What time should you book your flight home after a cruise? Our rule of thumb is to schedule your flight home no earlier than five hours after your ship docks at its homeport.
Why so much time? Truth is, there’s a dramatic difference between the day you get on the ship and the day you get off.
On cruise day, everyone is excited to board. Lots of passengers arrive early, standing in line for the opportunity to board early and be among the first on the ship. Show up early and it might take some time to get aboard. But show up later in the day and the boarding process can take just minutes and you’ll hardly see another person in the terminal.
Debarkation day is completely different.
At that point, people can’t wait to get off the ship. They wake up early and stand in line for hours to get off the ship first and head back home. The result is long lines and waits in some cases, meaning if you are in a rush to catch a flight, the stress can be high.
The Process of Getting Off a Cruise Ship & When to Schedule Your Flight
In our experience, getting off the ship once a cruise had ended is much more time-consuming than boarding.
That’s because once you depart the ship you now have to go through customs and immigration to declare anything you bought while you were abroad and be checked back into the country. Combine this delay with thousands of people trying to leave at once and you’ve got a recipe for long waits.
Most cruise ships have “self-assist” debarkation. This allows passengers who can carry all their luggage with them to depart first.
The thing is that most people seem to opt for this method, instead of waiting to leave later in the morning and not carry their luggage. We’ve seen lines around the ship first thing in the morning that took 1.5 hours to get off the ship and out of the terminal.
Other passengers wait for their selected debarkation time (the ship will assign a time to all passengers the day before the ship arrives home). While this means you won’t get off the ship first, the process of actually leaving is usually faster since the lines are shorter.
In any case, given that it can take a considerable amount of time to get off the ship, what time should you book your departing flight?
The earliest time for your departing flight depends on a lot of factors. We recommend no earlier than five hours after your ship arrives back at home port.
So if your ship is scheduled to get back home at 7:00 a.m., your flight shouldn’t leave any earlier than 12:00 p.m. There will be times that this five hours gives you a ton of extra time. However, it’s important that you leave yourself a cushion should anything go wrong.
Things That Could Delay You Getting To Your Flight
Unfortunately, getting off the ship isn’t just as simple of having it dock and then rolling your suitcase off. There are a number of factors that can delay things, which is why we recommend an ample five-hour cushion before your flight.
One of the biggest headaches for a cruise ship is fog. Early morning arrivals in humid port cities are a perfect recipe for delays due to fog. It’s not unheard of for a ship to have to wait off the coast for several hours while the fog lifts before making it to port — especially spots like Galveston, which are notorious for fog.
We mentioned earlier how there can be huge lines to get off the ship first. With such a rush of people trying to debark at once, it can take up to two hours to make your way off the ship and collect your luggage.
If you don’t want to wait in line, you can debark later in the day. While that saves you the hassle of just standing around, it doesn’t get you off the ship any earlier.
Customs & Immigration
Anything to declare? Even if you don’t, you’ll have to go through customs and immigration. This is another reason why it can take so long to get off the ship.
We’ve seen ports (Port Canaveral) where it’s a breeze to go through, taking almost no time at all. We’ve also seen ports (Galveston) where it’s a major delay that forces you to stand in line for an eternity. Sometimes it seems there are too few agents working, leading to longer delays to get off the ship.
One tip: Many ports are now implementing facial recognition technology for passengers with passports. You scan your passport, take a photo, and you are on your way within seconds. Meanwhile, those with birth certificates still have to stand in line and meet with an officer, which takes much longer. Having your passport could save you considerable time.
Getting to the Airport
Getting to the airport after your cruise can take 15 minutes or more than an hour. It really depends on the cruise port you are sailing from and traffic.
Cruise ports such as Port Canaveral and Galveston are far away (about an hour drive) from the closest airports. Others like Miami are right near the airport.
If you are flying out of a distant port, remember to add drive time to your schedule. You should also factor in time to get picked up if you are taking a shuttle or other transportation to the airport. This can add an extra 10-15 minutes to your trip.
We don’t have to remind you of the potential for long security lines in airports these days. You’ll want to be sure to add in plenty of buffer time to your trip to account for potential delays getting through security and to your flight. This is where services like TSA pre-check can save you a lot of time.
You Might Have Plenty of Time at the Airport, But Why Stress?
Ultimately, we think the best thing you can do is pick a flight time that you are comfortable with making. You don’t want to be stressed as you try to make it to the airport. The five-hour cushion should be good if you plan to get off the ship right when it arrives.
If you’d like to plan to have lunch before your flight or take your time arriving at the airport, then plan a little more time.
Passengers sailing from ports with airports close by (meaning a short commute) could likely catch a flight that’s a little earlier, but under no circumstance would we ever book a departing flight for less than four hours after our cruise ship returns.