise line loyalty status
  • Passengers booked a suite accommodation
  • Passengers who purchase a perk package

Boarding time varies from cruise line to cruise line. Not to mention some cruise lines designate specific time slots for their guests to board.

Here’s a line-by-line breakdown of the boarding times of some mainstream cruise lines:

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line is the most stringent cruise line regarding assigned boarding times. Carnival requires guests to pre-register in advance and select a boarding time when they check in online. Passengers must board during the designated check-in window.

Even if you arrive early, you may be denied access to check-in and boarding until your Arrival Appointment.

Guests who are booked in a suite, purchase Carnival’s Faster to the Fun perk package, or are a Diamond or Platinum VIFP club member must select a check-in time but are not bound by the check-in window.

According to Carnival, “Although guests may access the terminal at 10:30 am, based on their window selection, boarding is scheduled to begin at approximately 12:30 am.” (Source)

Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line, like Carnival Cruise Line, offers staggered boarding times during online check-in. The cruise line prioritizes the boarding time preferences of its long-time cruisers, providing priority boarding to loyal Disney cruisers.

For example, if you’ve sailed on a Disney Cruise 10 times, you can choose your boarding time 120 days before embarkation day. On the other hand, first-time passengers choose their boarding time 75 days before departure.

The cruise line requests that guests wait for their scheduled boarding time if they arrive early at the terminal.

Passengers can board as early as 11:00 am on most sailings. However, the exact embarkation time may vary.

Disney Cruise Line asks guests to help “streamline the boarding process and select your Port Arrival Time, we recommended that you complete My Online Check-In ahead of time.” (Source)

Holland America Line

Holland America Line provides boarding times on the boarding pass. However, if you have the Early Embarkation package, you can board Holland America as early as 11:30 am.

Holland America “strongly encourage you to complete the check-in process at our website at hollandamerica.com.” (Source)

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise Line provides guests with a boarding time in your cruise eDocs. If you complete your online check-in, you’ll be able to board as soon as the terminal opens.

Guests who complete the online check-in can arrive no later than one hour before the scheduled departure time. While guests who have not completed the online check-in must “arrive at the cruise terminal no later than two (2) hours prior to the scheduled embarkation time printed on your cruise documents.”

According to NCL, “In order to facilitate the embarkation process, the processing of your eDocs, and to comply with new government regulations governing departure manifest, all guests are required to complete check-in at the cruise terminal and be onboard the ship no later than one hour prior to the departure time noted on their cruise documents or they will not be permitted to sail. Please note that guests who have not completed their Online Check-In must arrive at the port two (2) hours before sailing.” (Source)

Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises provides early boarding to passengers with premium memberships or suite bookings. Regular passengers, however, are given a specific time window to arrive and board.

Princess Cruises may also provide early boarding for groups that include a member with a special need. In that case, you’ll need to call in 30 days before your cruise departs.

Royal Caribbean International

Royal Caribbean doesn’t assign check-in time windows. So, you can board as early as the cruise is ready for passengers to embark on the ship.

The cruise line may even allow you to skip the check-in process at the terminal if you check in online before arrival.

Royal Caribbean provides guests with a boarding window and advises all guests to follow the published check-in windows. The cruise line mandates that guests arrive no later than 60 minutes before the scheduled departure time.

“Guests should arrive at the port no later than 60 minutes before the published sail time. Guests should adhere to the published check-in windows, where applicable, that can be found in their E-docs (electronic documents) or during general boarding which depends on the ship’s sail time.” (Source)

 Virgin Voyages

Virgin Voyages has one of the latest boarding times in the cruise industry. According to the cruise line, “At Virgin Voyages, we completely support our Sailors’ desire for a late checkout. With that, boarding generally begins at 2 pm, but Sailors must follow their selected arrival time to complete terminal check-in.” (Source)

Early vs. Late Cruise Ship Boarding

Disney Magic cruise ship docked at the cruise terminal in port of miamiPin
Disney Magic cruise ship docked at the cruise terminal in port of miami

Boarding a cruise ship early has numerous benefits. You’ll be able to hop onboard, explore the ship, and even have a drink by the pool. Not to mention, if your cruise ship is serving lunch, you’ll be able to go straight to the main dining room to eat.

