Eager to get off the cruise ship when it’s time to go home? You aren’t alone.
Come time to board for your vacation, everyone is excited to get on the ship. In fact, many people get there early and wait before boarding even begins. Cruise lines have even moved to staggered boarding “windows” to spread the crowds over the course of the day so that there aren’t large crowds waiting to get on the ship right at the start.
But when the cruise gets back to port? Or when it’s time to go explore a port of call? That’s a different story.
As soon as a cruise comes to port or returns back home, everyone can’t wait to get off the ship. In fact, just like when boarding, they often line up well before debarkation is announced to be among the first off the ship.
So, exactly how long does it take to get off the cruise ship? That depends on a number of factors. In many cases it can little as a few minutes, but we’ve personally been on cruises where debarking has taken more than a couple of hours.
We have everything you need to know below…
How Long It Takes to Get Off a Cruise Ship at a Port of Call
If you’re visiting a foreign port on your cruise — like the Nassau or Cozumel — then there is good news: it doesn’t take very long to get off the ship… once everything is ready to let passenger debark.
The cruise lines let you go ashore as soon as the ship is docked, secured, and the local authorities have given the go-ahead. All you need to do is scan your keycard as you exit the ship.
Now, keep in mind that the time to dock and be cleared by authorities can take a little while. In most cases you’ll find that it is completed in 30-45 minutes of arrival. So just because the ship is tied up at the pier doesn’t mean passengers can immediately get off. There will be a ship-wide announcement once passengers are allowed to go into port.
Once free to go ashore, there is a bit of a rush of people at the beginning, but the line usually goes quickly. And since all of the immigration paperwork is taken care of by the cruise line beforehand, there is no hold-up after getting off the ship like there would be if you were arriving via plane and had to go through immigration.
You will simply swipe your cruise ID card (which is also your room key) at a kiosk at the exit of the ship. This lets the staff know you are off the ship. Then you just walk on shore via the gangway.
If you are tendering to port (where the ship anchors offshore and smaller boats take passengers into port), then that process can take a little longer as fewer passengers are able to leave at one time.
If you want to limit your wait to get off the ship, we suggest just find something to do for about 30 minutes once debarking at the port of call begins. By then, the initial rush should be calmed down, making it easy to get off the ship and into port.
Bottom Line: The process of readying for passengers to leave once the ship arrives in port can take 30-45 minutes. After that, actually getting off the ship once passengers are allowed ashore takes just minutes. If tendering, the wait could be longer waiting for a boat to load and head into shore.
How Long it Takes to Get Off the Ship at the End of the Cruise
While getting off the ship in a port of call is no big deal, your experience leaving back at home can be much less predictable. It can take as little as 15 minutes or more than an hour to leave the ship when returning home. We’ve personally experienced both ends of that timeline.
Part of the reason for that unpredictability is the amount of other passengers, and another part is the immigration process.
Thousands of Passengers Leaving at Once
To make things more orderly, the cruise lines unload passengers in groups based on cabin location.
You’ll get numbered luggage tags and a schedule for when your numbered group is to debark. You attach the tags to your luggage and set it outside your cabin door the night before arriving home. The staff then takes your bags so you don’t have to carry them. Then when your section is called the next morning, you leave the ship and pick up your bags in the cruise terminal.
But the cruise lines also allow passengers who are carrying all their bags with them to disembark first. Since using the luggage tag system could mean waiting hours before its your turn to leave the ship, many people opt to just carry all their bags and leave earlier.
This can lead to long, slow lines with hundreds — or thousands — of passengers trying to carry all their luggage. The sheer numbers of people trying to get off the ship at once can lead to delays unless you are at the front of the line. Other times, however, you can simply grab your bag, start walking and barely have to stop until you are out of the cruise terminal.
Immigration Can Take Time
Another factor that can delay debarking? The ship has to be cleared by authorities and every passenger also has to go through immigration. We’ve found that the speed of this process is highly dependent on the immigration officials when it comes to how long it takes to depart.
In normal circumstances the ship is cleared shortly after arriving in port and passengers are allowed to start debarking soon after. There are occasionally cases where it takes longer, however. This includes one cruise we personally took that had a two-hour wait at port before the first passengers could even start to get off the ship. Those sort of delays are not common but can happen.
From there, passengers have to walk off the ship, grab luggage (if not carrying it with them) and then go through immigration.
Your immigration experience can vary. Most ports are using technology to process passengers faster. If you have a passport, you simply walk to a kiosk, take a photo, and then you are on your way. From ship to shore, it can take as little as 10-15 minutes if there is no line.
Some ports — or if you are traveling with a birth certificate — do things the old way where you have to wait in line to meet with an agent that checks your documents. In this case, expect the process to take considerably longer, depending on lines and the number of agents.
Bottom Line: Time to leave the ship can vary widely. If everything goes smoothly and there are automated kiosks for immigration, it can be as little as 15 minutes. However, delays and thousands of passengers leaving at once can lead to longer wait times of 1-2 hours until you are outside the cruise terminal. Thankfully, longer waits seem less common.
How to Get off the Ship Faster Once Back Home
Have an early flight? A long drive home? Or you simply want to wait as little as possible to get off the ship? No matter the reason, there are some ways you can potentially speed up the debarkation process. These won’t mean you can get off the ship within minutes, but they could save you some time.
Travel With a Passport
First and foremost, traveling with a passport is smart anyway. Should something come up on your cruise that means departing early, having a passport makes it much easier to get back home.
It can also help you get off the ship faster. Ports are moving toward automated systems with facial recognition. That means you exit the ship, take a picture, and you are on your way. We’ve personally been in ports where this is available for passengers with passports but those that still travel with birth certificates must stand in a longer line to check their identification.
Carry Your Own Luggage
When debarking the ship, you’ll be given the option of either “self-debarkation” or the normal process of leaving. If you can carry all your baggage, then you can choose the self-debarkation option. In this case, you simply carry all bags off with you and you’ll be in the first group to get off the ship.
Now, this sounds like an easy way to get off the ship quickly. However, it is very popular. You may find hundreds or thousands of other passengers have the same idea. It’s still the fastest way to get off the ship, but can still take some time.
Early Flight? Alert the Staff
Have an early flight? It’s a good idea not to book a flight before noon on debarkation day in order to give yourself plenty of time, but sometimes the only flights available are for earlier in the day.
If you have an early flight, then it’s a good idea to head to Guest Services toward the end of the cruise and let them know. We’ve seen some trips with special early debarkation times specifically for passengers with early flights. It will also help your case if you have a boarding pass or some proof of your early departure to show the staff.
It’s not a guarantee they can help you, but it’s worth a shot.