What’s the Earliest You Should Schedule a Flight After a Cruise?

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.

What time to schedule a flight after a cruise

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 can be 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 

In our experience, getting off the ship once a cruise has ended is much more time-consuming than boarding.

That’s because before the ship can let passengers off, it has to be cleared by authorities to start debarking. And even then, 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.

The good news is that many ports are speeding up the debarkation process.

First, most ships have “self-assist” debarkation. This allows passengers who can carry all their luggage with them to depart first. So if you have an early flight and can carry all your bags, then you can be among the first to get off the ship.

The major issue 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.

Line to get off a cruise ship in port
Lines to leave the ship during self-assist can have hundreds of people.

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 by that time.

Second, most ports have switched to a facial recognition technology that dramatically speeds up getting off the ship. It used to be you had to wait in line to meet with a border agent who would check your citizenship documents. 

These day, you can often just take a photo that documents you leaving the ship and then walk right off. Note that if you are traveling with a birth certificate instead of a passport, this option isn’t always available.

When to Schedule Your Flight Home

What this all means is that getting off the ship can sometimes take literally minutes. Other times, if can take hours. The good news is that debarking these days tends to be relatively quick.

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?

We recommend scheduling a flight no earlier than five hours after your ship arrives back at home for most cruise ports. However, the absolute bare minimum should be no more than three hours before the ship returns (though we definitely suggest more time).

suggest flight times after a cruise from various ports

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. to give you plenty of time. 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.

If your ship returns at 7:00 a.m., the absolute earliest we think you can make your flight is 10:00 a.m., but that will be tight. 

For some ports, we think you need to allow more time given the distance from the cruise port to the closest major airport.

Things That Could Delay You Getting To Your Flight

Sign for shuttle to the airport from cruise ship

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 cushion before your flight.

Weather Delays
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 is notorious for fog in the winter months.

Debarkation Delays
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 (like Miami) where it’s a breeze to go through, taking almost no time at all. In fact, you literally take a picture as you leave the ship and walk right out. 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 often 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.

Airport Security
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 keep in mind that adds more risk to catching your plane.

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40 COMMENTS

  1. If I am traveling from Port Canaveral, Fl to the Orlando airport, would it be too early to schedule a flight at 10:25? Carnival stated on the itinerary that we would be arriving at port at 8 AM.

    • Yes, I think that would be too early. Even if you got off the ship at 8:30, it’s about an hour to the airport and then you still have to get through security.

  2. We are cruising Royal Caribbean out of Fort Lauradel , we come back on 11/11 and says boat will arrrive at 6am to FLL, our flight leaves at 11:10 a.m. are we cutting ourselves too close to make our flight?

  3. We are cruising Carnival out of New Orleans, we come back on the 16 our flight leaves out of MSY at 11:45 a.m. are we cutting ourselves too close to make our flight?

  4. NCL has scheduled flight from seattle at 11:35 am (Aug 24) going to Toronto via Vancouver. Do you think this is feasible given today’s airport issues.

    • So you are flying from Seattle at 11:35 a.m. after a cruise? I think that should be fine. If you got off the ship at 9 a.m. and it took 45 minutes to get to the airport (usually shorter), then you’d still have more than 1.5 hours.

    • Should be plenty, although dealing with international travel can sometimes take a little longer. I think you should be fine, however

  5. Our flight home from Seattle got pushed back an hour, from 2pm to 3pm PDT, so now with the time change coming home, we’ll be arriving at 10pm EDT. There is an earlier flight that leaves at noon PDT in Seattle. Is that cutting it too close?

  6. We are getting off our Alaskan cruise in Vancouver at 7:00AM . Our flight from Vancouver is at 4: 15 PM. That is a lot of time. Any suggestions what we can do?

    • Are you sure that you’re getting off at 7 AM or the ship returns then? Normally ships return around 7 AM and then it’s a couple of hours to get off the ship. With the port right downtown, you can explore that area if you like. Near the airport is River Rock Casino. Stanley Park is beautiful and right near the cruise ship.

  7. Our MSC cruise arrives in Miami at 7:00am on a Saturday morning and we fly out of Ft. Lauderdale. The airline just changed my flights and we’re now scheduled to fly out at 12:50pm. Is that enough time, or should I try to reschedule our flights?
    Thanks for the help!

    • I think that should be fine. Definitely use the option to carry your bags off unassisted to be among the first off the ship.

  8. What airport should we fly home from on Disney Cruise NY (Manhattan cruise terminal)? With a 7:30 arrival, what is the earliest flight?

  9. how do you get from southampton england to gatwick airport. we do not have time problems because we fly out the next day. we are staying at the gatwick hilton close to tbe south terminal.

    • You can get the train from the airport,and it takes about 2 hours to S/hampton,then a cheap taxi/uber to your terminal..its A LOT cheaper to book in advance..www.thetrainline.com

  10. We will only fly out the next day. Our ship was fogged in at Galveston and instead of arriving at the port at 8:00 a.m. we arrived at 4:00 p.m. Hence, we were unable to make our 5:00 p.m. flight. It cost us $370 a person to rebook our flight. Lesson learned.

  11. I want to fly from Houston to Seattle for an Alaskan cruise. Should I book a hotel room so I won’t be stressed when returning?

    • Flying back from Seattle after your cruise? We think that any flight after noon on the day you get back home would be fine. We do suggest coming in a day early for departure.

  12. Our cruise is schedule to port at 5am. I want to book a flight that departs at 2:50pm. I don’t want the stress, but I don’t want another hotel stay either. I know we want to get home. I’m nervous though.

  13. We’ll be taking a Europe river cruise in May. At the end of the cruise we arrive in Mainz Germany by 8:30am and fly out of Frankfurt, about 15 minutes by train to reach the airport. What time should we book a flight out on the same day?

  14. I am in total agreement that flights should not be scheduled soon after cruises. In fact, I actually prefer scheduling the flight for the day after I debark from the cruise ship. This way I have some time to relax and don’t have to worry about the lines on the cruise ship. It also means that I don’t often have to worry about the ship being delayed. All of this translates to less stress and an easier time arranging transportation to the airport.

    • That what a friend and I are doing. We are flying into Miami so that we have one full day in miami beach to sitesee and stay until the next day after our cruise. Just less stress.

      • That’s a great idea. We’ve done the same — a day/night at South Beach and then head to the cruise port the next day. It’s a fun way to start the trip!

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