Now my experience will be with Princess mainly and I can a little Carnival experience.
Of course this depends on where you are boarding, but if you are boarding in any American port it is pretty standard, and if it is Fort Lauderdale, well they have it down pat!
Time to arrive at the port: now the cruise line says not to arrive before 1 pm, and well sure you could, but really a lot of people arrive very early, so early that the people haven't gotten off the ship from the previous sailing. Now one tip is go to the pier, drop off your bags with the porters then head off and do a few of things in the city and return back when things are not so crazy at the pier.
There are numerous ways to get to the ship, and again this depends on what port you are sailing from, but if you are in Fort Lauderdale, many hotels offer free shuttles, taxis are a very low cost way too, and if you wish the ship also offers transfers. Talk to your travel agent to see what they recommend.
We personally arrive normally around noon, normally by taxi or by rental car. Princess does allow those who are at Platinum or above with the Captain Circle membership priority embarkation, which sometimes helps and sometimes doesn't. Normally if you have priority embarkation, all people in your party can also come with you to the priority line.
You arrive at the port and the first step is going thru security, very similar to the airport security but not as intensive. Somehow though you still find people who have not idea that yes when they say "do you have any coins or metal in your pocket" that does mean do you have any metal in your pocket. Somehow we seem to always get a good laugh at the people in front of us who have no idea what to do in security line.
Would like to add that Princess allows you to bring your own wine/champagne on board. Check out Princess' new wine policy and what you can expect with bringing wine on board here. We normally bring on quite a few bottles of both, and we also bring on some soda as well.
Next you are usually given a medical form that every passenger must fill out. This is the form to see if you are carrying any intestinal virus symptoms. It is important that you fill out this form honestly, you don't want to be the reason a ship ends up on a high level alert.
The next line is for your cruise cards and paperwork. Now with Princess the areas are divided by decks and there is a special area for suites and for Elite/Platinum passengers. Again sometimes we go to the Elite line but often our deck queue is shorter so we go there. You will be asked for your passports, a credit card to charge your onboard charges to, you will have to give them your completed boarding pass (that you fill out on line before you sail). You will then be given your cruise card. This is your card that will work as your key for your cabin, and it is also the card that you will charge everything to. Most ships don't take cash in any of the venues except the casino. When you want to buy something in the stores, you show your card and they charge it to your account, same goes for beverages, tours, flowers, etc.
Once you have gotten thru all the above lines and if the ship is ready to board, you head up the gangway, oh but I forgot, you need to get your embarkation photo taken with a lovely background. Smile and let them take the shot, you don't have to purchase this picture if you don't want to but hey they are just doing their job. Okay so now you are heading up the gangway where you will come up to the ship's security. You will have to enter your key card into a box and have your picture taken for security -- this picture identifies you as a passenger in the system and every time you go on or off the ship you enter your card and listen to the "bing".
You are on! Now time to find your cabin, if you need assistance just ask one of the many crew that are around. But if you can make out the thing they call a ship map and can find your own cabin then go for it. One nice thing is with Princess cabins are available as soon as you board, so we always head to the cabin and do the "we are on another cruise dance". We unpack our carry on bag --- always bring a few items in your carry on, like things you may need for the next six hours, because it is hard to gage when you will get your luggage.
Approximately and hour prior to sailing there will be a muster drill -- no it isn't called a mustard drill, it is called muster drill. There will be announcements prior on when it will be and usually is announced by some bells and on the p.a. for everyone to head to their muster station. With Princess you have to go back to your cabin and get your life jackets (some others don't require this) then you head to your designated location. Here you sit and listen to what to do in the event of an emergency and then you get to try on the lifejacket, yup time to whip out the camera and take a picture. I've been warned not to put up this picture of us in our lifejacket.
Now the fun begins, you return to your cabin and drop off the lifejacket then head up to the open deck for sailaway. Normally there is live music and well we need our traditional drink. For me it is melon margarita and for Bernie it is a Salty Dog. We toast another great trip.
If you are sailing from Fort Lauderdale, make sure to wave to the condos that are on the north side of the causeway as they will send the ship off in style. Also wave to the people on the beach.
And next step head back to the cabin and unpack your suitcase.
Have your cruise card ready and enjoy your voyage.