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Can a cruise ship leave without you?

Ship sailing away

You’re having such a good time at Senor Frog’s with your new friends and that third margarita that you lose track of time. Or your tour bus gets stuck in traffic on the way back to the ship. If you show up at the cruise pier after boarding time, will your ship be waiting for you? Or, can your cruise ship leave for its next port without you onboard?

Missing the literal boat and getting stranded in a foreign port is one of the top concerns of first-time cruisers. The chances of the ship leaving you behind are low, but it does happen.

Understand how a cruise ship approaches this situation and what you can do to avoid being left behind, and you can put this fear out of your mind.

Do cruise ships wait for you?

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Yes, within reason. You do have a buffer between the all-aboard time and the actual removal of the gang plank, but you don’t want to push it.

The most important thing to know is that if you’re booked on a ship’s excursion, the cruise ship will always wait for you. Tours are scheduled to arrive back with plenty of time, but traffic, medical emergencies, or other unexpected events can cause the tour busses to arrive back late. Cruise lines convince passengers to take their tours instead of independent ones by promising to never leave passengers behind. So they will always wait for the last tour bus to arrive before setting sail.

With independent explorers, it’s a different story. Here’s how it works. Every time you leave the ship in port, a sign will be posted by the gangway giving the all-aboard time. That’s the time you need to be back on the ship. The time posted is based on the ship’s time, if that is ever different from local time in port. It is your responsibility to be back on the ship by the posted time.

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When you return to the ship, your key card or RFID device is scanned, so the ship’s officers know exactly which passengers are onboard and which are still in port. If all-aboard time has passed and a few passengers are missing, crew will call your room or make announcements over the loudspeaker asking you to call the reception desk. This is to make sure there wasn’t a system error, and you’re actually onboard.

If crew determine that passengers are actually missing, the captain has a decision to make. How long can he afford to wait before sailing away, leaving those cruisers behind? Cruise ships might be charged more in docking fees if they stay late in port. A delayed departure might require the ship to sail faster to the next port, burning through extra gas. If the ship requires a pilot onboard or an escort out of the channel, those workers might not have wiggle room in their schedule. 

Depending on all these factors, the ship might be able to wait – or it might not. It’s not a risk you want to take.

How late can you board a cruise ship?

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You can board a ship as long as the gangway is still in place. If the captain knows passengers are missing, he’ll leave it up as long as he can. But once it’s been pulled back into or retracted from the ship, you’re out of luck. Once that hatch is closed, it won’t open again – not even if you come sprinting down the pier.

It is a favorite pastime of many cruisers to watch for and cheer (or jeer) at pier runners – the name for passengers who arrive back at port late and run toward the ship in the hope that the gangway is still in place. Whether or not you show up in time to get onboard or not, your mad dash will not go unnoticed and might be filmed and posted online.

What happens if your cruise ship leaves without you?

Carnival Liberty sailing away

If the unthinkable happens, you’re responsible for getting yourself back to the ship (or back home, if that was the last port of call). In the Caribbean, you’ll need to arrange for an interisland flight to the next port of call. In Europe, you might be able to take a bus or train to the next destination. You’ll likely need to spend the night somewhere; finding and paying for that hotel stay is on you.

What if you’ve missed the ship, but don’t have a passport with you? Depending on where you’re stranded and where you need to get to, you might need that passport to board a plane or leave the country. If you're not carrying one, you must contact your country’s embassy or consulate to arrange for new documentation.

Should the cruise ship leave without you, you’re not entirely alone. The cruise line has a port agent in every port of call. That person has likely been alerted that you’ll be showing up at some point and is looking for you. The port agent is trained to deal with these situations, and can help point you in the right direction.

Can you get off a cruise ship and stay?

Mariner of the Seas gangway

Some travelers ask if they can use a cruise ship like a ferry. Instead of sailing roundtrip, they intend to take the ship to the first or second port of call, then get off and stay a while. In these cases, they want the cruise ship to leave them behind in port.

Disembarking a cruise ship early is possible, but whether it’s allowed or whether you’ll get fined varies depending on which port the ship sailed from and which port you’re disembarking in. Cruises from the U.S. are subject to the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA), and you will be fined if you sail from one U.S. port to another without first stopping in a distant foreign port. In Europe, this isn’t a problem. No matter where you plan to disembark, you must make sure that destination does not have rules against you staying.

However, do not expect a cruise fare discount if you plan on sailing only half the cruise. The ship can’t sell your cabin for the other half of the voyage, so you’ll need to pay full fare even if you’re only cruising for half the trip.

Exceptions to these rules can be made when passengers need to remain in port due to medical emergencies, have to leave a cruise mid-sailing to deal with an emergency at home, or get arrested in port. However, fees and fines may still apply.

What can I do to keep from missing the ship?

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Most people do not have trouble returning to their ship in plenty of time for sailaway. If you’re worried, take these steps, and you’ll be fine.

Set an alarm: Most people travel with their cellphones, so put yours to good use. Set an alarm for the time when you need to start heading from the beach or town back to the ship. Put the ring volume to the highest level if you need to. Or have each member of your travel group set an alarm. That way you’ll know when it’s time to head back.

Create a time buffer: Whether you’re exploring on your own or have booked a tour through an independent operator, you can guarantee you’ll be back by all-aboard if you create a time buffer. If all-aboard is at 5 pm, make plans to be back to the ship by 3:30 or 4. That way, if you’re running late, you’ve got an hour or more of wiggle room before you’re cutting it close.

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Stay sober: We’d guess that a significant fraction of folks who miss the ship have been drinking and completely lost track of time. If you plan to party in port, don’t go overboard – or assign a “designated driver” to herd you all back to the ship on time.

Take a map: Some folks miss the ship because they get lost and can’t find their way back. If you don’t want to use your phone in port, take one of the paper tourist maps from the ship or the tourism officials at the pier. Mark out your route or, better yet, ask a local for directions. If you know how to get to and from the ship, you decrease your chances of getting lost and missing the ship.

Book a ship’s tour: Especially if you want to travel to an attraction some distance from the port, you might feel more confident booking a ship’s tour. You can see the sights without worrying about traffic or logistics. The ship will always wait for its tours to return before setting sail.

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