The Best Way To End Your Cruise: Getting Disembarkation Day Right

Getting Disembarkation Day Right

Talking to many fellow cruisers, I spotted 7 mistakes that I was – and most of you – are making on cruise disembarkation day. Thus making the end of a cruise far worse than it should be.

Getting Disembarkation Day Right

#1 Thinking Ahead

When planning a cruise, like most cruisers, I used to focus on the cruise itself and pay little attention to the detail of disembarkation day – like the time of my flight home. Smart cruisers taught me to factor this into my planning with as much care as the cruise itself.

So, now, if I want to get home as quickly as possible on disembarkation day, I book a flight as close to noon as possible. No earlier, no later. That gives me the greatest chance of making it without stress. And it reduces hanging about at airports.

Ships usually dock between 6am and 8am, and I need to factor in the ships clearance time, disembarking and getting to the airport.

Factor in your flights 

Cruise lines often recommend or offer flights after 2pm, however, smart travellers know that many airlines only open their check-in desks two hours before a flight. So, a late afternoon or early evening flight means sitting at the airport for many hours, hanging around until check-in opens.

I experienced that after sitting for four and a half hours in Athens’ airport for a 3pm flight after my Seabourn Greek Islands cruise. There was only one small café, a Mc Donalds and not so great Wi-Fi to keep me occupied.

Of course, that mistake also taught me something else smart cruisers do when flights are only available later – use disembarkation day to explore, rather than sit at the airport.

What do I do with my luggage while I explore? I first see if the cruise line offers an airport transfer with city tour, as the luggage travels with me on the bus.

For example, I got off a Holland America cruise in Barcelona last year and did this. But these transfers tend to end by early afternoon.

So, I also now look for luggage storage options. For example, I could store luggage in Vancouver Cruise Port. In Miami, I found places in South Beach, although, I usually get an Uber or taxi to the airport and leave my luggage in the inexpensive storage there. The fast trains in and out of Miami that cost just a few dollars are great for getting out and about.

 cruise luggage storage

#2 Packing Plans

Whatever plans for disembarkation day they settle on, I found that smart cruisers also have a luggage strategy.

They taught me to plan for self-disembarkation, even if I am not opting to go down that route. Self-disembarkation is where cruise lines let passengers leave the ship as soon as it is cleared, or at any time I choose, if I carry my own bags unaided.

I invested in an Away suitcase, as they are easiest to manoeuvre and wheel about. Now, I know I can take it myself along corridors, and even carry down the stairs if needed. I always take luggage I can manage myself. that’s super important.

Getting off the ship can be a crush or it can mean a lot of waiting around. I almost always do self-disembarkation now. It has transformed disembarkation day for me.

Surprisingly few people choose this, but because I do, I am always able to fly through any checks, like immigration, without huge queues. I did recently when I was disembarking Queen Mary 2 in New York. There were no lines for taxis, either.

It also means I am in control of what time I disembark. This can be anytime from when the ship is cleared to the final passenger disembarkation time.

So, that’s what I have seen smart cruisers do before they even join the cruise. What about once on the cruise?

#3 Disembarkation Checks

Like most of you I am sure, I used to get irritated that lines started sending stuff about disembarkation early in the cruise.

But smart cruisers taught me that they do that for a good reason. It’s to flush out any potential issues. I learnt that taking time to read and digest these, as soon as they arrive, is important. It’s helped highlight errors many times.

The worst was when I noticed on a P&O Britannia Caribbean cruise, they had me as an independent traveller and were asking if I wanted to book a transfer, and for my flight times. I thought it odd, as I had a package with their charter flight back to the UK from Barbados.

I raised it and found the line had no return flight booked for me at all. This early check meant they had time to resolve it. By the way, that flight was full, and they booked me in an upgraded flight on another scheduled airline.

Self disembarkation

Also, some cruise lines require, at this stage, for you to register for self-disembarkation, as they sometimes cap the numbers.

I always check the planned arrival time and disembarkation start time.. It can be different to what the original itinerary is. If it has any implications on my plans, I have time to get that sorted.

That’s where having the self-disembarkation capability has helped, as I found on an MSC cruise we would be docking almost an hour and half later than the original itinerary. So, I could change my slot to get off quicker and catch my flight on time.

A day or so before the end of the cruise, the final disembarkation details arrives. There are a few things I check carefully.