Early cruise ship boarding is our preferred way of traveling.

We love exploring the ship before crowds make their way to the top decks. We’ll usually head straight to the buffet for an early lunch before making our way around the ship and familiarizing ourselves with the vessel’s amenities.

While you might be able to board the cruise ship as early as 11 am, it’s important to remember you have access to your cabin until 2 pm.

Luckily, porters collect luggage at check-in and deliver it to your cabin in the evening. So you won’t have to lug your heavy luggage as you tour the ship.

Still, we recommend packing a carry-on bag with all your first-day essentials if you board early. You may not receive your luggage until after dinner.

But early boarding isn’t for everyone.

If you’re the type of cruiser who prefers to drop off everything in your room and unwind before the ship sets sail, you may prefer a later boarding.

Boarding late doesn’t offer many benefits. You may find a shorter lineup at check, and your room will almost surely be ready for you when you board late.

But the benefits end there.

You may feel stressed and rushed, worrying you’ll miss embarkation.

If you board late, you’ll join a full ship and miss out on peacefully exploring the vessel before sailing.

When Is the Best Time to Board a Cruise Ship?

Four cruise ships docked at the Port of Miami while passengers boardPin

Boarding at the earliest time your cruise line allows is the best time to board a cruise ship. Early boarding reduces the stress of missing check-in and provides plenty of time to grab lunch on the ship and explore the vessel before it becomes crowded.

However, arriving early at the cruise port doesn’t guarantee avoiding long embarkation lines. Remember that thousands of eager passengers are also ready to board the cruise ship.

If you’re looking to avoid lineups at the terminal,  boarding around 1 or 2 pm tends to have the shortest lineups. Most cruise ships begin regular check-in around 10 am.

By the early afternoon, most of the early arrivals will have made it onto the ship. And you’ll be ahead of the passengers who prefer late boarding.

If your cruise ship assigned you a check-in window, you can skip all this hassle. Just make sure you arrive within 15 minutes of that time window.

When Is the Last Possible Time You Can Board a Cruise Ship?

Photo taken from the balcony of a cruise ship while departing Miami cruise portPin

The departure time for cruise ships varies, but the last possible time to board the cruise ship is around 90 minutes to two hours before the scheduled departure time. That’s generally around 4:00 pm – but it’s best to check with the cruise line for the exact departure time. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires all cruise lines to provide a finalized passenger manifest at least one hour before ship departure.

As a result, cruise ships require passengers to arrive at least two hours before sailing to provide a complete passenger manifest.

If you completed the online check-in process, you might be able to board 60–90 minutes before departure. However, as per federal rules, your cruise ship can’t board you after an hour before departure.

That said, if a family member or a friend is running late, you can notify the cruise line at the check-in desk. If the late passenger checked in online before embarkation day, the cruise may delay sending the passenger manifest for a few minutes.

But don’t expect them to wait too long.

If you miss the boarding window, the ship will leave without you.

Most cruise lines encourage passengers to check in well before the scheduled departure to avoid missing the boat (pun intended).

And the stress of arriving late is one of the reasons we encourage everyone to embark early.

We always recommend flying to the cruise port the day before. But if you must book a flight that arrives on the same day as your cruise departs, we recommend booking an early flight to minimize the risk of missing the ship.

Do You Need To Board at The Assigned Time?

The Bow of Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas cruise ship at the port of Miami on embarkation dayPin

Some cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean and Holland America Line, provide check-in windows and ask that guests abide by their assigned time. In our experience, the check-in times are more of a suggestion.

For example, when we went on our Serenade of the Seas cruise, we could begin the check-in process a full hour before our scheduled window of time.

If you arrive before your scheduled time, you may be asked to wait in the terminal until it’s your turn to board. And if you’re late, you might need to wait in line a little longer than normal.

But in our experience, it’s generally accepted that you don’t need to follow your assigned embarkation time.

However, Carnival Cruise Line is very strict with their boarding times.

If you arrive early at the terminal, you’ll need to wait until it’s your turn to board. And there are rare exceptions with Carnival.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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