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What to Expect on a Cruise: How to Disembark the Ship
What to Expect on a Cruise: Getting Off the Ship (Photo: Cruise Critic)

What to Expect on a Cruise: How to Disembark the Ship

What to Expect on a Cruise: How to Disembark the Ship
What to Expect on a Cruise: Getting Off the Ship (Photo: Cruise Critic)
Cruise Critic
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The 24 hours before you disembark your cruise -- the point at which you get off the ship -- comes with a flurry of instructions. That includes everything from assigning you a time to leave the ship to breakfast options on disembarkation day and luggage rules. For the staff and crew, disembarkation begins their turn-around day between one cruise and the next, making it one of their most difficult work days. That makes following disembarkation instructions even more important. If you start with a basic understanding of how disembarkation proceeds on cruise ships, those last-minute instructions will make more sense to your vacation-mode brain. Here's what to expect when you disembark your cruise ship.

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What does disembark mean?

Disembark means getting off of an airplane, bus, train or almost any other vehicle or vessel. Therefore, to disembark your cruise means getting off of the ship at your final destination. Think of it like this: When your cruise begins, you are embarking on your journey. When the cruise is ending, you disembark. Disembarkation day is the day on which you disembark the ship. You may also hear the word debark used.

Is disembarkation like checking out of a hotel?

The disembarkation process is not like checking out of a hotel. Getting off the ship is more complicated, as you must follow a set of sometimes byzantine procedures. You cannot simply leave your cruise ship at any time on disembarkation day. However, like at a hotel, you will need to settle up financial matters on the last evening or first thing the next morning (more about that below).

How do I find out about the disembarkation procedures on my cruise ship?

The disembarkation briefing, usually held on your final day at sea by the cruise director in the main theater or other large lounge is a good starting point. It's not the most entertaining way to spend your last sea day, so check to see if the session will be shown later on your in-cabin TV. 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 group to the talk. It'll be easier to ask the cruise director a question in the briefing than to wait in the long line at the front desk later on.

How do I finalize payments for things I've bought onboard my cruise?

Prior to disembarkation (usually 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 reception desk to contest the charges. Be aware that 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.

If you don't want any surprises on the last night of your vacation, you can check your onboard bill throughout your cruise at guest services (or, in some cases, on the cruise line's app or interactive TV). We suggest checking your account at least once midway through the cruise to keep track of your spending.

What time do I disembark a cruise ship on the last morning?

Disembarkation is a carefully choreographed procedure. Even though the ship usually arrives in its final port before dawn, it will be hours before you get off. The ship first must be cleared by Customs and port authorities before anyone can disembark.

Everyone is assigned a specific time to leave and usually even a specific place to wait on the final morning prior to departing the ship. Your time is assigned according to your flight times (which you provide a few days prior to disembarkation day), stateroom category, and even loyalty status. NCL offers priority disembarkation as part of an add-on bundle that includes priority embarkation and other perks. On large ships, your assigned disembarkation time is even color-coded and coordinated with your luggage tags.

You aren't allowed to get off earlier than the time designated to you in order to avoid crowding at the gangway (the ramp leading off the ship), which could cause delays for travelers who must disembark early. You can, however, 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 that those with later disembark times vacate staterooms by a specific time (often around 9 a.m.) so the cabin stewards can clean for the next passengers.

Once your departure group is called, you will proceed with any carry-on luggage to the designated lower deck. You will need to show your cruise card one final time before crossing the gangway.

Can I use cruise ship facilities on the last morning of my cruise?

On the last morning of your cruise, most of the ship's public facilities will be closed for cleaning and preparation for the next set of passengers, who will be coming aboard later the same day. Your daily newsletter will outline which restaurants are open for breakfast. Breakfast hours on disembarkation day will usually be earlier and shorter.

The gym, pools, spas and bars will be closed, but lounges will be available for people to wait with their bags once they've left their cabins. Cruise ship shops will also be closed, but some lines keep their photo galleries open for last-minute purchases and pickups. You will not be able to purchase additional internet access after a certain time on your last evening aboard, but you can usually use pre-purchased minutes until you leave the ship.

How do I get my luggage off the cruise ship?

If you want crewmembers to shepherd your luggage when you disembark, you will need to have your bags packed, tagged with color-coded tags provided by the ship, and set outside your cabin door at a specified time the night before disembarkation. Usually, the deadline is sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight.

Crewmembers will pick up your luggage during the night, hold it in storage until the ship is docked, then carry it off the ship in the morning. It will then be placed in sections in the terminal, according to tag colors. Once you reclaim your bags in the terminal, you usually must transport them through Customs before you leave the cruise terminal. Porters will be available to assist during this process.

