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how soon can you board a carnival cruise from Fort Lauderdale?

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We're leaving Saturday on the Carnival Freedom out of Fort Lauderdale. My sister-in-law just got an email not only saying that boarding starts at 1:30, but also absolutely not to arrive until then. My family has sailed on Royal Caribbean our last 5 cruises and never once have they made people wait until the appointed time to embark - we could always get on at least 2 hours early...and we never received an email pointedly telling us not to arrive early.

Does anyone have experience with Carnival from Fort Lauderdale or otherwise? We still want to arrive early, unless they would actually make us wait with mobs of people until 1:30.

Another question...my mother and father in-law have VIP boarding starting at noon. Does anyone know if family members (non-VIP) can board with them in case they need help with carry-ons?

Thanks!

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