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How Early Can You Board a Cruise Ship? – Cruise Line Guide

During this post, we will explore how early you can board a cruise ship based on advice from the following lines:

  • Royal Caribbean
  • Norwegian Cruise Line
  • Carnival.
  • P&O
  • Celebrity
  • MSC

We will also look at whether you have to keep to the embarkation time given to you by the cruise line.

Costa Smeralda

How Early Can You Board a Cruise Ship?

The earliest that guests can board a cruise is between 4-5 hours before the ship is scheduled to sail away.

Guests may be able to check in earlier but will usually not be able to embark until this time.

A number of factors affect when you can embark on a cruise ship.

The cruise line can have an impact as some lines have different embarkation procedures from others. With Costa and MSC cruises for example, people embark at every port, rather than the ship having one embarkation day.

With other cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean for example, they may have to board 6000 passengers within a few hours.

Most cruise lines have an online check in. Once you have done that, you will be given a time to arrive at the cruise terminal.

Embarking The Marella Discovery

Some cruise lines may ask you to pick an embarkation time ahead of the cruise. It is usually just the best guess of when you will arrive at the port.

Many cruise lines will give you a suggested check-in time. You’ll receive this by email a few weeks before your cruise.

It is also possible to see the time by logging into the cruise line website, most will have a ‘personaliser’ area where you are able to see details about your cruise and add extras like excursions and drinks packages.

Cruise Line’s Advice

Royal Caribbean

Guests should arrive to the port no later than 60 minutes prior to 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.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Embarkation time is when you should arrive at the cruise terminal.

We ask that you please do not arrive any earlier than one hour prior to the embarkation time noted in your eDocs, because security regulations might prohibit early entrance.

Carnival Cruises

You must arrive at the terminal promptly within your Arrival Appointment.

Arrival Appointments can be selected for sailings within 90 days of departure and no later than midnight (eastern time) prior to your sailing date.

P&O Cruises

You will be allocated an arrival time for embarkation on your boarding pass.

To ensure we keep congestion and queues in the terminal to a minimum and get you on board as soon as possible, we kindly ask that you adhere as closely as possible to your allocated arrival time. 

Queues outside the Southampton terminal – people not allowed inside until their allotted check in time

Celebrity

To avoid long lines at security and the check-in desk, plan on getting there right when boarding begins. Lines also tend to be much shorter during the last hour of boarding, but then you’ll be missing out on a few hours on board on embarkation day!

If you’re planning to arrive later, make sure you know when embarkation check-in ends, as this is usually before your ship sets sail. For coast guard purposes, the check-in time ends earlier, and if you get there after that cut-off time you won’t be able to board, even if the ship hasn’t pulled away from port yet.

MSC

Embarkation begins at the check-in time shown on your cruise ticket. Check-in closes 2 hours before the ship is due to depart in all embarkation ports. Before arriving at the port, please ensure that all personal details shown on the embarkation form in your e-ticket are checked and correct. You will be required to show your embarkation form before boarding.

Do You Have to Board at The Time Given to You by The Cruise Line?

Generally speaking No.

Cruise lines do suggest that you board at a certain time but this is normally just to try and stem the flow of passengers wanting to embark.

I recently embarked on P&O’s Arvia and I was travelling with eight other family members. We were all given different boarding times, despite booking together.

I arrived later than my boarding time, which meant I was able to walk past all the crowds and check straight in.

Others arrived early and were forced to wait outside the terminal until their allotted time.

Find out more about that busy cruise here:

Aiming for the time that you have been given is usually a good idea but if you arrive earlier or later you won’t be denied boarding.

You may have to wait a little longer if you arrive early but it is rare that you would be made to wait until your embarkation time.

Carnival seems to be the strictest about boarding within boarding times.

Below are some of the boarding experiences by members of our Facebook group:

5 cruises in and never had an issue. Our last one, MSC Bellissima had a time of 3pm but we landed at 10am.
We went straight there and got on board before 12 without a single queue. And our cabin was ready! More time to explore and get the first cocktail

Laura

We were one of the first on our ship on our honeymoon, it was great! Our embarkation time was 2 but we got there early because of the flight and they were fine with it. It was great watching people come onboard and seeing their reactions to the atrium!!

Chloe

I tend to wait & show up later ( usually after 1pm ) when all the crowds & hoopla have died down a bit. Cruise people tend to be very excited & for good reason!! ?⚓?☀️????✨

Charlene

What is The BEST Time to Embark a Cruise Ship?

Personally, my favourite time to embark is between 12-1 pm. At this time the really keen guests who have been waiting since the morning will have embarked and embarkation will be well underway.

