How to get off the Ship Quickly at Journey’s End


Your vacation is over. You want to get home. Why must I wait? There must be a better way.

The trend is for ships to get bigger and bigger. Symphony of the Seas, an Oasis class Royal Caribbean ship, carries 6,680 passengers and weighs in at over 228,000 tons. Big ships can provide lots of entertainment, but they still need to get everyone on and off.

Our experience of big ships has been Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. At 148,000 tons it was big (once) and carries 2,600+ passengers. It’s still big enough for you to face the problem, “How can I get off quickly?”

Let’s consider the default option as the starting point. You booked into a less expensive Britannia class cabin. If they represent about 85% of the accommodations on board, that’s about 85% of the passengers. A day or so before arrival, you find color coded luggage tags in your cabin. You realize you are disembarking mid-morning. Because the ship docks about 6:00 AM and clears Customs an hour later, there’s not much for passengers to do besides wait. This feels like wasted time. You want a solution.

  1. Walk off. If you can carry or roll your own luggage without assistance, you can walk off about 7:30 AM. They make plenty of announcements. You keep your luggage in your cabin. It’s the ocean going equivalent of flying with carry ons, only the bags can be bigger.
  2. Spend a lot. When you book Grill level accommodations, the line provides plenty of perks. This includes boarding on the “short line” and being in the first few groups to disembark, based on your colored luggage tags. You don’t need to carry your bags, they are among the first unloaded. It’s like flying into Heathrow and finding the bags tagged Priority are already unloaded by the time you reach the baggage carousel after clearing Immigration.
  3. Sail a lot. If you move up the ranks of the affinity program, you either get an earlier disembarkation time or a nicer lounge to sit in while you are waiting, complete with snacks. You can also visit the tour office a day earlier, show your status and politely ask for an earlier disembarkation time.
  4. Book their transfers. This was my eye opening experience. We booked the Southampton to Heathrow bus transfers. These many folks gather in a lounge. They are off very early. Luggage is waiting for you. The busses are lined up outside. It all happens very quickly. We used to struggle off with our bags, hoping to find a taxi to take us to the National Express bus station. The ship’s transfers were far easier. They cost about the same.
  5. Ask nicely. The line wants you to come back. OK, so you have no special status. You booked a regular cabin. Visit the tour office after you get those luggage tags. Explain you would like to get off earlier. Can they help you? They might not bump you from last to first, but they will probably give you tags corresponding to an earlier disembarkation time. Problem solved.

Bear in mind what happens in the background. Back home, when a commuter train arrives at its destination, people get off. Different people get on. It might be an almost immediate turnaround. At the airport, the arriving flight from Chicago becomes the departing flight for Philadelphia almost immediately. When a cruise ship docks, they need to get all the people off, a couple of thousand beds made, towels changed and cabins cleaned. They need to re-provision the ship with enough food for a week. There’s lots to do. If the ship clears Customs at 7:00 AM, all this needs to be done by about 1:00 PM, to bring the next couple of thousand people aboard. Their objective is to get everyone off as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International.

Story courtesy of Bryce Sanders.

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