What is tendering on a cruise ship?

Jun 28, 2022

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If you’re new to cruising, you’ve likely heard of tendering or tender boats, but you might be confused about what they are. What is a tender on a cruise ship? Lest you think that I’m talking about newfangled vessels that are soft and gentle to the touch, I’m here to explain.

Some cruise ports — including Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Grand Cayman; Santorini, Greece; and Sorrento, Italy — don’t allow ships to dock, either due to lack of infrastructure or due to shallow waters that would cause larger vessels to run aground if they got too close to land.

In other instances, cruise ships will sometimes anchor offshore if ports are crowded and there isn’t enough dock space. This often happens in Juneau, Alaska, which has only four berths but which can see as many as six ships in port in the same day.

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Celebrity Edge Magic Carpet
Celebrity Edge’s “Magic Carpet” makes it easy to board a tender. (Photo by Tim Aylen/Celebrity Cruises)

In those cases, ships anchor offshore and passengers are required to take a cruise ship tender to land. On a cruise, tendering is the process of using smaller boats to ferry passengers from their anchored vessel to shore.

What is a tender boat, specifically? Depending on the port, the cruise line and any local agreements that might be in place, tenders can be boats operated by people who live in the destinations ships visit or they can be a ship’s own lifeboats, which are lowered into the water and used to transport cruisers. Most lines refer to the boats as tenders, though Carnival Cruise Line prefers the term “water shuttles.”

On board a tender boat taking passengers from Half Moon Cay back to Holland America’s Rotterdam cruise ship. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Tender rides are free, but on some larger ships, to keep things orderly and fair, you might have to report ahead of time to get a tender number that will tell you the order in which you can disembark the vessel. Your ship will also let you know what time the last tender boat leaves to return from shore for all-aboard.

Suite guests, cruise line loyalty program members with top-tier status, cruisers booked on early departures of ship-sponsored tours and other VIPs will often be allowed on the first tender boat departures ahead of regular passengers.

While tendering allows ships access to ports without cruise ship docks, the process does have its downfalls. Passengers with mobility issues, especially those who use walkers, scooters or wheelchairs, may have difficulty boarding the boats as they bob in the water. The shuttling process takes time, which means simply getting ashore will eat into the time you have to explore in port. Calls on tender ports can be canceled completely for safety reasons if there’s inclement weather.

The boats themselves can also be stuffy and crowded, which is a less-than-ideal way to end a fun day of vacation.

Overall, though, tendering is a fairly simple solution that allows cruise lines to take passengers to a larger variety of port destinations.

Got more cruise questions? TPG has answers:

Featured photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line.

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