One of Europe’s most popular cruise ports experienced massive traffic congestion and lengthy delays on Friday due to extra unscheduled security checks while four vessels were debarking and embarking guests.
The delays at the Port of Southampton in the UK stretched well into the afternoon, and officials urged regional residents to not come into the city unless necessary.
Southampton Traffic Backups
Four cruise ships docked in Southampton on Friday, May 12, 2023, and impromptu security checks by Border Force (UK customs and immigration officials) slowed passenger processing and created massive gridlock in the city.
Four ships from four separate cruise lines were in Southampton at the time: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ Fred Olsen Balmoral, P&O Cruises’ Britannia, Royal Caribbean International’s Anthem of the Seas, and MSC Cruises’ MSC Virtuosa.
Each ship was both debarking guests at the conclusion of a cruise and embarking guests for the next sailing. When counting both incoming and outgoing passengers, the four ships added up to more than 28,000 people moving to and from the port area, in addition to local traffic and port employees.
Local officials also noted that extra security checks were causing additional slowdowns. So dramatic was the traffic that officials were reaching out to urge people to stay home if possible.
Traffic did begin lightening in the mid-afternoon. This would be when most of the debarking guests had already left the area, and many embarking travelers were already onboard their respective vessels.
Heavy Traffic Likely to Become Increasingly Common
While Southampton is the twelfth busiest cruise port in the world by passenger count, with approximately 1.9 million passenger movements annually, the city does not usually have four large vessels docked simultaneously.
With the increasing popularity of cruise travel, however, coupled with ever-larger cruise ships with higher guest capacities, it is likely that such traffic problems will occur with greater frequency in the future.
Saturday, May 13 and Sunday, May 14, for example, also each see four ships in port at Southampton.
P&O Cruises’ Iona, Princess Cruises’ Sky Princess, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ Fred Olsen Borealis, and Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Silhouette will be in port on Saturday, totaling more than 26,000 embarking and debarking guests.
On Sunday, P&O Cruises’ Arvia and Arcadia, as well as Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Dawn and Royal Caribbean International’s Anthem of the Seas, will all be in Southampton for a total of more than 27,000 embarking and debarking guests.
After this very busy weekend, Southampton will not have more than two ships docked at once until Saturday, May 20, when once again, four vessels will be in port. That will be the last day in May when so many ships are simultaneously in port, but such congested days will occasionally continue throughout the busy summer.
In fact, some days at the height of the season will be even busier – on Saturday, June 17, and Saturday, June 24, five ships are scheduled each day. The same is true for Saturday, June 1.
Similar Problems at Other Ports
Other top cruise ports have experienced similar traffic problems on busy days as well as when local conditions contribute to traffic backups.
Road closures near the Port of Galveston, for example, have led to significant traffic backups on busy weekends this spring, while local music festivals near PortMiami created challenging traffic conditions in late May at that popular Florida homeport.
Even at Port Canaveral, the world’s busiest cruise port, space launch operations can dramatically increase local traffic and have repercussions for cruise travelers.
In recent years, cruise lines have implemented appointments and check-in times to help control crowds and ease traffic congestion at cruise terminals. These policies began before the global pandemic and were kept in place as additional crowd control and social distancing measures when cruise travel resumed in 2021.
For guests, the best way to avoid traffic is to check port schedules and select sailings that depart or arrive on less crowded days, if possible. If a port is busy, it is critical to be patient with the increased traffic and to use public transit, group shuttles, or ride sharing if available.
Allowing extra time to reach the cruise port or to reach an airport after a cruise is also essential to ensure there are no insurmountable delays that could cause travel cancellations or other vacation challenges.