The lead-up to the last day of your cruise can induce a mix of emotions. Although you are sad because you are nearing the end of your vacation, it’s tempered by the excitement of embarking on your journey home and seeing friends and family.
However, there’s also a bit of stress, especially for first-timers. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss your assigned disembarkation slot, would you? Or worse than that, miss your flight home! So, the burning question is, how long does it take to disembark a cruise ship?
Well, fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience in this area. I’ve been cruising since the early 1990s and you would think someone like me should be able to give you the definitive answer here, right? Well, sadly I can’t. You see there is no definitive answer as it all depends on so many factors.
Several variables come into play, including the ship’s size, the number of passengers, and the specific departure port. However, what I can say is that it is a lot better now than it used to be!
To give you an example. In June 2023 we did a cruise to the Norwegian Fjords on Carnival Cruise Line from Dover, United Kingdom. When we arrived back in Dover, It took us literally 8 minutes to get off the cruise ship and to the Taxi rank outside the port terminal. (P.S. Want to watch our Carnival Pride Ship Tour?)
On the flip side, jump back to a short cruise we did on Majesty of the Seas, in 2018. At the end of the cruise we disembarked in Tampa and it took over an hour and a half to walk off the ship! Both of these ships were very similar in size and had similar numbers of passengers.
So as you can see, the time it takes to leave the ship varies a lot, but, generally, you can expect the cruise disembarkation process to span anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours.
But let’s look into the process a little deeper and I’ll give you some cruise tips along that way that might speed things up.
How Cruise Ships Organize Your Disembarkation at the Cruise Terminal
Cruise ships typically organize passengers into groups based on their disembarkation times, which are determined by factors like cabin location, loyalty status, and travel arrangements.
Usually a few days into the cruise, or a couple of days before the end of your cruise, you might be asked to let the ship’s staff know if you have any specific flight arrangements. If you have an early flight, you will be allocated early debarkation times.
Similarly, if you have a late afternoon flight, you might want to organize a shore excursion, so you’ll need to let the ship know that as well. This helps pass the time – much better than sitting in a boring airport!
Top Tip: Sometimes the cost of a shore excursion can include transportation to the airport and can work out a much better deal, than just paying for a regular coach transfer. They will also look after your luggage off the ship. No need to find a left-luggage facility nearby.
Before disembarkation day, you’ll receive detailed instructions about when and where to meet for your assigned group. Depending on your cruise line the groups might be numbers, letters or colors.
Usually, you will be given luggage tags that match your assigned group. These are usually left in your stateroom by your cabin steward on the last full day of the cruise.
You will be told to pack your cases and place them outside your stateroom on the last evening of the cruise – usually sometime after 5 pm and before midnight. The crew then collects the cases during the night and organizes them into groups, ready to be taken off the ship in the morning.
Most importantly – this is not your “carry-on” luggage. This is just your main “checked” luggage.
Additionally, you do have the option to take the cases off yourself when you leave the ship. This is called “self-assist” and can be more practicable. (More on this later!)
How to Get Off A Cruise Ship With The Least Stress on Disembarkation Day
Disembarkation day can start very early in the morning, so it’s best to be prepared. As soon as the Captain indicates the ship docking process is complete, you will start to hear announcements from the cruise director saying that it is time to leave the ship. Here are some tips to help you prepare:
Pack Your Bags the Night Before
You don’t want to be scrambling to pack your belongings in the morning. Make sure everything is packed, aside from the essentials you’ll need in the morning.
Remove all your Original Cruise Luggage Tags
Ever heard of a case being taken off a ship, only for it to be taken immediately back on again? Well it happens! Especially if you don’t remove your original Cruise Luggage Tags. Make sure the only cruise tag on your case is the Departure Tag!
Do You Have Loyalty Benefits?
Are you on one of the higher tiers of your cruise loyalty program? Well if so, check if you qualify for priority disembarkation as you may be able to get off the ship quicker than you expected. In some cases, you will be able to leave once the ship is tied up and has cleared customs.
Luggage Can and Will Go Missing – Use Apple Airtags, Samsung Galaxy SmartTags, or Tile Pro tags to track your Luggage
This is actually a tip that you should implement before you go. I’ve lost luggage and had luggage delayed so many times on flights. Fortunately, I’ve never lost luggage going ON a cruise, but I have lost it coming OFF a cruise. So I now swear by these wonderful little gadgets.
I’m an Apple iPhone user so I use the Apple Airtag devices. They are a small disk-shaped device that is about the same size as a 5 cents piece, just slightly thicker. I stick one in each of my suitcase linings (modern linings usually have a zip that you can open). I also have them attached to my house and car keys as well!
These work using Bluetooth to communicate with your phone and any other phone in the area and the location is bounced back to Apple’s servers using Wi-Fi. So you can be miles away from your luggage and still know exactly where it is.
So if you ever get off the cruise and your luggage isn’t where it’s meant to be, you can quickly grab your phone and locate your luggage easily. I found my missing case in beside departure group 3’s luggage when it should have been with departure group 13.
Without that tag device, I would have assumed someone else had picked up my luggage by mistake.
Keep track of and find your items alongside friends and devices in the Find My app. Simple one-tap setup instantly connects AirTag with your iPhone or iPad. Find items nearby or even miles away with the help of hundreds of millions of Apple devices in the "Find My" network
- Best trackers on the market
- Widest tracking range of any product
- Only works with iphones
- Batteries fiddly to replace
- A bit pricey (Set of 4 is better value)
Keep track of and find your items alongside friends and devices in the Find My app. Simple one-tap setup instantly connects AirTag with your iPhone or iPad. Find items nearby or even miles away with the help of hundreds of millions of Apple devices in the "Find My" network (Pack of 4 Apple Airtags)
- Best trackers on the market
- Widest tracking range of any product
- Good Value
- Only works with iphones
- Batteries fiddly to replace
Tile Pro 1-Pack. Black. Bluetooth Tracker. Track and Locates keys, bags and more. Up to 400 ft. Range. Range can be extended with the Tile Network. Water-Resistant. Alexa compatible. Works with iPhones/iOS and Android Smartphones.
