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

What to Expect on a Cruise: Getting Off the Ship

What to Expect on a Cruise: Getting Off the Ship
What to Expect on a Cruise: Getting Off the Ship (Photo: Cruise Critic)
Cruise Critic
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Is ending a cruise vacation like checking out of a hotel?

Not at all. The process of getting off a cruise ship, known as debarkation or disembarkation, is unlike checking out of a hotel; you cannot simply leave your cruise ship at any time on the day of departure. However, like at a hotel, you will need to settle up financial matters on the last evening or first thing the next morning. Actually, getting off the ship is more complicated, as you must follow a set of sometimes byzantine procedures. Because cruise ships are both accommodation and transportation, you might also need to clear customs after international travel.

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

On your final day at sea, the cruise director usually holds a briefing in the main theater or other large lounge. It's a good idea to attend, but 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. 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 front desk later on. 

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

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. You can get your account information at any time by stopping by the front desk. We suggest you check your account at least once midway through the cruise to keep track of your spending. Some lines have technology that lets you check your account on your in-cabin interactive TV or even through a mobile app.

When can I leave the ship on the last morning?

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 front desk 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 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 up for the next passengers. 

Once your group is called, you will proceed with any carry-on luggage to the designated lower deck where the gangway is. You will need to show your cruise card one final time; once you step off the ship, you can keep it as a souvenir.

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 areas 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 when the various dining venues are open for breakfast, usually on an earlier schedule or with shortened hours. The gym and pools will be closed, but lounges will be open 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 time 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 ship?

You have two options for getting your bags off the ship. If you want crewmembers to carry your suitcases off the ship for you, you will need to have your bags packed, tagged (with color-coded tags the ship will provide on the last day aboard) and set outside your cabin door at a specified time the night before you disembark. Usually, the deadline is sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight. Crewmembers will pick up your luggage, carry it off the ship in the morning and place the bags in sections, according to tag colors, at the cruise terminal for you to reclaim. Before the deadline, ship's staff will return any confiscated items (such as alcohol purchased in port) to your cabin for you to pack.

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

Note: 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 shipping representative. Check with the valet company handling your luggage as to disembarkation procedures.

The second option is "self disembarkation," which more and more cruise lines are offering, so long as you are able-bodied. With this option, you'll keep your luggage with you and leave the ship at any time during the disembarkation process, but you will have to carry your own bags. 

How long does it take to get off the cruise ship?

To disembark all passengers from a cruise ship takes a few hours. From the time your group is called, you can be off the ship in 15 minutes. What takes the most time is getting down to the appropriate deck with all of your bags, since the elevators are always crowded on the final morning, and then waiting in line to show your cruise card one last time as you exit the ship. Occasionally, an issue with clearing the ship delays passenger disembarkation and can create lines. It's why you should never book a flight too early on disembarkation day.

Do I need to tip crewmembers before I get off the ship?

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?

Many cruise ships have Internet centers where you can pay to check in for your flight and print boarding passes. Something to remember if your cruise ends in a foreign country: 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 fare. 

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 immigration officials in the cruise terminal. Some passengers might be required to meet with immigration officials onboard 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 outfits onsite, you can arrange for some rental car agencies to send a van to take you to their office. Some cruise ports are on public transit lines, but check before you choose this option that the stop or station isn't prohibitively far when you're dragging a lot of luggage.

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

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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 January 08, 2020

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