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How long does it take to get off a cruise ship?

02 Jan 2023
Matt Hochberg

When your cruise ship comes into port, how much time will it take to get off the ship?

Cruise ships travel the world, with stops in many ports along the way. Whether it's the last day of your cruise or just a scheduled visit somewhere, the disembarkation process can be different depending on a few factors.

There's crowds to contend with, along with the logistics of getting passengers and belongings off the ship, local authorities, and more.

If you're to cruising, you want to know how long does it take to get off the cruise ship. Let's break down everything you need to know about debarking a cruise ship so you know exactly what to expect.

How long does it take to get off a cruise ship while visiting in port?

On a day your cruise ship visits a port of call, the disembarkation process depends on a few factors.

Before anyone can get off a cruise ship, the country you are visiting needs to clear the ship. Usually a maritime entity will board the ship and do some kind of an inspection to verify the paperwork is accurate and all regulations are being followed.

This must be done at every port of call, even private islands operated by the cruise lines.

How long it takes local authorities to clear a ship depends and can be a few minutes or closer to an hour.

Once the ship is good to proceed the next question is your ship docking at a pier or shuttling guests off via tenders?

The fastest option is if your ship can dock at a pier.  Once the ship is tied up and local authorities clear the ship, guests can walk off the ship just as fast as they can pass through security to indicate they've checked out for the day.

Wonder of the Seas docked at CocoCay

Tender boats have a limited capacity and it takes time to load them up and then subsequently unload them later. The result is usually a wait onboard the ship for a spot on a tender, followed by a wait for the tender to proceed to shore.

No matter which method you have to disembark the ship, you'll need to scan your SeaPass card to show you're off the ship. This is done to have an accurate guest head count for later in the day to know if all passengers are onboard.

Keep in mind any minors need to have an adult present when disembarking the ship, including teenagers. If you want to meet your teens later on shore, they will need an adult with them to disembark the ship. If not, they'll be denied disembarkation.

Freedom of the Seas Live Blog Day Five - Grand Cayman | Royal Caribbean Blog

So how long does the whole process take? Once the gangway is open for disembarkation, the real wait is simply how many other people are ahead of you.

When the gangway is open early in the morning, there's rarely a backup of guests to get off the ship (unless it's a tender stop).

If your ship is docked at a pier, expect the disembarkation process to only take a few minutes from when you get down to the gangway area.  In most cases, the longest time required  is the time needed to walk down the pier once off the ship.

Freedom of the Seas docked in CocoCay

If your ship is tendering, you're at the mercy of how many tenders are available, distance from shore, and demand from fellow guests. It could be 10-15 minutes or as long as an hour. 

How long does it take to get off a cruise ship when the cruise is over?

Back-to-back cruises tips and advice | Royal Caribbean Blog

The process for getting off your cruise ship and going home when the cruise is over has a few more steps you should be aware of.

Royal Caribbean will publish a time your ship is due back into port, but this is only the time the ship docks.  Not the time guests can actually walk off the ship.

Just like a port call, your cruise ship will first need to get clearance from local authorities. Sometimes this is a mere formality and sometimes the inspection takes a while longer. There's no way to know in advance what to expect.

In order to prevent a mass exodus at the same time, Royal Caribbean divides up its passengers by groups. 

Once the ship is cleared, the first people allowed off the ship will be anyone taking their own luggage off the ship. 

Known as self-debark or "walking off the ship on your own", you are responsible for taking all your belongings off the ship and getting them through the cruise terminal.

Allure of the Seas in Galveston cruise terminal

The longest wait for this is from other people wanting to be among the first to walk off the ship, and there can sometimes be a line of guests waiting to walk off the ship in the morning. This is especially true for weekend cruises when locals are eager to get off the ship and back to work in time.

The good news is the time to walk off the ship is fairly quick once the line starts moving.  As long as there's no delay in the cruise terminal backing up the line, you should be able to walk off the ship in a matter of minutes since all you'll need to do is scan your SeaPass card to indicate you are off the ship.

I've found the longest waits can be for elevators in the morning of the last day of the cruise, rather than a wait to walk off the ship.

