Next to taking a plane to catch a cruise, we find check-in at the dock the least pleasant part of the vacation.
After all, when you're tired from your predawn flight, hungry (from your flight at any hour) and anxious to begin your vacation, the last thing you want is an endless line standing between you and your cabin.
Besides, most cruise line terminals are barely more than airplane hangars with seating. We've often waited an hour or two before receiving our boarding passes.
Often the best parts of standing in line are the gripes and quips of soon-to-be fellow passengers. "How much farther to the buffet?" someone once grumbled. "If the line moves this fast onboard, I won't have to worry about Weight Watchers," another retorted.
Well, a number of cruise lines are finally finding better ways to board. Which is a good thing, considering that many ships today carry more than 2,000 passengers.
Turning to the Internet appears a favorite remedy. Online check-in sure beats checking in on line. For instance, Holland America collects your personal information, such as credit card data, immigration details, passport numbers and birth dates, etc., on the line's Web site. Once you complete the online forms, you're issued a Signature Preferred Boarding Pass, which allows you to bypass the interminable lines and proceed directly to a special queue at the pier.
There your information is verified, identification is checked and you're photographed for ship security.
Carnival Cruise Lines, too, has what we call "Web side" check-in. The line's electronic cruise documents are available to you anytime after your final payment is made. (If you prefer, however, you can opt to have traditional paper documents mailed to you or your travel agent approximately 30 days before the cruise.)
Once you complete the online forms, you will be able to print your boarding passes and luggage tags by simply entering your booking number, last name, and ship and sailing date. You also can check your itineraries and explore your shore excursion options. And, if you've booked your flight through Carnival, you'll have access to your air reservation information.
Of course, many lines utilize their Web sites to facilitate boarding and to reduce the paperwork required dockside, including Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Crystal, Disney Cruise Lines and the lion's share of luxury lines.
Some cruises lines do an exceptional job of walking you through all aspects of your cruise prior to boarding to reduce the anxiety of travel and to eliminate the shock of discovering dockside that you've forgotten some critical papers. Preboarding documentation takes you step-by-step through the ins and outs of your coming cruise, including a "Things to Know Before You Go" section from Carnival that's jampacked with helpful information on dining, tipping, attire and shore-excursion descriptions.