- Well established Tracking product brand
- Good range
- Works with any smartphone
- Range not as good as Apple Airtags
Follow the Instructions Carefully
The cruise line will provide instructions for disembarkation. Make sure you understand them and follow them.
Check Your Shipboard Account For Any Discrepancies Before You Disembark
Be sure to settle your cruise card / onboard account before disembarkation day. Most cruise lines now have a default express checkout service where your account is automatically settled with your credit card. But check your account regularly so that you can fix any issues quickly.
The last thing you want to do is have to join a long queue for Guest Services on the morning or your departure – especially if you have an early flight!
Keep Essential Items Handy in Your Carry-on Bags
Keep items like passports, travel documents and tickets, and any medications in your carry-on bag. Don’t put them in your main luggage!
Plan Your Post-Cruise Transportation
Whether you’re taking a taxi, shuttle, or have pre-arranged pick-up, make sure you know how you’re getting from the port to your next destination.
The Cruise Disembarkation Process Itself
It’s the last morning of your cruise and the ship is docked and the ship is cleared for passengers to leave. Unless you are an early riser, you will probably be woken by the “ding-dong” announcements in the hallway as the early groups are called to disembark the ship.
Disembarkation typically kicks off early in the morning and can span several hours. The exact time that you can disembark depends on the ship’s arrival time and how long local authorities take to clear the ship.
Most cruise ships clear passengers for debarkation between 7 and 9 a.m., depending on the ship’s arrival time. If the ship arrives later, you’ll obviously face a delay in the disembarkation process.
On our June 2023 cruise with Carnival, the disembarkation in Dover actually started at 5:30 am! Another Royal Caribbean cruise we were on was delayed due to bad weather and we didn’t arrive in port until 11:30 am.
We personally try to aim for a relaxed disembarkation, so we plan our onward travel accordingly so that we can have a later departure from the ship. I definitely don’t want to book a flight too early.
You will be able to get breakfast that morning. Usually, it is served until 8 am or 9 am depending on the ship’s arrival timings.
You will however be asked to vacate your stateroom by a particular time.Normally, it’s 8 am or 8:30 am. So you may want to vacate your stateroom first and then head for breakfast.
Several factors influence how long the disembarkation will take:-
- The ship’s size: Larger ships generally take longer to clear.
- The number of passengers: If the ship is busier than normal (Spring Break for example), more passengers translate to longer disembarkation times.
- Customs and immigration: The time required to clear customs varies based on the port and passenger count.
After your group is called, you’ll proceed to the designated departure deck and then be guided off the ship. Be prepared for long lines. Someone from the ship’s crew will swipe your cruise card as you leave. This is the ship’s final check to indicate that you have left the ship.
You will then collect your checked luggage, which is typically arranged in a separate area by group in the arrivals hall of the port.
Keep in mind that many people will be doing the same thing at the same time, so queues are inevitable.
If you need some help with your luggage porter will be on hand to assist. Remember to have some cash available to tip your porter. These are not included in your pre-paid cruise gratuities.
Tips to Expedite the Disembarkation Process – Consider Self-Assist
If you’re eager to leave the ship quickly and don’t have too much luggage or too many kids with you, I highly recommend using Self-Assist. In my experience, it can be the fastest way to get off your cruise ship. I’ve seen us off the ship in 15 minutes.
Self-Assist has the following benefits
- You don’t need to focus on having your bags packed and outside your cruise room on the last evening of the cruise.
- You are generally given much greater flexibility on exactly when you want to leave the ship.
- You will have no concerns about losing your luggage!
Other Factors That Influence Disembarkation Time
Besides the points mentioned above, other elements can affect how long it takes to disembark a cruise ship:
Ports with limited facilities may struggle to accommodate multiple large ships simultaneously, leading to disembarkation delays. Conversely, ports with ample facilities and streamlined processes can expedite disembarkation.
Customs and Immigration Procedures
Customs and immigration procedures can be time-consuming, depending on the country. For instance, U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires all passengers to undergo immigration and customs checks before leaving the terminal, prolonging the disembarkation process.
Remember, disembarkation times can greatly vary depending on these factors. By understanding these, you can plan your schedule better and avoid unnecessary stress.
A Quick Note About Passports and Government ID
I’m from the United Kingdom and I’ve had a Passport since I was 18. With Europe on our doorstep, travel was easy, and holding a passport seemed second nature to us.
However, if you are an American Citizen, you have a vast country at your fingertips, so I can fully understand why you may have never ever considered a passport.
Fortunately, most cruise companies sailing out of the USA have processes in place with US Customs and Immigration that allow you to cruise to many ports and itineraries without a Passport. You only need to hold a government-issued ID. Which is great. So far so good, right?
Well, it’s good until you get to disembarkation day. The lines to go through US Customs and Immigration at the port can be split into Passport holders and ID-only holders. In my experience, the passport lines are always much shorter. Something to think about!
How Long Does It Take To Disembark a Cruise Ship? Here’s The Bottom Line
The time to exit from a cruise ship can vary greatly depending on the many factors I’ve outlined in this article. But planning and understanding the process can help you have a smooth and hassle-free disembarkation and get your luggage off the cruise without mishap.
Despite the potential stress of disembarkation day, remember that it’s the end of what’s likely been a wonderful vacation. So, once leave the cruise terminal, take a deep breath, take your time, and transition back to land life as smoothly as possible.
I hope you don’t have a long drive home!
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