You’ve had a great cruise, and you want to end your vacation on a high note. Then comes the reality of disembarkation day.
Getting off a cruise ship is not the same as checking out of a hotel. You can’t just leave the ship when you feel like it.
Small and luxury ships can have flexible, even leisurely, disembarkation plans. However, the final day on most big ships is a madhouse.
The crew needs to get everyone out of their cabins and off the ship quickly so they can prepare for the arrival of the next batch of thousands of passengers. It’s a busy work day.
For cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.
Try not to get too sad about the end of your delightful cruise vacation. Just be prepared for a little chaos, and take these steps to avoid any common disembarkation day mistakes.
Check your bill
The night before disembarkation, a statement of everything you spent on the ship for drinks, specialty restaurants, spa treatments, souvenirs and any other splurges will be placed outside your cabin door.
Mistakes happen, and inevitably there will be long lines at guest services on disembarkation day with people arguing about specific charges.
Avoid the crowd by either getting there super early or, better, heading to guest services the last night of your cruise and asking for a printout. Carefully check the statement, and ask for any required adjustments. On some ships, you can even do this electronically on the cruise line’s app or smart TV.
Reward your inbox with the TPG Daily newsletter
Join over 700,000 readers for breaking news, in-depth guides and exclusive deals from TPG’s experts
Pro tip: Don’t assume you can fix issues after you get off the ship. It’s nearly impossible to get cruise line land staff to fix onboard billing mistakes.
Don’t get up at the crack of dawn
Your ship might arrive back in port at 6 a.m., but it then has to be cleared by customs officials, which might take two hours or more. Grab an extra hour or two of sleep — unless you still need to check your bill that morning. (See above.)
Avoid early flights home
There is a reason cruise lines recommend guests not book flights home before noon. It takes several hours to clear a ship of thousands of passengers. You might also have to clear customs.
Then you have to get to the airport, which could involve navigating through heavy traffic and waiting in security lines along with hundreds of other cruise travelers fresh off their ships.
Avoid unnecessary heart palpitations by booking afternoon flights.
Check your luggage tags
The day before disembarkation, staff will deliver color- and number-coded luggage tags to your cabin, along with an approximate disembarkation time. The idea is that you put these tags on any luggage you would like the crew to handle. (See below.) These tags are important for both timing and finding your suitcase at the pier.
On disembarkation day, groups will be called by the color and number of the tags — such as Red 1 or Yellow 5 — to head to the atrium to disembark. Don’t bother getting there early, or you’ll find yourself milling around, which can be frustrating. It’s better to grab a coffee and wait in a lounge or out by the pool.
Don’t forget your group color
Luggage at the pier will be sorted by group color and number — and there will be thousands of bags waiting. Take a photo, or otherwise make a notation of your tag color so you will know where to look for your bags.
Pack up your liquor purchases
If you picked up a bottle of Kahlua in Mexico, rum in Jamaica or duty-free booze on your ship — which was, no doubt, held by your cruise line until the last night of the sailing — don’t forget you must pick it up at the time and place your cruise ship tells you before you disembark. Then, pack the bottles in checked baggage if you are flying home.
Carefully wrap them in your dirty clothes. U.S. Customs allows you to enter the country with one liter of an alcoholic beverage per adult duty-free. You can bring in more, but you’ll have to pay the taxes.
Put out your luggage
The system for removing bags from the ship works this way: On the last night of your cruise, you pack your large bags and leave them in the hall for the crew to remove and transfer to the pier.
You also have the option of carrying your own luggage off the ship. However, this is only recommended if you are able-bodied and can haul your bags down flights of stairs on the ship and at the cruise terminal. Elevator banks on both will be extremely crowded.
It’s better to pack as much as you can in your luggage and let someone else do the heavy lifting. (An exception is if you only have a light carry-on, in which case, go for it.)
Set aside clothes for the morning
A rookie mistake is packing too much in the luggage that you leave outside the door, then waking up the next day to realize you forgot to leave out shoes, pants or other necessary items. Don’t be the one walking to the pier barefoot or in your pajamas.
You’ll want to have a carry-on suitcase or tote set aside so you can carry your toothbrush, PJs and other items off the ship. The last night is typically casual, and some cruisers find it easiest to wear the same clothes off the ship the next morning.
Pro tip: If you have any items that can’t go on the plane but that you need at night, put them in a separate small bag so you remember to transfer them to your checked luggage before you get to the airport.
Scour your cabin
You will typically be asked to vacate your cabin by 9 a.m. or earlier on disembarkation day so that the crew can prepare for the next passengers.
If you leave any items behind, it’s difficult to recover them once you’re off the ship. Do a careful check of closets, drawers and even under the bed to make sure you have packed everything.
Don’t forget the bedside table drawers, the very back of the shelves and the safe. If you are traveling with kids, also look for small stuffed animals or other toys hidden in any linens crumpled on the bed.
Don’t take the bathrobe
If you are in a cabin that comes with a bathrobe and slippers, the slippers are typically yours to keep. However, you will be charged if you walk off with the bathrobe. The same rule applies to pool or beach towels stored in your cabin.
Check your safe
Given that safes are tucked away in closets, it’s easy to forget about the important items — passports, wallets, jewelry — you’ve set inside. Check the safe first thing when you get up on disembarkation day, and make sure to reach your hand into every corner to feel for forgotten items.
Don’t pack your keycard, ID or passport
You might think you are done with your keycard when you vacate your cabin, but you will need to tap it once more when you get off the ship.
You’ll need to show your passport or other official identification to customs officials at the cruise terminal. If you have received a customs form, it’s important to fill it out (one per family) before you disembark.
Related: Do I need a passport to cruise?
Go to breakfast
Room service is not always available on disembarkation day. Head to the buffet or main dining room to enjoy a leisurely breakfast — unless you’re in a rush to get to your flight.
Check the open hours before you go because breakfast venues will likely serve meals on a different schedule on the last day of the cruise.
Respect cabin vacancy times
You will drive your room stewards crazy if you linger in your cabin beyond the recommended clear-out time. At the same time, leaving a packed carry-on bag in one corner, out of the way, while you go to breakfast might be acceptable. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Know what your luggage looks like
When you get to the cruise terminal area where thousands of bags have been placed, it helps if you know exactly what your suitcases look like. Putting a colorful ribbon or string on your bags will help you spot them.
Don’t run to the bus
If you’ve paid your cruise line for an airport transfer, don’t get stressed about missing the bus. There will be plenty available.
Staff will be on hand to direct you to a bus going to your specific airline and terminal or that does a circuit to several terminals at the airport. The buses will run again and again until everyone gets a lift.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories: