Cruise Departure Day – What to Expect on Your First Cruise

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One of the best ways to get the most out of your cruise vacation is to know what to expect before you go. This post is for first time cruisers and intends to prepare you for the first day of your cruise.

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Assuming you’re on a pretty typical cruise, the day you depart should look something like this:


If you’re planning on driving yourself to the cruise port, double-check that you will be able to park your car there and see what fees there will be for that privilege. Some cruise ports do have parking but many, if not most, don’t have the space to provide parking.

Holland America Westerdam

Getting There

If you can’t drive yourself there, then you might want to arrange a transfer ahead of time from the airport or from the hotel where you’re staying the night before. Many cruise lines will bundle in a night before the cruise if you want to simplify the experience. They can meet you at the airport with a sign with your name. You should at least price that option as you make a decision.

There are a few cruise ports were you can get to on public transportation, but you still have to walk the last mile with your luggage like the Hoboken or Stockholm. Taking a taxi is always a viable option.


The typical check-in process involves spending some time waiting in lines.

Cruise Port Barcelona


On a large cruise ship, you will be given luggage tags with your cabin number in advance. Some cruise lines are having you print your own luggage tags, so check before you leave home.

If you arrive on a ship transfer bus provided by the cruise line, then you will likely just leave your luggage on the bus and the cruise line personnel will check it in. If you are bringing your luggage with you in your cab or your car then there is usually a place to drop off bags. Do not expect to carry on your luggage and do not expect to see it again for a few hours. Plan what you will need for the next few hours and put that in a small backpack or bag that you will carry. Again, make sure that your luggage is tagged with your cabin.


These days a cruise ship is a secure environment. Expect to take all the metal out of your pockets, pass through a metal detector, and have your carry-on backpack x-rayed. One surprise in that process is that some cruise lines have a limit on how many bottles of alcohol you can bring on the ship without triggering a corkage fee.


As you check-in, you will need to have your passport for an international cruise or a photo ID for any domestic cruise. You will also likely need the cruise documents that you were sent which will have your cabin information and other details.

Ship ID

Typical checking process they will verify who you are and create for you your ship ID. Keep a good hold of this as you will need to show it every time you get on and off the boat. It will also typically be your room key and how you charge things on the boat. On some cruise lines, this id will have your photo on it which they will often take during check-in. Even if it doesn’t have your picture on the id, they will take or you will have given a picture of you to make sure the person using the ship ID is you when you enter and leave the ship.

They may also give you a boarding group number at check-in if they did not send you one previously. Listen for your boarding group number to be called.

Welcome Picture

One of those things that a lot of cruise lines still do that I have no use for is taking your picture as you get on and off the ship, or at fancy dress nights. I almost never buy those pictures but they still take them and then print them out and display them in the photo gallery to try and sell you a package. If you would like a photo then you are in luck, if not, just smile anyway and move along.

Holland America Westerdam


The cruise line may greet you with a small snack or a bottle of water depending on the ship and the line, but unless you are familiar with that line you might not want to count on that. One thing you can count is that there will probably be hand sanitizer right there by the gangway and this will not be the last thing you see and sanitizer on your cruise.

Staying Healthy

What the cruise line is trying to avoid here is the spread of something like Norovirus or Coronavirus which are spread in part by contact with surfaces that others touch so especially for the first couple of days emphasize sanitizing your hands as you come on the ship and also as you enter the dining rooms.

You also see that in buffet-style restaurants tongues and serving utensils touched by people are replaced frequently or even on some ship lines are not present for the first couple of days. Especially if you are coming on board with any sort of pre-existing sickness make use follow the guidelines for sanitation because it will make not only your cruise better but everyone else’s as well. A whole ship full of people with diarrhea is the least glamorous thing about a cruise vacation and is avoidable.

Holland America Navigator


Cruise lines are increasingly making Wi-Fi available. On some, it’s still expensive and slow but some cruise lines like Carnival have put in technological advancements to speed it up and have reduced the price.

Many cruise lines now have information available via app or web app. On Holland America, for instance, you can access the Holland America Navigator web page with the day’s information on the wi-fi even if you don’t purchase internet access. Here you can add specific events to your personal schedule.

Daily Schedule Newsletter

Today you are still likely to get a paper newsletter every day with the activities for the next day but the day is coming when those will be your contact replaced entirely with electronic distribution of information. Many cruise lines also make schedule information available on the TV in your room. Expect to find your first daily schedule newsletter waiting for you in your room.

Traveling Soon? These useful links will help you prepare for your trip.
Cruise Ship Safety Drill - Holland America Westerdam

Safety Drill

There will be a safety drill on your first day. It is required by law. Make sure you know what time it will be held. Your ship ID should list your muster station which will be on the deck with the lifeboats. You may or may not have to bring your life jacket from your cabin. Follow the directions of the ship-wide announcements. If you fail to attend the safety drill, then plan on this being a very short cruise as they will escort you back off the boat.

Your Steward

Expect to meet your cabin steward on the first day. If you have specific requests this is a great chance to make them known. This is where my wife, for instance, requests ice in our ice bucket daily. Your cabin steward is there to make your cruise more pleasant and in my experience, they are usually personable and friendly.


There will be food. One thing you can count on a cruise is that there will be food. There will be three meals a day… at least. While the midnight buffet and the chocolate fountains are now more rare then they used to be, and portion sizes on many cruise lines have gotten more reasonable, you can always ask for more. If you want three appetizers instead of an entrée you can do that. If you want two desserts that’s usually not a problem… or three or four or five.

Drink Plans

There won’t necessarily be free booze. Unless you’re on a more upscale cruise, don’t expect there to be free wine or beer with dinner. For most cruise lines soft drinks and fancy coffees are also available but with an added fee. If you want wine with dinner every night, a beer with your lunch every day, or are a Diet Coke addict, like me, then you may save money by buying a beverage package ahead of time or on your first day on the cruise. A drink package can usually be purchased at the ship’s bars.

Open Houses / Orientation

Your daily schedule on the first day will probably include opportunities for you to learn more about the ship. There will be things like open houses for the spa or orientation for first-time cruisers. These can be a great source of information so make time for the ones that look interesting to you.


You may have an open seating option for your dinner at the dining room or you may have a set reservation time. You will choose that before your cruise. Most cruise ships have a more informal buffet option as well and I have been surprised to talk to shipmates a week into a cruise and find that they have not been to the main dining room. That is, in my experience, a mistake as the main dining room will usually provide a superior experience to the buffet dining. Try it at least once, preferably on the first night so you know your options.

Holland America Westerdam


One of the best parts of cruising is getting to unpack once. Take advantage of that. I usually live out of my suitcase on a trip, but on a cruise, I take advantage of the drawers and closet space and settle into my temporary floating home away from home.

Ship’s TV

Even if you don’t watch TV at home, turn on the TV in your stateroom. It might have satellite TV and movies but more importantly, it is likely to have information about your cruise.


Walk around the ship, especially the decks with the bars, shops, cafes, dining rooms, and theaters. Get familiar with where the bow (front) of the ship is and where the stern (rear) of the ship is. I recommend using the stairs when you can because… those desserts at dinner are not going to eat themselves.

Holland America Westerdam - Crow's Nest

Find a 2nd Home on Ship

Have fun! Talk to the crew. Get a “guy”. Find out which of the bartenders or baristas will be fun to deal with. For us on our Holland America cruise in South America that was Leo in the Crow’s Nest.

Find at least one space outside your cabin that is a comfortable spot. Which of the ship’s musicians do you want to hear every night? Are you going to attend the trivia contest or late-night dancing? Are you going to take a technical class on the ship or a cooking class? Or are you just going to find a nook where you can catch up on a good book? Make this your cruise and have a great time!

Cruise Departure Day - What to Expect on Your First Cruise #cruise #cruisetips #firsttime Cruise Departure Day - What to Expect on Your First Cruise #cruise #cruisetips #firsttime

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

2 Responses to “Cruise Departure Day – What to Expect on Your First Cruise”

Rafa Triplover


Hey, Chris, what’s up?

Very good your stuff. I remember the first time I took a cruise, I really got desperate and I didn’t know anything to do.

Some questions like, how to dress? what kind of stuff do I carry in my purse? Even how to behave… Your tips are very good for those who cruise for the first time.

Continue with the great work here on the blog. I really like your posts.

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