One of my favorite things about cruising is going to multiple destinations but only unpacking the first day packing again when it's time to go back home. I've noticed a lot of people have questions about luggage. How to get luggage onboard, when to pack, whether it has to be outside the room to get off the ship, and how much to tip porters are common questions so today I'll answer these questions and share my best luggage tips for cruises.
Before leaving home, pack a small carry-on bag (I use a backpack) with medications, some toiletry items (keeping in mind the size restrictions for flying if that applies), and a change of clothes. If you're flying, you want some essentials in case your luggage gets lost, or your flight is delayed. If you're driving to the cruise port, it's still a good idea to have this bag of essentials if you're checking your bag with a porter at the terminal.
Once you arrive at the port, you have options. I recommend using the porter service. Someone will greet you and offer to make sure your luggage gets on the ship. I do this whether or not my luggage (separate from my backpack which I carry on the ship) is carry on size or a larger suitcase. This way I don't have to carry my luggage around the ship until the stateroom is ready, very often a few hours after boarding.
Here's where the "tipping" question usually pops up. How much should you tip a porter at the cruise terminal? I've heard everything from "a few bucks" for all our bags to $10 per bag. My personal rule of thumb is $5 per bag for carry on size, $10 if they're larger. I've never heard anyone having any issues with they're luggage even if they only gave a couple bucks, but personally, I know it's a tough job and a slightly bigger tip helps them and can't have a negative impact on how my luggage is handled.
There is a small downside to checking your luggage. It can take a while for your bags to be delivered to the stateroom. Which is another reason I carry a backpack with some essentials and a change of clothes. I get the best of both worlds, having what I need without dragging a suitcase around the ship.
However there are some asterisks to this point. Guests staying in suites normally don't have to wait as long for their stateroom to be available, and in my non-scientific observation, get their luggage quicker than those staying in non-suite staterooms. Some cruise lines, offer an upgraded embarkation experience. For example, Royal Caribbean has The Key, and Carnival has Faster to the Fun.
At some point during your cruise the foreshadowing of upcoming reality begins. Letters to your stateroom and announcements begin mentioning your options for final disembarkation, otherwise known as "your cruise is over." Cue the sad music.
Assuming you're not doing "back to back" cruises on the same ship, you'll have two options. First, and the one the cruise line pushes (for logistics reasons, I think), you'll be asked to choose a disembarkation time, assigned a luggage tag color, and instructed to place luggage outside your stateroom the last night of your cruise. The second option -- and the one I recommend for most people -- is carry your bags off the ship yourself, AKA self assist.
With option one, the main benefit is not having to carry your bags off the ship. Another benefit is (usually) a porter will take you and your bags to customs. Unless you're on a long cruise that allows multiple bags or have health or logistic issues that make self-assist difficult, the negatives of placing your bags outside outweigh the benefits.
For me, the most frustrating thing about packing before dinner and putting my luggage outside the stateroom is not being able to pack the clothes I'm wearing or my toiletry items in my main suitcase. I could put these items in my backpack, but the items I'm packing may not meet the "carry on requirements" (things like soap, shampoo, and other liquids) or there may not be room because it's filled with things that don't fit in my main suitcase. And what happens if I spill something and need a change of clothes after everything is packed and my bag gone?
If that isn't a compelling enough argument to convince you self-assist is the way to go, there's the matter of finding your luggage in a huge room among thousands of other bags that somehow all seem to look the same. I thought purchasing a glow in the dark orange suitcase would make it stand out but as it turns out, other people had the same idea.
Now for my choice, self-assist. In my opinion there is a lot to like about this option. I can pack later on the last day (which gives me the illusion of delaying the end of the cruise) and I can pack all my clothes and personal items. Those are reason enough for me to choose and recommend self-assist, but there is one even more compelling than that, especially if you have an early flight to catch. People who choose self assist can get off the ship first -- or when they want.
What do I mean by that? I generally don't schedule flights in the morning because I don't like the stress of rushing to the airport. I still choose self-assist because, in addition to the reasons above, I like having the option to wait as long as possible to get off the ship.
What you decide to do with your bags on embarkation and debarkation days is a personal choice but hopefully these luggage tips have given you all the information you need to make an informed decision.
About the Author
Joel is a co-owner of JJ Travel Associates (a Dream Vacations franchise), blogger-in-chief at JoelKnowsTravel.com, lover of all things travel (especially UNESCO World Heritage Sites), wannabe comedian, and the person you should call if you're thinking of planning a vacation.