The terminal will be up and running and they will have the maximum number of crew members working to help embark guests.

If you’re ever unsure about where to go or what to do make sure you ask a crew member in the terminal. There will be lots around!

Embarking at this time also means you can head straight to lunch.

It is worth checking if the cruise ship is serving lunch in the main dining room as most passengers head straight to the buffet which can be busy.

Eating lunch in the main dining room can be a relaxing way to start your cruise, and avoids the crowds of people who head straight for the buffet.

How Early is Too Early to Embark a Cruise Ship?

There is little point in arriving before the check-in desks open as you will just be sitting around waiting.

This, of course, is fine if you have a reason why you need to be there so early.

On a few occasions, I have been at the cruise port early because I’ve been staying in a hotel which required me to check out earlier in the morning.

If you are at the terminal early you may be given a ‘boarding card’ which might be a number or letter. You’ll be invited to board the ship when your number/letter is called.

What is The Latest You Can Board a Cruise Ship?

Generally speaking, the latest you can embark is usually around 3/4 pm.

Most cruises in the Caribbean will set sail around dinner time although this does vary.

Many cruises in Europe won’t depart until late in the evening which means that you may be able to embark later in the day.

Regardless of the time that your ship sails, you will need to be onboard a set amount of time before it does.

This is usually 90 minutes so I would always assume 2 hours to be on the safe side.

The Most Delayed Check-In I ever had…

The worst check- in experience I ever had, without a doubt, was with the more luxury cruise line Azamara.

Azamara Onward only takes around 700 passengers, so I thought check in would go without a hitch.

In reality, it seems like Mega Cruise ships – like Symphony of the Seas or Costa Smeralda – are far better organised when it comes to check Ins!

Transfers were included in our cruise holiday, we left the UK very early and flew to Barcelona.

We were transferred to the port by coach, and we were at the terminal at around 11 am.

The terminal didn’t even open until noon, and then we went through security, checked in, and then we were asked to wait in the terminal.

We waited, and waited and waited.

We eventually were allowed to board just after 2 pm. We were exhausted, as we had been travelling since the early hours. Not the start we expected to our “luxury” cruise!

Find out how the cruise was (was once we finally boarded!) here:

How Early Can You Board a Cruise Ship With Priority Boarding?

Many cruise lines now offer schemes which allow you to embark faster. ‘Faster to the fun’ is a service offered by Carnival Cruises.

The scheme doesn’t really allow you to check in earlier than other guests, but does give you priority embarkation so you don’t have to wait in the terminal for so long.

Loyalty Schemes

A number of cruise lines also have loyalty schemes which allow you to take part in ‘priority embarkation’.

Priority embarkation is usually reserved for guests travelling in suites but is sometimes extended to guests with high loyalty status.

I have a priority embarkation perk with MSC Cruise Line. I’ve actually been on 5 or 6 MSC cruises, but MSC has a really good loyalty program where you can ‘match’ a loyalty status from another line.

I had a loyalty status with Norwegian Cruise Line which I matched with MSC and was awarded a loyalty status of Diamond. The loyalty status means I can use the ‘priority embarkation’ lines at check-in.

If you are considering a cruise with MSC make sure you check out this post:

MSC Status Match – The Free Way To Get 5% Off MSC Cruises. 

When i sailed on P&O’s Iona, I was upgraded from a standard balcony to a “Conservatory Mini Suite.”

This meant that as I was technically a Suite passenger, I got priority check-in.

The upgrade also meant I got more space, as there is a conservatory area as well as the usual cabin.

It is a very controversial cabin. Find out why here:

What Should You Wear to Embark a Cruise Ship? 

There are no specific dress codes or rules about what you should wear when embarking a cruise ship.

I like to make sure that I am wearing something that I like because most of my cruise photos seem to be taken on the first day!

I like to run around the ship and have a photo taken in front of things that I think are cool like the staircase below on the MSC Meraviglia. This photo was taken on embarkation day.

msc meraviglia staircase

When you get onboard your cabin may not be ready which means you may be carrying around a carry-on bag and you’ll be on your feet.

For this reason, make sure you’re wearing something comfortable.

Even if it is warm outside make sure you pack a sweater/jumper/cardigan since the terminal building and inside of the ship will most likely be air-conditioned

Before You Go

Find out more about what actually goes on in embarkation day here:

What Happens On Embarkation Day – And You Can Avoid Additional Costs

Make sure you don’t forget any essential paperwork when you arrive to board your cruise ship! This handy article will tell you what you will need:

Cruise Paperwork! Make Sure You Don’t Forget Essential Paperwork, or You Won’t Be Sailing Anywhere…

Taking a Cruise: Recommendations and Resources

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