How Early Can You Board a Cruise Ship?


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

How Early Can You Board a Cruise Ship?

The earliest you can realistically expect to board a cruise ship is around midday. Most cruise lines start embarking guests about 4/5 hours before the ship sails away although this does vary. You may be able to check in earlier but will not normally be able to embark at this time as the cruise line has to disembark all guests from the last cruise and completely clean the ship/restock. 

A number of factors affect when you can embark a cruise ship. The cruise line can have an impact as some lines have different embarkation procedures to others. The destination and type of cruise can also make a difference.

Embarking The Marella Discovery

The cruise line 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’ as shown below. 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 lines website, most will have a ‘personaliser’ area where you are able to see details about your cruise.

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. – SOURCE.

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. – SOURCE. 

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. – SOURCE. 

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. 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 very VERY rare that you would be made to wait until your embarkation time. I’ve been on 22 cruises to date and have never had this happen to me or heard of anybody to whom this has happened.

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

Below are some experiences by members of our Facebook group:

5 cruises in and never had an issue. Our last one (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!! – Chlo

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

Carnival Cruise Embarkation

What is The BEST Time to Embark a Cruise Ship?

Personally, my favourite time to embark is between 12-1pm. 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.

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 3/4pm. 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 you 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.

Marella Explorer 90s Cruise

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 statuses.

I have a priority embarkation perk with MSC Cruise Line. I’ve actually only been on 3 MSC cruises but MSC have a really cool 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 black. 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. 

Related Questions:

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.

Where To Next?

If you have any cruise questions or photos/stories you’d like to share, join us in our Facebook group.

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Emma Le Teace

Hey! I'm Emma. A cruise blogger, YouTuber and founder of the 'Cruising Isn't Just For Old People' Facebook community and website. You can learn more here: About Me.

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