Beyond the Dock – Unveiling the Charm of Tender Ports

Tender ports allow cruise passengers to visit shore even in areas where a dock can't accommodate the cruise ship. Read on to learn more!

If you have never been on a cruise vacation, you might be surprised just how flexible they can be when allowing passengers to explore on-land locations via tender ports

While cruise ships certainly can dock in local ports, they are not always big or deep enough to accommodate the gigantic dimensions of a modern-day cruise ship.

This is where tendering at the port comes into play. Unlike conventional ports and docking bays, tender ports allow cruise ships to drop their anchor on the water, so passengers and crew members can be shuttled or tendered to shore. 

In this guide, we will explain everything you need to know about tender ports and how they differ from standard ports of call. We will also explain why tender ports can quickly emerge as one of any cruise vacation’s most exciting and memorable components. So, if you are ready to unveil the charm of tender ports, let’s get started!

What Are Tender Ports?

In simple terms, a tender port is a designated off-shore location meant to accommodate ships that cannot enter a traditional port.

Rather than having the cruise ship enter the port and attach itself to a dock, passengers and crew members are ferried to the shore using small, specialized vessels known as tender boats or tenders.

Tender ports can consist of floating docks, which help with boarding, or they can simply be the formal name for the designated area where large ships can drop their anchors so smaller tender boats can shuttle passengers to and from shore. 

What Do Tender Boats Look Like?

Whether they are called tender boats, tenders, or simply shuttle boats, these unique vessels can come in various shapes and sizes depending on the occasion’s needs. 

The typical tender boat will almost look like an elaborate version of a lifeboat. These boats are designed to ensure maximum buoyancy and stability so that passengers can enjoy a comfortable trip to shore. For the most part, the seating areas are entirely covered and feature large windows that passengers can use to take in their surroundings.

Cruise Ship Lifeboat Being Used as Tender
Cruise Ship Lifeboat Being Used as Tender (Photo Credit: Dirk Coppens / Shutterstock)

Open-air tender boats and catamarans can be used when the tender port is close to the shoreline. These cruise ship tender boats provide passengers with a more exciting and immersive experience. Thanks to unobstructed views and their open design, passengers can really embrace the sense of adventure.

Why Are Tender Ports Used Instead of Traditional Ports?

In some cases, the immense dimensions of a cruise ship can make it difficult to dock in a traditional port. Not only can the port be too small, but it might not offer the appropriate water depth for such large ships. 

In other cases, a local port might be too busy to accommodate a full-sized cruise ship. Rather than completely alter the cruise ship’s itinerary, passengers can be shuttled to the shore for excursions and various land-based activities. Once these activities and experiences have concluded, passengers can re-board their designated tender boat and return to the cruise ship.

Cruise Ships in Grand Cayman
Photo Credit: Feng Cheng / Shutterstock

In certain situations, cruise ships are not allowed to enter a port or even come within a specified distance of the shoreline. This is usually regulated to protect delicate marine ecosystems like coral reefs.

In these cases, tendering allows passengers to visit the shore or even just get a closer look at the coastline from the water without the ship needing to violate local rules and regulations. 

What Are the Main Differences Between Tender Ports and Typical Ports of Call?

Tender ports differ significantly from the standard ports you may visit as part of your cruise’s regular itinerary. The main difference is the way the ship docks.

With a standard cruise port of call, the cruise ship docks like any other type of vessel, meaning it enters the port, saddles beside a dock, and then is secured in place using ropes and cables. 

On the other hand, when it comes to tender ports, the ship never has to enter a port. Instead, the ship’s navigation crew will drop the anchor in the designated tender port area.

Cruise Tender
Cruise Tender

From there, tender boats are either lowered from the cruise ship itself or local tender boats are dispatched to the cruise ship’s location. In some cases, floating docks make it easier for guests to board the tender boats and return to the cruise ship afterward. 

Naturally, a standard port of call will have all the equipment and features you would expect from a permanent port, including piers, docks, slips, and cranes for loading and unloading supplies. By contrast, tender ports are very basic and may feature little more than a few buoys. 

What Is the Charm of Tender Ports for Cruise Ship Passengers?

While tender ports serve a practical purpose for cruise lines, they also offer plenty of charm and excitement for cruise ship passengers. In fact, some people find that the tendering experience is one of the most memorable experiences of their entire cruise vacation.

Here are some of the reasons why so many seasoned cruise travelers enjoy tender ports so much: 

The Sense of Adventure and Exploration

Even boarding a tender boat can be incredibly exciting and adventurous. Disembarking from a full-sized cruise ship and boarding a small boat on the water can be exciting and a completely new experience.

Tender Boat
Tender Boat (Photo Credit: imagevixen / Shutterstock)

Once on board the tender boat, cruising towards the shoreline can make you feel like an explorer. The sensation of feeling the waves crash against the front of the tender boat and the smell of the salty air is very different from the experience of looking out from a cruise ship’s observation decks.

The experience of boarding and traveling on the tendering boat is also just the beginning. Once the tendering boat has reached its destination, you can set foot on land in a new country or region. In other words, you can have a miniature adventure by experiencing new cuisines, cultures, and landscapes. 

Tendering Offers a More Exclusive and Intimate Experience

Where most passengers will leave the cruise ship when it stops at a standard port of call, deciding to board a tender boat and visit locations off limits to the main ship can make for a much more exclusive experience. 

