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Cruise Diva's FOCUS is on: What to Expect
Day One of A Cruise

Once the planning, packing, and anticipation are behind them, veteran cruise passengers sometimes view embarkation day as anticlimactic. However, for first-time cruise travelers, embarking on their first ship can be more than exhilarating—it can be downright intimidating. What exactly can you expect?

Smile for the birdie--an embarkation photo op

First of all, keep in mind that your embarkation day cannot officially begin until the ship is clear of departing guests and their luggage. The debarkation process can be as drawn-out as a divorce. While the previous weeks' passengers make their way reluctantly down the gangway, the staff and crew are busy readying the ship for the next sailing. By the time the last straggler departs, trucks are already arriving at the dock with provisions and a lot of heavy work is going on behind the scenes. Staterooms and public lounges are thoroughly cleaned and readied and a steady stream of supplies and luggage are brought aboard. There can even be an exchange of crewmembers, with some leaving and others arriving. 

The vessel's entire turn-around procedure is as carefully choreographed as the most intricate ballet.

Whether you take a bus transfer or taxi from the airport or a hotel, the first people you encounter at the terminal are baggage handlers. They are not cruise line employees and they do expect a tip—a couple dollars per suitcase is sufficient. You may be required to show your cruise ticket and picture ID at this point for verification and security purposes. Be sure your ship's luggage tags are securely fastened to your suitcases before you hand them over.

Cruise line shoreside staff are milling about to point you in the right direction—they are easily recognizable in official looking attire with nametags and, often, a clipboard. Once inside the terminal, you might encounter a check-in line. Actual boarding time is often scheduled for noon but some cruise lines will begin processing early arrivals and then direct them to a "holding" area. During check-in, you will be asked to produce your documents and any forms you were sent to complete ahead of time, plus proof of citizenship, and a credit card (to pay for your on board charges). You are issued a boarding card that often also doubles as your stateroom "key" and shipboard charge card.

At some point, either before you enter the check-in area or before proceeding to the ship, you and your hand luggage will have to pass through a security procedure, somewhat like that at airports.

Everyone is anxious to get on board and begin their vacation, but this isn't the time to get cranky if you have to wait. Keep in mind, you cannot board until the ship is ready for you. Once boarding begins, you will inevitably have your first experience with the ship's photographer and be asked to pose for an embarkation picture. It only takes a second, so smile. You are under no obligation to purchase any photos taken of you during the cruise and they are a nice souvenir.

On Board
Congratulations! Your cruise has begun. Procedures vary somewhat once you are greeted by staff members lined up just inside the ship's hull; however, you'll usually have to produce your boarding card for the security officer. Depending on cruise line, you will be directed to your cabin or a steward will relieve you of your carry on luggage and accompany you. Stewards on high end cruise lines not only show you the way, but hand you a glass of champagne as a welcome aboard gesture. If cabins aren't ready, you'll be directed to the buffet where lunch is being served.

When you arrive at your cabin, check it out to make sure that everything is in order. You should find life jackets (ready for the muster drill later) and a copy of the ship's daily schedule. Take a few moments to look over the schedule—you'll want to know what time the muster drill takes place (a placard on the back of your cabin door will indicate directions to your emergency station), as well as meal hours and the schedule for various activities and entertainments. 

Rented tuxedoes are either hanging in the closet or will be delivered sometime during the afternoon and Bon Voyage gifts sent by your friends or travel agent usually appear as well. Be patient if you are expecting deliveries, particularly on mega-ships. Cabin stewards participate in the ship's turn-around and are extremely busy, although yours will no doubt introduce himself at the first available opportunity. It will also be a while before your checked luggage arrives, so your initial order of business is usually the welcome aboard buffet if you haven't already been there. Bring along the daily schedule to peruse while you eat.

While making your way around the ship, no doubt you'll notice bar waiters offering trays of colorful and exotic "Bon Voyage" drinks, often in souvenir glasses that you can keep. Beware—they are not complimentary! If you choose one, you'll be asked to sign for it. Again, like the photos, you're under no obligation to purchase; however, the glasses are fun souvenirs.

Do your plans for the cruise include booking shore excursions and indulging in spa treatments? The most popular tours sometimes sell out and spas can be very busy during sea days, so your next stop should be the Shore Excursion Desk to book tours and the Spa to make appointments.

Your dining room seating assignment may be another matter for consideration. Some people like to check the main dining room to see where their table is located. If it's not to your liking, or if you requested a large table and find yourself assigned to a small one, you will want to see the Head Waiter. He will be stationed in a lounge with his charts handy to make changes—the daily schedule will indicate where and when.

For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening you may find other introductory activities such as tours of the spa and fitness center, port and shopping talks, and casino gaming lessons available. Of course, there will be the compulsory muster drill, followed by sailaway festivities on the pool deck. 

By late afternoon or early evening, your luggage should arrive and you can unpack and settle into your cabin to prepare for dinner. A few words of advice... just in case your luggage doesn't arrive before dinner, as sometimes is the case when you're dining at the early seating, it's a good idea to have toiletries and appropriate attire in your carry-on so you can freshen up and change. Dress codes are always casual on the first evening of cruises.

A highlight of embarkation day is that first dinner in the main restaurant where you'll meet your waitstaff and tablemates. Order whatever you like from the menu of appetizers, salads, soups, and entrees, but save room for dessert! Other than iced tea, coffee, hot tea, and water, beverages in the dining room are not complimentary.

After dinner you'll find the entire ship alive with action! The casino, shops, and lounges will all be open to greet guests and the Cruise Director usually introduces his staff at a Welcome Aboard show in the main theater (shows are scheduled to coordinate with dining seatings).

Back in your cabin for the night, you'll find that your steward has straightened things up during your absence, filled the ice bucket, provided fresh linens in the bathroom, turned down the bed, left the next day's schedule of activities, and placed a chocolate on your pillow. Sweet dreams...

What to expect:

Find out more...

  • Hints for First Time Cruisers Part 1 -- Little things every first-time Cruise Diva should know ahead of time. By George Hall
  • Hints for First Time Cruisers Part 2 -- You're on board. What can you expect in this new, yet vaguely familiar, environment? By George Hall
  • A Cruise Diva's Musts -- The Chicago Sun-Times turned to for advice on the secret comforts to make your cruise the best it can be.
  • The Cruise Planning Timeline - The sailing date for your dream cruise is drawing near and it's time to take care of some practical considerations. You're getting ready to cruise—these are the things to do and a schedule of when to do them.
  • Tips for Cruisers -- The Archive of Cruise Travel Tips. Check in often for new tips or to find the ones you may have missed.
  • FAQs -- Frequently Asked Questions & simple answers.
  • First-Time Cruise Smarts For First-Class Passengers - Netfolio & the Cruise Diva collaborated on advice for first-time cruise passengers.

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