After a blissful, pampered cruise vacation, disembarkation typically brings guests back to reality with a thud. The whole process of getting off the ship on the final day of your cruise can be confusing and frustrating. Early-morning announcements, long lines and crowded public areas can often put you in a foul mood…and that's before you've even left the ship to deal with the harsh world outside.
Happily, the cruise lines have been working on ways to streamline disembarkation. And knowing what to expect can make the process less mystifying and stressful.
Here's a preview of what you'll encounter:
On your final day at sea, the cruise director usually holds a briefing. It's a good idea to attend, but as it's not the most entertaining way to spend your last sea day, check to see if the session will be shown later on your in-cabin TV. It usually is. In addition, the most pertinent disembarkation information will be included in the ship's daily newsletter or in a separate memo left in your cabin. If you think you'll have questions, send one member of your family or group of pals to the talk -- it'll be easier to ask the cruise director a question then than to wait in the long line at the purser's desk later on.
Cruise lines have individual policies when it comes to tipping, and you should know your line's rules before you embark so you'll be prepared on the final night. More and more, cruise lines automatically add crew tips to your shipboard account. With most of these lines, you can adjust the amounts, and you can always give extra cash tips separately. Some lines, such as P&O Cruises and Royal Caribbean, still do things the old-fashioned way, which means you'll get envelopes the last night of your cruise that you are expected to stuff with cash and hand around; however, Royal Caribbean passengers can opt to prepay gratuities or have them added to their shipboard accounts while onboard, and P&O passengers who choose Freedom Dining automatically have dining tips charged to their onboard accounts. Several luxury lines have no-tipping policies or include gratuities in the cruise fare, and many travel agencies -- especially in the U.K. and Europe -- will take care of your gratuities as an extra perk. If you'd like to recognize a crew member's outstanding service on one of these ships, consider leaving a small gift.
On the final night of the cruise, a printed tally of your onboard account will be delivered to your cabin. If you're paying with a credit card, all you have to do is make sure that all the charges on the bill are correct. If there's a mistake, you have to get in line at the purser's office. Be aware -- these lines can be long. If you're settling up with cash or traveler's checks, ship personnel will tell you when and where to close out your account. You can get your account information at any time during your cruise by stopping by the purser's desk -- we suggest you check your account midway through the cruise to keep track of your spending. Some lines have nifty technology that lets you check your account on your in-cabin interactive TV, as well.
In most cases, you have to have your bags packed, tagged (with color-coded tags the ship will provide) and available for pickup sometime during the night before you disembark. You put your luggage outside your cabin, it is picked up and carried off the ship by the crew, and you reclaim it at the cruise terminal. This procedure has its inconveniences. You have to remember to leave out everything you will need on disembarkation day, including the clothes you want to wear home. And, anything you don't put in the checked bags such as nightclothes, toiletries, and so on, has to fit in your carry-on. Although most people report no problems, there is the opportunity for theft, so you might want to put TSA locks or cable-ties on your bags to secure your belongings. It's always wise to carry valuables with you.
If you're able-bodied and a light packer, opt for "self debarkation," which more and more cruise lines are offering. You'll keep your luggage with you and disembark at your convenience, but you will have to carry your own bags. If you're taking advantage of a cruise's luggage shipping program, you may have to claim your bags at Customs and personally deliver them to the representative. Check with the valet company handling your luggage as to debarkation procedures.
Getting Off the Ship
On most ships, you'll know it's disembarkation day because the public address systems will start bellowing the news rather early in the morning. But, don't hurry. The ship has to be cleared by Customs and port authorities before you can actually leave. If you have a particularly early flight home, alert the purser's office at least a day in advance, and they will give you priority disembarkation, as designated by the color-coded tags on your luggage.
If you have a later flight, kick back and enjoy another cup of coffee. This is not a process that goes particularly fast. Remember, you aren't allowed to get off earlier than the time designated by your luggage tags (to avoid crowding at the gangway, which could cause delays for travelers who must debark early), but you can get off later (unless you have a scheduled transfer from the cruise pier that you'd be in danger of missing). While some lines let you stay in your cabins until it's time to leave, others request those with later debark times to vacate staterooms by 9 a.m. so the cabin stewards can clean up for the next guests.
Customs and Immigration
When your cruise ship arrives at its debarkation port, local immigration officials need to clear the ship before anyone can disembark. Ships that terminate in U.S. ports may require passengers to fill out customs forms and show their passports to immigration officials in the cruise terminal. Some guests may be required to meet with immigration officials onboard prior to getting off the ship. Because rules change, based on the country of the debarkation port and the nationality of the passenger, it's best to follow all instructions given onboard about debark day.
Also, if you've purchased souvenirs on your cruise, be sure to check your home country's allowances for goods, such as alcohol and cigars, brought back from abroad. Keep all receipts because you may be asked to report the value of all goods purchased abroad; if you go over the limits, you may have to pay taxes on some of your items.
Something to remember if your cruise ends in a foreign country: Some countries, such as Costa Rica and Argentina, levy a departure tax on everyone leaving from the airport. These taxes are often payable in cash only. Make sure you read up on departure procedures so you have the correct payment upon arrival at the airport.