Cruise ships go into dry dock for routine maintenance and upgrades. Dry docks also happen when unexpected repairs are needed, either mechanical or structural. The term “dry dock” comes from the process of parking the ship in a dock designed to have the water drained from it with the ship supported on braces, so the entire hull of the ship is exposed for inspection and maintenance.
Dry dock time allows the ship’s crew to replace things like carpets, bedding and upholstery, but the ship may also undergo major changes -- from attractions on the top deck to dining venues or staterooms. Behind-the-scenes improvements like changes to kitchen equipment or more fuel-efficient engines and generators may also be on the agenda.
Cruising right before or after a dry dock can mean noticeable changes taking place onboard the ship’s last sailing pre-dry dock or its first cruise post-dry dock. Cruise Critic put together a list of frequently asked dry dock questions so you'll know what to expect.
Cruise lines typically plan routine dry docks far in advance and schedule itineraries around those breaks. Unfortunately, cruise lines sometimes change their schedules for dry docks. Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas is a good example. Guests booked for a holiday sailing on December 24, 2024, have been notified that dry dock has altered the ship’s schedule.
If your cruise is canceled for a dry dock scheduling change, cruise lines will offer you options of other sailings, refunds, or future cruise credit. Royal Caribbean offered affected guests from Freedom of the Seas three options for alternative cruises or refunds, including extra money for pre-booked air or hotel cancellation charges.
Before a cruise ship goes into dry dock, passengers may see extra activity onboard, especially if it’s a scheduled dry dock with lots of interior changes taking place in guest spaces. The chief complaint of passengers right before a dry dock is that the ship usually looks like it needs refurbishing. Furnishings and carpets may look worn and dated. Venues and attractions found on other ships may be lacking.
Sometimes a cruise line will bring extra workers onto the last sailing before dry dock, and passengers might see certain areas closed off to accommodate the prework. There may be more painting than usual and possibly even power tools in use at times. We’ve been on ships where dining room carpets were rolled up on the last evening as guests finished dining.
It's not uncommon for furnishings to seem sparse throughout the ship as pieces are gathered below decks to speed along flooring changes or to begin re-upholstery work. The closer you get to the end of your sailing, the more likely you are to notice work being done, but in most cases, it should not interfere with your cruise.
That said, travelers looking for a seamless cruise vacation may want to closely consider before booking a cruise that's right before a scheduled dry dock.
If the ship is going into a short-notice dry dock to fix a problem (such as a propulsion issue), then your cruise might be affected by the ongoing issue; for example, if the ship can't sail at top speed, your itinerary might be altered to accommodate that.
Occasionally, cruise lines will offer some form of compensation for the inconvenience. Carnival and Holland America are both known for offering guests $50 of onboard credit in such cases. In 2019, Carnival canceled two weeks of cruises and brought the world’s largest floating dry dock from Europe to the Caribbean to repair propulsion problems on Carnival Vista.
In 2022, MSC Seaside was forced to do an unexpected dry dock for engine repairs, shortening one cruise and canceling another. Guests were compensated for the shorter sailing, and guests on the canceled cruise were offered alternatives.
One of the most unexpected dry docks on record occurred in January 2023 when Cunard’s Queen Victoria went into dry dock for engine repairs while guests were still onboard. One port of call was dropped due to the repair time and guests were only allowed to leave port via shuttle buses. Other than that, the cruise ran as scheduled.
Dry dock work should be finished before your cruise starts. Cruise lines and shipyards work together to come up with a dry dock schedule that should leave enough time for all repairs and upgrades to be made before the ship goes back into service. However, unexpected snags can cause delays, which could lead to work continuing after passengers are scheduled to embark.
This can affect you in several ways. Contractors might still be onboard while you cruise, meaning construction will be taking place in some passenger areas of the ships. You might hear construction noise or see materials and tools piled up. Certain attractions, restaurants or other public spaces might be closed for a time. You could encounter heating or plumbing problems or cabins that aren't quite finished.
In rare instances, your cruise might be shortened or canceled so work can be finished. If this happens, your cruise line should give you a full refund, plus added compensation (such as reimbursement for airline change fees, help in finding hotels if you are already in your embarkation city and possibly a discount on a future cruise).
The cruise may not cancel entirely, but some passengers might need to be bumped so contractors can stay onboard in those cabins. Should you get bumped, you should expect similar compensation to a cruise that's canceled outright.
You should not expect service issues on a cruise after a dry dock. In most cases, the crew doesn’t all change during the layover, so you generally won’t have an entirely new crew. Your only issue might be training on new menus or procedures for new equipment.
For example, if new technology is introduced for taking restaurant orders, there could be slowdowns or wrong dishes delivered until the crew members become more comfortable with the change.
There have certainly been cases of cruise ships experiencing technical and mechanical problems after dry dock (such as a propulsion problem with Celebrity Constellation after a 2017 dry dock). More recently, Disney Magic guests sailing in May 2023, following the ship’s extensive dry dock, complained of air conditioner and elevator problems, both of which had been replaced during dry dock.
It's not always clear, however, whether these types of problems are an aftereffect of the dry dock or coincidental.
Many people have an amazing vacation on the first cruise post-dry dock; others encounter unexpected cancellations and ongoing repair work. If you don't want to take any chances, we recommend not booking a cruise for at least a month post-dry dock. This should accommodate you in the unlikely event that both the dry dock runs long and is still unfinished when the first passengers embark.
Cruise Critic keeps a list of all the upcoming cruise ship refurbishments confirmed by the cruise lines. Our readers discuss future dry docks and ship makeovers on our message boards. In addition, you can look for gaps in a cruise ship's sailing schedule and reach out to the line; sometimes, this indicates a dry dock, but it could also be a full charter of the vessel.