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What You Need to Know When You Leave a Cruise Ship

Cruising should be an adventure, but keep this in mind so you’re not left behind when you disembark at ports of call


spinner image Passengers leaving the cruise ship AZURA
Many passengers will leave the cruise ship when it docks at a port of call. But can the ship leave without you?
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The allure of the open seas is hard to ignore. More than 31 million people set off on cruise adventures in 2023, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. The association notes 48 percent of cruise travelers over the past two years are boomers or Generation X. Cruises are popular for the onboard amenities, such as spas, shows and specialty restaurants, and the stops at ports of call. Unpack once and see multiple destinations in one vacation, but be prepared when you disembark, if only to make sure you return before the ship sails away from the cruise port.

In March, eight passengers were stranded on the African island of São Tomé when they were late to return to the Norwegian Dawn after an excursion that wasn’t organized by the ship. They traveled through many countries to make it to the next port. For new-to-cruise travelers, and as a refresher for those who’ve cruised before, here’s what to know when you’re going ashore.

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Passengers should carry travel essentials and dress in layers when leaving the ship at a port of call.
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When you’re ready to leave the ship

When your ship docks, venture out on your own or as part of an organized shore excursion. You can book the outing through the cruise line’s website, mobile app or excursions desk on the ship. You can book activities separate from the cruise line through a third-party operator.

Some ports of call may not be accessible for passengers with mobility challenges, so do your research before you book a cruise. Most cruise lines require guests who have special needs to provide details at booking, so the access teams are in the know about anything passengers may need, including wheelchairs, scooter rentals and recommendations for excursions. Crystal Cruises has an Onboard Guest Services department to talk about options at the time of booking. 

The cruise line will tell you the “all aboard” time, which is when you need to be back on the ship at the end of the day. Ships take this time very seriously. Expect to see the all aboard time posted on the ship’s mobile app, near the disembarkation gangway and on monitors across the vessel, says Doug Parker, host of Cruise Radio, a podcast for cruisers.

When you disembark, bring the essentials: cruise card (what you use to swipe off and swipe back on the ship), any prescription medications and a fully charged cellphone. Parker says it’s a good idea to have cash in the local currency.

You likely won’t need your passport, so leave it in a safe in your cabin, says Susan Harsell, a travel adviser who has been on more than 20 cruises. However, “you always want to have a [photo] of your passport on your phone, just in case,” she says.

Be vigilant about safety, especially in bustling port areas where it can be easy to become distracted or separated from a group. Do some research online to familiarize yourself with local scams, such as “free” bracelets, which are not free and can lead to aggressive demands for payment.

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Stay aware of your surroundings in any cruise port. Harsell tucks her belongings into a cross-body bag, which she hides with a scarf to help deter pickpockets. This way, Harsell notes, “you have all of your belongings very close to your body.”

If you book a shore excursion

Cruise lines offer a variety of shore excursions, from snorkeling trips to guided bus tours. In some cases, booking activities through the cruise line may come at a higher cost, but the upside is that “110 percent, [the ship is] going to wait for you,” Parker says. “You can’t really put a value on the ship waiting for you.”

​Most lines spell out in their FAQs that if you book an excursion through them, and it’s delayed, the ship will wait. Some third-party operators offer a guaranteed return-to-ship policy. If you miss your ship, they will arrange and pay for your return to the vessel, even if it’s at the next port of call.

If you’re on a private tour booked outside the cruise line and think you may not return in time, Parker says to speak up for yourself — even if that means abruptly ending the tour and having to take a taxi to make it back to the ship on time. He underscores the importance of carrying local currency, because not everyone takes credit cards.

A misconception is that excursion companies are responsible for getting travelers back on time, but they are not, says Dan Skilken, president of the online resource TripInsurance.com. Skilken advises cruise passengers to set an alarm on their watch or phone as a reminder they will miss the ship unless they return by a certain time.

spinner image cruise passengers look at cruise ship in the distance
Cruise ships are on a strict timetable and may leave for the next destination if you don’t make it back on time.​
Alamy Stock Photo

If you get left behind

If the all aboard time has come and gone, and you’re not back, you may be in for an unexpected adventure. As in, you will be left behind. It’s not personal, but the ship has a strict timetable to reach the next port.

Harsell says if your ship sails away without you, go directly to the port agent. The ship’s crew will enter your stateroom and remove essential items, including passports, and will leave your belongings with port staff when possible. Royal Caribbean suggests keeping such items in an easy-to-find place, such as the safe, which can make them easier for crew members to locate. Officials can help you reconnect with your ship and arrange a hotel for the night. You will be responsible for the cost of your food, accommodations and travel to meet the ship. 

Many travelers wonder whether cruise insurance will cover costs incurred from missing the ship because of a late return from a shore excursion. The short answer is no, though you’ll want to discuss this with your insurance provider, Skilken says. Cruise insurance typically covers travel delays and trip interruption coverage due to bad weather, airline delays, theft of travel documents and ship breakdowns, he says.

Insurance can be purchased through the cruise line or a third-party vendor. It’s a prudent purchase if only for the medical care benefits, since Medicare will not cover travelers outside the United States, whether they’re in a port or on a ship. A Medicare Advantage plan may pay for some medical care overseas, but cruise insurance will fully cover emergency care.

“Typically, [Medicare] Advantage plans will cover you for emergency medical services, [but not] for a hospital stay. They will not cover you for a medical evac[uation],” Skilken says.

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