Check-in is usually 2 to 3 hours before sailing. You will not be able to board the ship before the scheduled embarkation time. You have up until a half-hour (on some ships it's 1 hr.) before sailing to embark.
At check-in, your boarding documents will be checked and your passport will likely be taken for immigration processing. You will get it back sometime during the cruise. (Make a photocopy and carry that as backup.) Depending on the cruise line, you may establish your onboard credit account at this point by presenting a major credit card or making a deposit in cash or traveler's checks. On other ships you need to go to the purser's office onboard to establish your account.
You may be given your dining-room table assignment in advance of your sailing (on your tickets) or as you check in, or find a card with your table number waiting for you in your stateroom. If you do not receive an assignment by the time you get to your stateroom, you will be directed to a maitre d's desk. This is also the place to make any changes if your assignment does not meet with your approval.
Once you're aboard, a crew member will show you to your cabin and, on the smaller high-end lines, will probably offer to carry your hand luggage. No tip is required for this service, though feel free to slip the steward a few bucks if you're feeling generous.
In your cabin, you will find a daily program detailing the day's events, mealtimes, and so forth, as well as important information on the ship's safety procedures and possibly its deck plan. Deck plans and directional signs are posted around the ship, generally at main stairways and elevators.
Tip: If you plan to use the ship's spa services, it's best to stop by as soon as you board the ship to make appointments so you can get your preferred times. (The best times, particularly the slots during the days at sea, go fast, and some popular treatments sell out.) Ditto dropping by the shore excursions desk if you plan to purchase an excursion. Even better, some lines allow you to prebook shore excursions or spa treatments online before you board the ship.
Note: The ship's casino and shops are always closed when the ship is in port, and the fresh- or saltwater swimming pool(s) could be covered.
Some lines offer escorted tours of the public rooms to get you acquainted with the ship. Check the daily program in your cabin for details.
Ships are required by law to conduct safety drills the first day out. Most do this either right before the ship sails or shortly thereafter. At the start of the drill, the ship will broadcast its emergency signal. You will then be required to return to your cabin (if you're not there), grab your life jacket (which you're shown as soon as you arrive in your cabin), and report to your assigned muster station -- outside along the promenade deck, or in a lounge or other public room. A notice on the back of your cabin door will list the procedures and advise you as to your assigned muster station and how to get there. You will also find directions to the muster station in the hallway. You will be alerted as to the time of the drill in both the daily program and in repeated public announcements (and probably by your cabin steward as well). If you hide out in your cabin to avoid the drill, you'll likely get a knock by the cabin steward reminding you to please join the others.
If you're traveling with children, make sure your cabin is equipped with special children's life jackets. If not, alert your steward.
Dealing with Seasickness
If you suffer from seasickness, plan on packing Bonine or Dramamine in case your ship encounters rough seas. Keep in mind that with both these medications, it is recommended you not drink alcohol; Dramamine in particular can make you drowsy. Both can be bought over the counter. Ships stock supplies onboard, either at the purser's office, at the medical center, or in the gift shop.
Another option is the Transderm patch, available by prescription only, which goes behind your ear and time-releases medication. The patch can be worn for up to 3 days, but it comes with all sorts of side-effect warnings. Some people have had success in curbing seasickness with ginger capsules available at health-food stores. You might also try the acupressure wristbands available at most pharmacies. When set in the proper spot on the wrist, they effectively ease seasickness, although if the seas are particularly rough they may have to be supplemented with medication.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.