First, the disembarkation time finally allocated me, if i’m not doing self-disembarkation.

I’ve found that if the time doesn’t really work for me, asking Guest Services to change it is usually fine. I’ve never been refused a change of time.

If not doing self-disembarkation, check what time your packed cases must be outside of your cabin the night before, and work out how to fit that around your evening plans.

cruise ship cabin

Disembarkation day breakfast options

Next, I look at the dining options listed for disembarkation day. I can then plan disembarkation morning plans, knowing dining and what time to leave the ship.

Then, I check what time I must be out the cabin. On most it is by 8am. So, I can factor that into my plans.

One key thing to review is anything required by the ports. It got much more complicated post-covid with more documentation, proof of vaccines to be submitted or questionnaires on Apps, like Canada’s ArriveCan, to be done. Although this has eased, things change, so it’s smart to double check. As I discovered.

One disembarkation letter a few years back reminded me that I had to have an ESTA as a UK passenger to enter the US. And I was, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got that.” But my ESTA had expired. So, when I got to immigration, I hit an issue as, you guess it, I had no valid ESTA. It did get resolved, but after much delay, and being hauled into a side room, which almost made me late for my flight.

#4 Disembarkation packing

There are several packing mistakes that the cruise lines see repeatedly on every cruise. Here’s some smart cruiser tricks I have picked up.

If you’re putting your suitcase out the night before, make sure that you have left clothes suitable for leaving the ship. I have seen several passengers scurrying off the ship in a cruise line dressing gown, as they forgot to leave some or all of their disembarkation clothes out.

Also, the smart thing to do is triple check every single space when packing. Cabins have many storage places. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve popped things in different drawers over the duration of cruise. I must admit, in the past I’ve left Camera SD cards, my St Christopher, which I valued very highly, chargers and so on.

Check, check and double check

On my last cruise, when I arrived, I found items in some drawers the previous guests had forgotten, and the cabin steward had not picked up.

Pack all your valuables and medication in your hand luggage, not in the bags that you put out to be collected and taken off the ship for you.

The other thing to make sure you do is clear the safe before leaving. You could leave yourself a note, but what many smart cruisers suggest (although some people think it’s not appropriate) is to put one of your shoes in the safe to remind you to empty it when you are getting dressed in the morning.

Also, if you are putting your luggage out keep the tear off tag from the luggage label, that will remind you what allocated slot you have and, as some cruise lines require us to show our luggage tag colour to let you off the ship, the allocated time.

Finally, when packing, don’t pack the cruise line umbrella, dressing gown, binoculars or other bits and pieces around the cabin. You will likely be charged for those and often at a much higher amount than if you had requested one to buy.

#5 Statement

A very smart thing before disembarking is to check your statement carefully.

Although fewer lines are doing it, a statement may be left overnight for you to check. Although, on my recent Holland America and Princess cruises I had to check it in the app or on the cabin television.

It is essential to check that everything is right, as once you’re off the ship, you will find it impossible to change anything. I did find on my last Princess cruise that some drinks charges on the last night weren’t mine. I got those removed before leaving. If I hadn’t checked before disembarkation, I would not have been able to get that sorted. Checking final night charges is a tip from smart cruisers who have been burnt on that.

Getting Disembarkation Day Right

#6 On-Board Credit

A smart thing is to not throw money away. So, during the cruise I check what is refundable and non-refundable with onboard credit.

If I have refundable onboard credit, there’s no need to spend it all because it will be refunded to my card. But if I have non-refundable onboard credit, I make sure I’ve used that up before the last night.

#7 Getting Off the Ship

There are a few smart things I learnt about getting off the ship that people make mistakes around.

If the elevators are busy and full of other guests leaving, I go to a different elevator area. Disembarkation is often midships, so if I go to the elevators that are forwards or aft, I normally find they’re not as busy.

And if it is busy and taking too much time, I get in and go up with the elevator to come back down.

Make sure you’ve got your cruise card or if you’re on Princess, your medallion at the ready because you will need that to get off. It’s not like in a hotel where you can just leave your keys in the room or drop them in a check out box at reception.

Check you’ve got your passport, and your luggage tag colour that you need.

If you found this helpful, why not find out the smart things to do on embarkation day in this video here, where I start by talking about the single biggest mistake and blunder that people make on embarkation day. See you over there.

View more of my cruising tips.



Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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