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.
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.
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 to declare anything you bought while you were abroad. 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” deboarding. 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 We’ve seen lines around the ship first thing in the morning that took 1.5 hours to get off the ship and back to our car.
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 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. As a rule of thumb, we’d recommend no earlier than five hours after your ship arrives back at home port. So if your ship gets back home at 7:00 a.m., your flight shouldn’t leave any earlier than 1:00 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 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.
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 deboard later in the day. While that saves you the hassle of just standing around, it doesn’t get you off the ship any quicker.
Anything to declare? Even if you don’t, you’ll have to go through customs. 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.
Getting to the Airport
Getting to the airport after your cruise can taken 15 minutes or two hours. It really depends on the cruise port you are sailing from. 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.
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, 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.