With fewer passengers opting to use tendering ports, you will not have to deal with the crowds when you get to the shore. This also means you will not have to feel like more tourists than locals surround you.

Tender Port
Tender Port

In short, tendering allows you to leave your comfort zone and interact with the destination. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with bustling and crowded ports where numerous cruise ships are loading and unloading passengers at the same time. 

The Chance to Interact with Nature and Take Incredible Photographs

While cruise ships provide passengers with plenty of stunning ocean views, it can be challenging to feel like you are genuinely interacting with nature when you are floating around in such a massive vessel. By tendering, you can visit remote shorelines far less spoiled by human interaction than large-scale permanent ports. 

Even traveling in a tender boat gets you close to the tropical waters you might only see from a distance if you never choose to leave the cruise ship.

Unfortunately, the waters in some standard ports of call are heavily polluted and relatively free from marine pollution. This is not the case if you take a smaller vessel to a more secluded location.

Cruise Tender
Cruise Tender

Not only do you get to experience all of this nature more authentically and intimately, but you will also be presented with incredible opportunities to take breathtaking photographs.

Photograph stunning landscapes, small coastal towns, and wildlife. You can even turn around and photograph the cruise ship from the water, which can be an incredible memento from your cruise vacation.

Tips for Cruise Ship Tendering

If tender ports sound appealing to you and the passengers you will be traveling with, it always helps to be prepared. By taking the time to prepare appropriately, you can ensure that your tendering experience is a fun and stress-free experience. 

Here are our top tendering tips for those hoping to experience a tender boat adventure for the first time:

1. Consider Packing a Small Bag

Like any adventure or day trip, you should pack a small bag that you can carry comfortably if you plan on boarding at a tender port.

Consider bringing bottled water, sunscreen, sunglasses, local tender, nutritious snacks, identification information, medication, a swimsuit, flip flops, and maybe even a change of clothes.

2. Book Shore Excursions Ahead of Time

If you hope to have an adventure onshore, look into booking excursions ahead of time. Just like standard ports of call, tender ports often allow cruise passengers to visit designated areas where various excursions and experiences are available.

Cruise Excursion
Photo Credit: Philip Schubert / Shutterstock

If they are offered through your cruise line, the local staff will fully understand the tendering process, and they will be able to ensure that your excursion is completed in time for you to be ready for the return trip to your cruise ship. 

3. Wear Comfortable Clothes and Footwear

Once you have boarded a tender boat, you cannot return to the cruise ship until the tendering trip is complete. Make sure that you are wearing clothing that you will be comfortable in.

This is particularly important regarding footwear, as you must ensure that the footwear you have chosen will be comfortable for walking around the shoreline.

4. Pay Attention and Always Follow Instructions from the Crew Carefully

While the crew will try their best to ensure that the tendering process goes smoothly for passengers, it is still important that you pay close attention to their instructions.

Carnival Cruise Ship Tendering
Photo Credit: Kyle Lee / Shutterstock.com

They will explain exactly how to board and debark the tender boat. They will also provide precise details regarding when you must return to the tender boat station for your return trip to the main cruise ship. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Is it possible to enjoy tendering if you have mobility issues?

Tendering with mobility issues depends on how accessible the cruise line’s tendering situation is. Given that the level of accessibility can vary depending on the cruise ship and the destinations it is traveling to, the best thing to do is contact the cruise line ahead of time. 

They will be able to discuss your specific needs and provide information about the tendering process and any mobility aids they can provide. 

2. Will every cruise ship offer tendering experiences?

While tendering is becoming more common, it is not always an option for every cruise line or cruise ship. Tendering options can depend on where the cruise ship is traveling to, its itinerary, and whether or not the vessel has the necessary equipment to facilitate tender ports.

Again, your best options are to check your chosen cruise itinerary or contact the cruise line for more information. They will be able to address all of your questions. 

3. Will I get seasick on a tender boat?

If you suffer from seasickness, make sure that you bring motion sickness medication. Over-the-counter motion sickness medication or wristbands should do the trick.

Remember, the side-to-side movements that trigger seasickness will be far more perceptible on the tender boat than on the main cruise ship.

Even if you do not regularly suffer from seasickness, you should ensure you adequately hydrate before boarding a cruise ship tender boat. Dehydration can increase your likelihood of experiencing seasickness and even worsen your symptoms. 

If you want more information, you can also read our tips for preventing and preparing for seasickness while on a cruise. 

Final Words

Tender ports enable cruise ships to offer their passengers a different experience. Enjoy the sense of adventure and excitement you can get from boarding a small vessel and traveling toward land.

Take in the shoreline’s stunning views and the local culture if your tendering experience takes you to the shore. You might even get the chance to try a shore excursion you never even imagined!

Even if tendering is not the main reason you planned your cruise vacation, you might be surprised just how memorable and exhilarating the experience can be.

Emrys Thakkar
Emrys Thakkar
The founder of Cruise Hive which was established in 2008 as one of the earliest cruise blogs in the industry. Emrys has been reporting on the latest cruise industry news since the site first launched. Expert insights and tips featured on a number of publications including The Express, Business Insider, and more. Worked for Carnival Cruise Line for 8 years and is well and truly dedicated to cruising! Has also been on a number of cruises so can offer an insight into the industry that many will not be able to do. What's even more impressive is that Emrys has traveled the world by visiting more than 34 countries, lived in China for 8 years, and cruised the Caribbean, Baltic, Mediterranean, Asia, and Europe. Find out more about us here.

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