6 Disembarkation Tips to Make Getting off the Ship a Breeze

cruise ship disembarkation tips
Avoid crowds and stress with these simple strategies. - Photo by Anetlanda / Thinkstock

On the last day of a cruise, the drill goes something like this: You’re assigned a color-coded number and a disembarkation time according to your travel arrangement and cabin category (on most ships, suites get priority). You’re asked to vacate your room by about 8 am so the crew can prepare it for the new passengers embarking a few hours later.


On large ships carrying more than 1,500 passengers, the stairwells, lounges, and open decks become a vast waiting room as you and your fellow shipmates — and their collective carry-on bags — anxiously wait for colors and numbers to be called. On a big mass-market ship with thousands of passengers, it’s usually a game of hurry up and wait — and a very inelegant way to end a vacation. But here are five ways to make your exit a bit more enjoyable:


Strategy #1: Opt for the “Self Assist” program.

suitcase pier disembark tips cruise
Going it alone is always an option. - Photo by Shutterstock

Best For: Light travelers and people with early flights. 

The Plan: If you’re able to carry all your own luggage off the ship (including over the gangways and through the cruise terminal) and want to get an early start, you can choose the “Self Assist” or “Walk Off” disembarkation option. Generally, you’ll be the first group called to disembark, shortly after the vessel has received customs clearance. There will be no porters onboard or ashore to assist with your luggage, and since you’re the first group called, you can often be off the ship by 7:15 or 7:30 am. If you don’t mind an early departure and can handle your bags, it’s a great way to get a jump on the crowds.

Additional Benefit: Checked suitcases have to be put outside your cabin door the night before so the crew can collect and stack them in the cargo hold for offloading at the terminal. Once you get off the ship, you then have to pick out your bag from the hundreds on the pier, adding even more time to the process.


Strategy #2: Give yourself time and take it easy.

buffet cruise disembark strategy take time
Take your time and grab one last meal at the buffet. - Photo by Shutterstock

Best For: Relaxed cruisers with late flights (or no flight at all). 

The Plan: Linger over breakfast in the buffet, have one last Bloody Mary at the lobby bar (if the ship is still serving alcohol), or, if the photo gallery is still open, review the formal portraits you posed for earlier in the week. When you’re done, find a quiet corner on deck, grab a chair, and relax with a good book — or in the sun — while everyone else congregates in the ship’s stairwells and atrium until their colors are called.

One Caveat: Waiting for the crowds to die down is a great idea if you don’t have to be anywhere, but keep in mind that onboard services and activities will be limited as the crew is working hard to get everybody ashore as soon as possible.


Strategy #3: Hang out in your cabin as long as you can.

Hiding in your cabin is one way to beat the crowds. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line

Best For: Cruisers staying in balcony or suite cabins who like to sleep in.

The Plan: Though it is becoming rare, some cruise lines still offer a room-service breakfast on the morning of disembarkation if you hang your order form on your cabin door handle the night before. You can also get up early, beat the crowds to the buffet, and bring it back to your room. Eating in — especially if you have a balcony to hang out on — is a great way to avoid the bustle in the lido deck buffet as fellow shipmates rush to eat before disembarking.

Insider Tip: Sometimes, especially if you’re willing to extend an extra gratuity, your cabin steward will even let you stay on the balcony while they clean your room as long as you stash your stuff in the closet so it isn’t in their way.


Caribbean Cruises From  /Night


Strategy #4: Sneak out early.

An actual depiction of a cruiser sneaking out early. - Photo by Shutterstock

Best For: The bold and impatient.

The Plan: Try to leave whenever you can. More often than not you’ll be scolded and sent back to your waiting area, but you might not be asked for your color-coded disembarkation tag when you leave the ship — so try heading up to the gangway whenever you’re ready to leave.

Keep in Mind: Luggage is off-loaded according to your colors — if you were assigned Orange 12, for instance, you may have to wait in the terminal for hundreds of other suitcases to be readied before your bags are available. And chances are, the ship is a more comfortable place to wait than the cruise terminal.


Strategy #5: Throw money at the issue.

On some lines, you can get one more afternoon on board for a small fee. - Photo by Celebrity Cruises

Best For: Big spenders, especially families who don't want to wait for hours with restless children.

The Plan: Some cruise lines offer an optional VIP disembarkation service. For a fee, you can stay on board until just before the ship departs on its next voyage. On European cruises, for example, Celebrity Cruises charges $59 per adult and $29.50 per child to stay for breakfast and lunch onboard, plus access to movies, the pool, and the gym until a mere 90 minutes before the ship sets sail on its next voyage.

Tip: Suites generally disembark first, so if you're a VIP cruiser, your disembarkation will already be much quicker than the most other passengers. 


Strategy #6: Book an excursion in your disembarkation port.

Airboat tour in the Everglades. - Photo by Shutterstock

Best For: Cruisers with late flights who still have enough energy for one last excursion.

The Plan: Not all cruise lines offer excursions on disembarkation day, but you'll be among the first off the ship and have one last adventure before your cruise is over. For cruises out of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, an Everglades airboat ride is a popluar choice. Once the excursion is over, you'll be dropped at the airport in time for your late afternoon/evening flight.


This article was written with reporting from Heidi Sarna and Simon Duvall.

Join the discussion

How do you handle the last day of your cruise?


Posted by 5d3HCrgP2uN35rHo70edD4JW7

we are never in a rush to get off so i always check with the room steward if it is ok to leave a couple of bags in the room then go and have a leisurely breakfast and let the crowds go. On our first cruise we followed the instructions given and it was like a cattle market,never again.

Posted by JusMe

I do self assist. When I do Carnival out of L.A., I go to the Lido and have breakfast and relax until about 10:00. After about 10:00 you can relax and walk off the ship, customs lines are shorter, the parking lot has thinned down and you miss morning rush hour on the freeway. No point to rush off the ship to just be stuck in traffic.

Posted by EatSleepCruise

Self Assist is the way to go! Even though we are over packers, we definitely make it a point to walk off with our own luggage. We also believe that getting off early is the best option-last cruise on Quantum of the Seas we experienced a long delay when we did not get off the ship early. Other tip is to pre-book your transportation, either through the cruise company or some other service. Waiting for a taxi at the pier is a time suck, and ends up costing you more $$. Thanks Sheri for the suggestions.

Posted by Tammy4621

Can you really have an alcoholic drink on disembarkation day? I thought that they closed your account the night before. How do you pay for it?

Posted by BAK1061

Biggest tip: if you are doing self debarkation, and you are frustrated with the crowded elevators, press the " UP" button. Get on the empty elevator going up, this way, when it heads down, you are already on it.

Posted by joannnickl

Can you really have an alcoholic drink on disembarkation day? I thought that they closed your account the night before. How do you pay for it?

Posted by BonVoyageEditor

GTVCruiser, I am with you on this one. I love carrying my own bags off of the ship so that I don't have to put them out the night before or wait for them in the morning. Then again, I am a very light packer.


I always do Self Assist , you do not have to wait for your bags when you get on the ship and you first to get off the ship

Posted by jaquic

on a fly cruise could you have a few hours in port of call before flight home?

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