This procedure has its inconveniences. You have to remember to leave out everything you will need on your final morning, including travel documents, passports, and the clothes you want to wear home. Anything you don't put in the checked bags -- nightclothes, toiletries, and so on -- must 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 keep valuables and important medications with you.

Note: If you're taking advantage of a luggage shipping program, you may have to claim your bags at Customs and personally deliver them to the shipping representative. Check with the valet company handling your luggage as to specific disembarkation procedures.

What is self disembarkation?

NCL calls self disembarkation “self-assist,” referring to the option of skipping the luggage-outside-the-door system and self transporting your own luggage off the ship. Royal Caribbean also allows self disembarkation, as do Celebrity, Carnival, and Princess. Most other lines allow it if arranged in advance.

This lets you depart the cruise ship when you're ready and save time at the terminal by skipping luggage collection. The disadvantage is that you are left managing bulky suitcases in and out of crowded elevators. Self disembarkation, regardless of the cruise line, works best on smaller ships and short itineraries. Those who might opt for this method are those with easily managed luggage, early flights, no flights, or who simply prefer to keep their luggage on the last night of the cruise.

How long does it take to disembark a cruise ship?

Disembarking all passengers from a cruise ship takes a few hours, depending on the cruise ship's size. From the time your color-coded departure group is called, you can be off the ship in 15 minutes. What often takes the most time is getting down to the appropriate deck with your carry-on bags (or all of your bags if you opted for self disembarkation), since the elevators are always crowded on the final morning. Occasionally, an issue with clearing the ship delays passenger disembarkation and can create lines. That's why you should never book a flight too early on disembarkation day.

Do I need to tip crew members before I disembark?

Cruise lines have individual policies when it comes to tipping, and you should familiarize yourself with those policies before you start your trip. Most lines will automatically add tips to your final shipboard bill; some (like luxury lines, whose gratuities are included in the cruise fare) require no tipping. In many cases, you'll have the option to prepay gratuities before your trip. You are welcome to give additional tips for outstanding service at any time during your cruise. For more on cruise ship tipping procedures, read What to Expect on a Cruise: Tipping Crewmembers on a Cruise.

How can I prepare for my flight home?

For starters: Do not schedule your flight home right after your estimated cruise disembarkation time. You should always budget several hours to both disembark the ship, reach the airport and deal with checking in, checking luggage for your flight, and clearing security. Many cruise ships have internet centers where you can pay to check in for your flight and print boarding passes. Note that some countries, such as Costa Rica, 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 and check with your airline in advance to find out whether or not the tax is factored into the airfare.

What is disembarkment syndrome?

Disembarkment syndrome is a type of motion sickness that results from changing between the constant steady movement of a cruise ship (or train) to a non-moving land mass. It is not the sadness one feels on the last night of a cruise, as some cruisers joke. Think of disembarkment syndrome like this: You hear people talking about getting their sea legs during the first days of a cruise. Disembarkment syndrome, also known as mal de debarquement, is the opposite, essentially getting your land legs back. You can also read more about disembarkment syndrome.

Do I need to go through Customs and immigration at the cruise port?

When your cruise ship arrives at its disembarkation 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 border control in the cruise terminal. Some passengers might be required to meet with immigration officials on board prior to getting off the ship. Because rules change based on the country of the disembarkation port and the nationality of the passengers, it's best to follow all instructions given onboard.

Also, if you've purchased souvenirs on your cruise, be sure to check your home country's allowances for goods like alcohol, cigarettes and cigars brought back from abroad. Keep all receipts because you could be asked to report the value of all goods purchased abroad; if you go over the limits, you face taxes on some of your items.

Will there be transportation options from the cruise terminal?

Yes, taxis are always available at ports of disembarkation to take travelers to the airport, post-cruise hotels or area attractions. You can book bus transfers via your cruise line, either before your trip or onboard, that will either take you directly to the airport or combine a city tour with an airport transfer. Buses will be parked just outside the terminal, and port staff can direct you to the correct one.

Private transfers or tour guides can also pick up passengers at the terminal. While most cruise ports do not have rental car agencies onsite, you can arrange for some rental car agencies to send a van to take you to their office. Occasionally cruise ports are on public transit lines, but check before you choose this option to make sure you won't be hauling heavy luggage farther than expected.

How can I find out more about getting on or off the ship?

You might like the following articles:

What Not to Do at Cruise Ship Disembarkation

Can I Use Global Entry at Cruise Ports?

Cruise Line Tipping Policies

An Insider's Guide to Cruise Tipping

What to Expect on a Cruise: Tipping Crewmembers on a Cruise

What to Expect on a Cruise: Boarding a Cruise Ship

The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.

Updated March 25, 2022

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