Luggage waiting in cruise terminal

If you chose to have Royal Caribbean take your luggage off the ship for you, then you'll need to wait for your group number to be called.

The group numbers correspond to your luggage tag number. When a number is called, it means all the luggage for that number are ready to be picked up in the cruise terminal.

Luggage in hallway

You could walk off the ship before your luggage tag number is called, but you'll simply end up waiting in the cruise terminal for all the luggage to be brought out. Plus, you'll create a crowd and that causes issues for everyone else.

Once your number is called, then you proceed to the gangway area and scan your SeaPass card as you leave the ship.

Oasis of the Seas in Port Canaveral

The time needed to walk off the ship is usually pretty steady, especially at Royal Caribbean's newest cruise ship terminals. This includes:

Don't worry if your cruise comes back to another terminal, things will likely still move quick enough.

Docked in Terminal A

The biggest issue with knowing how long it will take to walk off the ship are factors no one can truly know in advance:

  • How many other guests will try to get off the ship at the same time as you?
  • How long it will take authorities to clear the ship?
  • Will there be any logistical issues encountered that slow the process?

It could take a few minutes or an hour to walk off the ship once it's over.

The entire process will take a few hours to get every single passenger off the ship when the cruise is over. Usually the last guests are walking off the ship in the 9:00am hour.

Suite guests

Royal Suite on Liberty of the Seas

If you're staying in a Royal Caribbean suite, the disembarkation process can be faster than for other guests.

The suite concierge can provide expedited disembarkation, which means they will escort you and other suite guests off the ship at a pre-arranged time and bypass some of the line.

In my experience, this means the concierge will walk you past some or all of the line leading up to the check-point where you scan your SeaPass card.  This can save a lot of time, if the check-out line is backed up.

Similarly, a Royal Genie will provide the same service for their guests, albeit just for Star Class passengers. This includes a dedicated elevator and better luggage support on the final morning.

What's earliest time you can walk off if you take your own luggage?

Self assist early walk off is the first to leave the ship after clearance from local authorities. 

The issue here is what time the ship gets cleared, and there's no definitive way to know in advance.

In a lot of cases, it can begin around 7:00am. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

Do not assume the time listed for your ship to dock at the pier is the time you can actually walk off the ship.

Top ways to get off the ship fastest when your cruise is over

If your goal is to be able to get off your cruise ship fastest when it's over, here are some tried-and-true methods that work for a lot of people.

Walk off with your own luggage

Luggage lined up in hallway

If you can take your own luggage off the ship, then you can disembark just as soon as the ship is cleared. This puts you more in control of your own destiny.

You can even start lining up for disembarkation before the ship is cleared to ensure you're among the first off the vessel.

Of course, this means you have to lug all your belongings out of your room, down the hall, and into an elevator.  Then you have to be able to physically carry everything without any assistance off the ship. Solo cruisers and couples may be able to do this, but families usually find it impossible.

Have a passport

If you have a passport, you'll be able to get through the cruise terminal much faster than if you have just a birth certificate.

Most Royal Caribbean terminals now have facial recognition for guests with a passport. It's the fastest way to get on your way.

Stay in a suite

Crown Loft Suite

The suite concierge provides so many benefits, and priority disembarkation can be worth its weight in gold if getting off the ship with a minimal wait is important to you.

When long lines develop for walking off, the concierge can shave off a lot of time with their ability to cut the line.

You'll need to stay in a Grand Suite or higher for this benefit, and suites are far from inexpensive.

Purchase The Key

A benefit of being a guest that purchases Royal Caribbean's VIP program, The Key, is you'll get a special luggage tag.

You won't get to cut the line, but you will be assured your luggage is among the first delivered to the cruise terminal.

Matt started Royal Caribbean Blog in 2010 as a place to share his passion for all things Royal Caribbean with readers. He oversees all the writers at Royal Caribbean Blog, and writes a great deal of content on a daily basis.  He has become one of the foremost expert on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Over the years, he has reached Pinnacle Club status with Royal Caribbean's customer loyalty program.

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