First Time Cruiser Series – The Final Countdown

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Welcome back to the First Time Cruiser Series. This week we’re talking about some final things to consider before going on your cruise!

Carrying on Soda

You’ll want to check with your cruise line ahead of your journey as most will allow you to bring a 12-pack of soda per person. While we’ve always carried it on, it wasn’t until October of 2018 (our 18th cruise!) that we realized there’s a much easier way: Find yourself a durable tote bag that allows you to carry both 12-packs easily with your other bags. This avoids the accidental rip or awkward carry-under-the-arm that never is comfortable.

Carrying on Wine/Champagne

Like soda, most lines also allow you to carry on a bottle of wine/champagne per cruiser (of legal age). If you’re flying in for your cruise, you can bring your favorite bottle of wine/champagne in your checked bag using a handy Wine Diaper. Once you land, you can pick up soda at a local convenience store on route to the ship or near your hotel if you stay the night prior to sail away.

November 2014: The Wine Diaper is by far our favorite cruise item and consider it a must-have for any cruiser!

Of course, if you drive to the port, you have the luxury of being able to bring all of your favorites along with you. However, we still highly recommend packing your wine/champagne in a Wine Diaper to prevent any unfortunate breaks/spills as you make your way to the ship.

#CruiseTip: soda and wine must be carried onto the ship with you versus leaving in any bags you drop with the porter. If you leave it in your checked bag, the cruise line will confiscate it thinking you are trying to smuggle booze onto the ship. We forgot to remove our wine from the bag we left with the porter once and never saw the bottle again.

Getting to the Port

If you’re driving to the cruise port, check the traffic and road conditions of the route you’ll be taking ahead of time to ensure that there won’t be any delays to your vacation. If you will be flying to the port, the best piece of advice I can offer is to fly in the day prior (or even sooner) to your sail date. While this will incur some extra costs (hotel, food, etc.), you will have a better experience overall and won’t have to rush to the pier once you land. It also gives you additional buffer time in case there’s a flight delay or cancellation.

January, 2015: American Airlines canceled Mark’s flight the evening before Carnival Victory sailing; the extra day buffer is the only reason he got on the ship!

While you may be able to get on a cruise ship after your scheduled boarding time, it’s not guaranteed and will likely result in additional costs that far exceed a night in a hotel.

Obviously, the fewer layovers your flight has, the better your chances that all of your luggage will arrive with you and less worries about cancelations. Of course, sometimes, layovers are the only option for those of us flying from faraway places.

#CruiseTip: Don’t pack all of your underwear in your checked bag! Split up several changes of clothes across your carryon and your checked bag. That way, if the airline loses your bag, you don’t have to borrow a fellow cruiser’s underpants! Also, make sure you pack your charging cables in your carryon bag; trust me on this one. There’s nothing worse than being stranded in the airport with a dead phone and no way to charge it.

Speaking from experience, I flew to my cruise on embarkation day because of prior commitments. The flight was going smooth until my layover experienced a power outage and completely derailed my travels. It was my responsibility to find my way to the cruise ship.

#CruiseTip: If something like this happens to you, call the cruise line immediately and inform them of your situation. In the event you won’t make your original sail away, you may still be able to get on your cruise. The cruise representative will inform you of your options and, if you’re able to join the ship in an alternate port, they will communicate directly with the ship so there won’t be any issues getting through customs, etc. Remember, the ship won’t wait for you so you may have to fly to a port that the ship is scheduled to go on its itinerary.

Getting to the Terminal

With technology playing a big part in travel today, many of us now rely on Lyft/Uber to get around a city we’re visiting. When it’s just two of us traveling together, we never have an issue with the ride sharing apps. Depending on the size of your party, however Lyft/Uber can be hit-or-miss (e.g., we were traveling with two friends and ordered a large Uber. The driver arrived and said “My trunk is full” and drove away leaving us to call another Uber). For ports that are nowhere near an airport (we’re looking at you Port Canaveral!) we’ve found that there are several shuttle service options that save a bunch of money. We’ll share some of those options in a future article.

August 2015: Shuttle in Port Canaveral as we made our way to the Carnival Sunshine.

If you chose to drive your personal vehicle to the cruise port, you’ll want to do some research ahead of time on parking. I’ve found that doing a simple internet search of the pier you’ll be sailing from +parking will help you identify the best places to park your car. In most cases, there are large parking garages near the pier with long-term parking available. Be prepared to spend $20+ per day to leave your vehicle depending on the port. Alternatively, if you are staying in a hotel prior to your cruise, you may find accommodations that offer long-term parking and cruise shuttle. This can save a lot of money versus parking at the port itself.

February, 2018: Best Western, Long Beach had a great Park and Cruise package.
Stay one night and parking for the week was free. The hotel has since closed, sadly.

Arriving During Your Check-In Window

During the check-in process (discussed in the previous article), you had the opportunity to select the time-slot that works best for you and your travel party. This is your reservation to board the cruise ship. I always recommend the earliest boarding time that’s available so you can get onto the ship and start your vacation as soon as possible, unless you’re planning on sightseeing within the departure city prior to sailing.

Post-COVID, cruise lines hold to a pretty strict policy when it comes to boarding and encourage passengers to arrive at the cruise terminal within your 30-minute window. Truth be told, they won’t prevent you from boarding the ship if you don’t arrive within your window, however, be advised, you may have a significant wait. Do you really want to stand outside in the Florida humidity for 2 hours because you didn’t arrive within your window? We didn’t think so.

Even if you arrive during your assigned window, be prepared for delays at the cruise port. While most boarding processes happen smoothly, there is always the possibility of the occasional delay which could put you outside of the terminal building, subjected to the weather.

This is why it is so helpful to pack some extra convenience items in your backpack to have with you for the boarding process (jacket/hoodie, portable phone charger, an umbrella, snacks, etc.).

Dropping Off Your Bags with the Porter

When arriving at the terminal, there will be “porters” – typically men with large baggage carts wearing bright neon jackets – near the drop-off area to collect your bags. You can always walk your bags into the terminal yourself, but we always check our bags with a porter. In most terminals, you’ll find plenty of steps, escalators, and long walks as you board; dropping off your big bags makes the boarding process so much easier.

Once you’ve dropped off your bags, you’ll walk past several port workers who will ask to see your boarding pass to ensure you’ve arrived within your check-in window and they’ll guide you where to go. Eventually, you’ll have to show your passport and any other required travel docs (COVID test, anyone?). Once you get all the stamps and signoffs that everything is in order, you’ll go through a familiar TSA-style check-point where you’ll pass through a metal detector. Some cruise lines and ports will require you to go through a secondary check in process where they’ll once again review your boarding pass and passport. They may even take your picture so that when you scan your card onboard, the crew will recognize you.

July 2022: This was the line for Customer Service to finish the check-in process for our Alaska cruise in Seattle, Washington.

Now What?

You’ve made it to the port. You’ve dropped your bags with the porter. You’ve made it through all of the boarding pass reviews. You’ve got through the metal detector and had your picture taken. So what now?

Now you wait as you look longingly at your cruise ship through the windows for your boarding group to be called. The good news is that most terminals have comfortable chairs set up for you to wait (some terminals even have outlets to charge your phone, vending machines, and other amenities).

February 2019: This was the inside of the Long Beach Carnival Cruise terminal. Very appealing waiting area.

When your boarding group is finally called, the cruise line will begin their first round of sales: offering to take your picture in front of a backdrop of the cruise ship. You can feel the excitement in the air. You are about to go through one final check of your boarding pass as you get ready to board your cruise ship!

Up Next…

Come back to our next article where this story is continued as you board your ship.

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