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.
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.
There’s another bonus to carrying your own bag: 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 take the time to claim your bag from the hundreds on the pier.
Strategy #2: Give yourself time and take it easy.
If your flight doesn’t leave until later in the day and you haven’t signed up for the ship’s bus transfer to the airport then don’t stress about getting off the ship. Linger over breakfast in the buffet, have one last Bloody Mary at the lobby bar, 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. 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.
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.
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.
Strategy #4: Sneak out early.
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, however, that 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.
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.
This article was written with reporting from Heidi Sarna and Simon Duvall.