How Long Does It Take to Get Off a Cruise Ship?

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Your cruise is about to come to an end. You may be sad to leave all the fun behind, or you may find yourself anxiously waiting for debarkation because, as fun as it was, you just want to get home. You may have a flight you don’t want to miss, hotel reservations, or a long drive ahead of you. So, how long does it take to get off a cruise ship?

Cruise ships have moved to boarding windows to spread out the crowds over the day. Guests tend to come early so they can relax on board much sooner. But it’s a different story when it comes time to exit the cruise ship at a port.

When cruise ships enter a port or return home, people suddenly can’t wait to exit. Like your experience boarding, you may be in a line for quite some time before debarkation is announced if you want to be the first to exit the ship.

The answer to this question is that it depends on several factors. It may only take a few minutes, but some departures can extend to a couple of hours.

At a Port of Call

When cruise passengers enter a foreign cruise port, it will not take long to exit the ship once everything is in place. Most ships allow you to leave once the ship docks, everything is secured, and the ship has permission from local authorities. Guests just need to scan their key cards while exiting.

Be mindful that this process takes time and can take a while. The entire timeline can take 30 to 45 minutes after arrival. Just because your cruise ship is at the dock doesn’t mean that people get off immediately. 

Once you are cleared to go ashore, you may experience a rush of people, but lines tend to decrease quickly. Since the cruise line attends to immigration paperwork before permitting guests to leave, there isn’t a lengthy hold-up when leaving the ship as you would experience in an airport.

Carnival Cruise Ship Port Gangway
Carnival Cruise Ship Port Gangway (Photo Credit: Ihor Koptilin / Shutterstock)

Guests must swipe their cruise ID card (room key) at the kiosk when exiting the ship as it indicates to the staff that they have left. Then you can use the gangway to leave the ship.

Cruise line staff are very particular about knowing who has departed and arrived. They need to be diligent with timelines, which are sometimes particularly tight. There are ports wherein larger ships can only enter or exit according to the tide

These windows can be exceptionally small, and the tiniest hiccup – like a guest being late – can impact departure time. Generally, cruise ships will not wait for a tardy guest as they need to keep on schedule. 

If guests miss the ship, they will need to arrange to meet it at another port of call or travel home. Arrangements may be made with their travel agent/insurance provider or can be made on their own.

Therefore, it is essential to return on time. Crew members carefully monitor who is on and off the ship. They take careful count and report it to the ship’s captain. Once everyone is on board, the ship can leave, but they only know this by a key card swipe.

Cruise Ship Gangway
Cruise Ship Gangway (Photo Credit: Quirky Badger / Shutterstock)

If tendering, the process may be longer. Guests tend to want to leave port quickly, so you will see a rush to the first ship. Furthermore, some cruisers have priority, depending on what package they purchased. Those who don’t have a priority need to sign up to see which ship they will be on, which takes time.

Additionally, when tendering, fewer people can leave at once since the ships are smaller. 

If you want to limit the time you spend getting off the cruise ship, it is best not to take the first tender boat. Wait half an hour before debarking at a shore excursion. The lines should be clear by then and go much faster. The time it takes the first ship to leave is 30 to 45 minutes, whereas the second ship takes minutes.

At the End of Your Cruise

Leaving the ship at a port of call isn’t a big deal. However, leaving for home is another story. The time spent can be unpredictable. The time range is between 15 minutes to over one hour to leave. 

The reason is primarily due to the number of guests and immigration. When thousands of people want to leave simultaneously, cruise ships unload guests in groups according to where their cabins are located to keep things orderly. 

Guests receive numbered luggage tags and a schedule for when the numbered group can debark. Tags are attached to your luggage and placed outside the cabin door the night before arriving home. The staff takes the bags, so guests don’t have to lug them off the ship. 

Cruise Terminal Gangway
Cruise Terminal Gangway (Photo Credit: Redaktion93 / Shutterstock)

When the section is called the following day, guests leave the ship. Passengers can pick up bags at the cruise terminal.

Cruise lines may permit passengers carrying all their luggage to leave first. Since the luggage tag system may mean waiting hours before leaving, many guests opt to carry their bags to leave as early as possible.

On the other hand, people carrying their own luggage leads to longer and slower self disembarkation lines. The volume of people leaving at once causes delays unless you are fortunate to be at the front of the line. 

Immigration also takes time. The local authorities must clear all ships, and guests must go through immigration. The speed at which this occurs depends on the officials and how long it takes to move people through. 

Usually, the ship is cleared shortly after arrival. Guests can soon debark after the ship is cleared. Sometimes, it may take longer. Delays aren’t common, but they do happen.

Once cleared, you can exit the cruise ship, grab your luggage if you aren’t carrying it, and proceed through immigration. The experience may vary each time.

Miami Cruise Terminal
Photo Credit: Ramunas Bruzas / Shutterstock

Many ports use technology to speed up the process. Those with passports may just need to visit a kiosk, have a photo taken, and then proceed to leave, which can take 10 to 15 minutes for a short lineup.

At other ports, or if you only have a birth certificate, they may do things the old-fashioned way where guests wait in line to meet with an agent. The agent then checks your documents. The process is longer, and how long it takes is determined by the length of the lineup and how many agents are available. 

If everything proceeds flawlessly and you can use automated kiosks, you will leave if everything proceeds flawlessly, and automated kiosks exist in about 15 minutes. For delays or if thousands of people are looking to exit at once, there will be longer wait times. It can be as many as one to two hours before you leave the cruise terminal. 

Getting Off the Ship Quicker

If you have an early flight, a long drive home, or need to leave quicker, there are things you can do that will speed things up. Ultimately, you may not be able to leave within minutes, but you can make things smoother and less frustrating.

Have a Passport

Traveling with passports is always a wise idea. If you ever need to leave suddenly, having it makes your trip home easier. Passports, as mentioned, allow you to exit faster as ports are going towards an automated system using facial recognition features. 

Carry Your Luggage

When leaving, you may have the option of self-debarkation or a normal exiting process. If you take all your luggage, then you can self-embark. Take all your baggage, and you can be one of the first to leave the ship.

Packing Less on a Cruise Vacation
Photo By: Melissa Mayntz

While it sounds easy, please note many guests are familiar with this process. There still may be thousands of people with the same idea. However, it is a quicker way to leave.

For early flights, alert cruise staff. It is never a good idea to book flights close to disembarking to allow plenty of time to reach the airline, but sometimes, flights are only available at certain times.

Read Also: U.S. Passport Card vs. Book: What’s the Difference? 

Notify guest services at the end of your cruise vacation. Some trips have early debarkation times for cruise passengers specifically for this reason. It also helps if you plead your case and prove that you have an early departure. While it isn’t guaranteed, you can always try.

When it comes to how long it takes to get off a cruise ship, the timeline varies. Several factors come into play when trying to leave the ship. Most cruise lines try to be very efficient in processing guests as they know many people are on short timelines or just want to leave.

Haiyan Ma
Haiyan Ma
I absolutely love cruising with my favorite ports of call being in the Caribbean. As a former crew member for Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruise Line I can continue my passion by sharing my experiences with readers. Find out more about us here.


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