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Can a cruise ship leave without you?

April 04, 2022
10 min read
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Let me tell you about the cruise passenger phenomenon of “pier runners.” These are folks who are in a port, enjoying the beach, off shopping or otherwise engaged – popular watering holes such as Margaritaville and Señor Frogs are often involved – and lose track of time. If they are lucky and realize they are late, they frantically run back to their ship before it heads to the next port. If they aren’t lucky, the gangway is already up and the cruise ship leaves without them.

These sad sacks make for great drama on social media. Search “pier runners” and you’ll get the drift.

You don’t want to join their lot. A cruise ship can leave without you – and if you get left behind, it will cost you a bundle. Here are ways to avoid that happening, plus what to do if it does.

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Set your watch to ship time

The first lesson for first-time cruisers in terms of visits to ports of call is to read your daily newsletter (delivered to your cabin or detailed on a ship app) and understand any nuances regarding ship time vs. what time it is on shore. When you leave your ship at a port of call, make sure your watch or smartphone is set to ship time.

Know when “all aboard” is

Knowing what time you are working with is important because the ship will set an “all aboard” time, when everyone is expected to be back on board. This is different from the sail-away time, usually about a half hour later. It is, however, when the crew starts to pull in the gangways, preventing stragglers from boarding the ship.

That does not mean you should show up at your ship precisely at the all aboard time. Smart cruisers aim to be back at least an hour before the set time, just in case they encounter traffic delays or any other issues getting back to the pier. (If you wander far, add in extra time.)

Related: 6 ways you can ruin your cruise in an instant

The time that you will be expected to be back on board will be posted in the daily schedule, along with a phone number to call in case of emergency. It’s a good idea to snap a photo of this information. The cruise director also will make announcements — and a sign will be posted as you disembark the ship — noting the “all aboard” time.

Since it’s easy to space out on the beach or get caught up in bargaining for a treasured souvenir, you are best off setting an alarm on your phone to alert you that it’s time to head back to the ship. Keep in mind, there is no glory in being the last person back on board.

Book a ship-sponsored shore excursion

If you are exploring on a ship-sponsored shore excursion and it’s running late, don’t worry. If you purchase a tour through the cruise line, you are guaranteed that the ship will wait if the tour bus is not back by the all aboard time.

If you're nervous about missing the ship, stick to ship-sponsored excursions for added peace of mind. (Photo by Sachin Saraswat/EyeEm/Getty Images)

It’s a matter of numbers. The ship does not want to leave dozens of passengers stranded in port, through no fault of their own, and have to pay to get them to the next port of call.

Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions

Plan for independent tours to end early

If you book a tour through an independent tour company, you don’t get the same guarantee that the ship will wait. That said, established tour operators know ship times and are generally careful to get you back in time. Again, if a bunch of other passengers also booked the same tour, you can worry less about the ship being there when you get back to the pier.

Some operators have their own guarantee that you will get to the ship in time or they will pay to get you to the next port of call. When making reservations with an independent operator, it’s a good idea to both look for such guarantees and read customer comments online. Consider any comments about rushing back to the ship as red flags.

If you’re arranging a customized private tour, make sure you communicate to your guide that you need to be back at the pier well before all aboard time. That buffer time will serve you well if you run into unexpected delays.

The same consideration applies if you snag a last-minute tour deal at the pier. When you disembark your ship at a port of call, you may be barraged with offers from independent guides, taxi drivers, jitney drivers, rickshaw operators and others offering to show you the town and beyond. Before agreeing to a tour, make sure you understand how far you are going from the pier, and make sure your guide understands “ship time” and what time you want to get back.

If you’re late, alert the ship

Every time you board or leave the ship, your key card or RFID device gets scanned. That’s so the security crew knows who is on or off the ship. On really small ships, there may be a manual peg board, where you move the peg to red to indicate you are off and green to indicate you are on.

As the all aboard time nears, the ship’s security staff will monitor who has yet to return to the cruise ship.

If you know you are running late, call the number you recorded from your newsletter, or call the cruise line’s 24/7 number and ask to get a message to the ship. That way, someone will know you’re on your way back.

Related: What happens if you miss your cruise?

As the ship’s all aboard time nears or passes, guest services will try to locate you on board by calling your cabin. An announcement with your name will be made on the ship’s public area PA system, asking you to notify guest services if you are on the ship. If there is no response, your name will be called again, this time using the ship’s emergency announcement system, which the whole ship hears (meaning your situation is now disturbing any of your shipmates who are in their cabins napping).

When in doubt, you can call the ship to let them know what the hold-up might be. (Photo by Olga Shevtsova/EyeEm/Getty Images)

If your cellphone number is in your guest record, a crew member may try to call you directly.

At the same time, security personnel may be dispatched to search for wayward passengers in the area near the port. They know where to look (hello, Senor Frogs), as they have been through this before.

Find the port agent if the cruise ship leaves you stranded in port

A cruise ship will leave passengers behind on shore if they arrive back at the ship too late. But ship staff have procedures in place to help you out.

If you are not on the ship and the departure time is drawing near, a security officer may enter your cabin and open your safe to locate your passport, driver’s license, credit cards or any other important stuff you have left there. They’ll also collect your medication and any other necessities you will need because the ship is about to strand you on shore and you will need to make your own way home.

Related: Passport card vs. passport book: What documents do I need to cruise?

If you are a pier runner, and there is still a gangway open when you get to the ship, all will be returned, you’ll be chastised and your saga ends there. Otherwise, your passport and other important items will be handed over to a port official who will wait for you to finally show up at the pier.

If you arrive back at the pier only to see your ship sailing away, find the port agent. If he or she has your passport that’s a good thing. You will need your passport to fly to the ship’s next destination or home (your choice) from the Caribbean or any other international destination. If your passport has not been handed off to the port agent, you will have to contact your home country’s embassy or consulate for assistance.

Be prepared to pay your way back to the ship or home

You’ve missed the ship. You’ve found the port agent. Now, the “fun” begins. You hopefully are not too close to the limit on your credit cards because you are going to need them. While the port agent may help make your arrangements, it is entirely your responsibility to pay any related travel expenses.

Considering last-minute airfares, and possibly the need to stay at a hotel before your flight, it’s going to cost you a bundle to get back to your ship or head home. If you decide to end your vacation, you will have to pay the cruise line to ship the rest of your belongings home as well. Don’t expect any reimbursement for missed days on the ship.

Related: A guide to travel insurance of cruises

Why do ships leave passengers behind?

The captain makes the decision to leave based on port regulations and schedules and other factors. For instance: The cruise line has paid expensive docking fees and does not want to pay overcharges that kick in when a ship is late leaving the pier. Higher fuel charges may also be involved, if your ship has to race to the next port of call due to a late departure. The cruise line is not going to let your mistake cost the company big bucks.

It’s important to remember that you are only one of hundreds of thousands of guests and cruise ships have rules to follow – getting back to the ship on time being a big one.

Pier runners tend to look insane — running, shouting, signaling with their arms as the ship’s horn blares its departure. You don’t want to be the laughingstock of your cruise ship – but it's still better to run and try to board the ship before it leaves. Missing the boat will both ruin your cruise vacation and cost you a bundle. Follow the strategies listed here so you always get back to the port with plenty of time and avoid getting stranded by your cruise ship.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by (Photo by Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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