The cruise port is the start to every great cruise vacation. Unfortunately, most departure ports are distinctly different from the delightful lushness of the ships they service. However, with proper preparation travelers can start their vacation off without a hitch.
Finding the Cruise Port
The first obstacle cruise travelers face is finding the port. Because many port cities are oriented toward the water - a holdover from when ocean travel and shipping were primary industries - the port may be located downtown in congested areas. If driving, passengers should make the effort to scope out the cruise port the day before sailing, if possible, especially if the port is large and services many cruise lines and ships simultaneously. If arriving by air, there are generally dedicated shuttles to the port, particularly if the airfare was arranged by the cruise line.
Arriving at Your Departure Port
Arriving at the cruise port is similar to arriving at any departure point for a vacation: there are parking, luggage, and timing issues to deal with while checking in. Knowing in advance what procedures are in place will help cruise passengers get their vacation off to an easy start.
If arriving by car, travelers will need to pay for parking. While each port charges different fees, the most common charge is $10 per night of the cruise. A seven-night cruise, then, would have an associated $70 parking fee. These fees are not included in the cruise fare and passengers should be prepared to pay for them upon arrival. Larger terminals may accept major credit cards or checks, and a simple phone call to the port prior to traveling can establish the rate and preferred methods of payment. Most often, parking is in standard lots alongside the terminal, though larger ports in busier cities may have parking garages available. Passengers should pay attention to posted signs and the instructions of port employees: each ship's passengers are directed to a specific lot able to accommodate the expected number of vehicles for that cruise.
When arriving at the cruise port, passengers may drop their luggage with the porters near the terminal's entrance before parking, or they may park first and bring their luggage to the terminal by hand. To facilitate the exchange, always fill out the pre-issued baggage tags prior to arriving at the port (these are supplied with your cruise ticket); the tags are specific to your cabin assignment and help porters deliver your luggage on board quickly and efficiently. There will be a number of trolleys available at the port, and porters can assist with loading your luggage onto the appropriate cart. The standard gratuity is $1 per bag for this assistance, but it is not required and should be up to the passenger's discretion. Travelers should note that the porters are not cruise line employees and the cruise line is not responsible for any mishandling or misdirection of luggage.
Each cruise ticket indicates when passengers may begin boarding the ship, typically in the early afternoon. Passengers should feel free to arrive at the port earlier than that, however, especially when sailing on larger ships that accommodate thousands of passengers. Arriving early will help guests secure closer parking spaces, a place at the front of the line, and more time to complete necessary embarkation documentation. Generally, arriving 1-2 hours prior to the stated boarding time is acceptable, though passengers arriving too early (several hours) may be turned away because passengers from the cruise that just ended have not yet left the port.
Checking In at the Cruise Port
Upon entering the cruise terminal, passengers need to check in to verify their arrival. Having the proper documentation available and knowing several tricks to expedite the process can help make check-in a smooth and hassle-free experience.
All cruise passengers need to carry the appropriate documentation for security and verification purposes. A photo ID (driver's license or passport), birth certificate, and the cruise ticket are required. Newlywed passengers embarking on their honeymoon should also carry a copy of their marriage license just in case. Do not pack this documentation in your luggage or bury it inside a carry-on bag - it will be checked multiple times and you should keep it available until you have been issued your ship's ID card.
Other documentation that may be necessary are customs forms from different nations that require them. The Bahamas, for example, requires customs forms from cruise passengers, and the cruise port is inevitably filled with passengers filling out these papers at the last moment. The documents are usually supplied with a ticket, however, and filling them out early saves that hassle at the port.
Avoiding the Lines
With hundreds or thousands of passengers checking in within just a few hours, cruise ports are invariably crowded and filled with long lines. There are certain tricks, however, that can help passengers avoid lengthy waits. Many cruise lines offer priority boarding for specific travelers, such as:
- Repeat passengers with the cruise line
- Guests with more expensive suite cabins
- Specially booked groups such as reunions or business retreats
- Honeymooners or guests getting married onboard
- Guests with disabilities requiring special assistance
- International guests with non-US passports or documentation
Not every cruise line offers priority boarding for each circumstance; contact the individual Cruise Lines for details about priority boarding procedures and requirements.