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What happens on Turnaround Day on a Cruise?

16 Apr 2024
Matt Hochberg

Cruise ships conclude one sailing and begin the next sailing on the same day, which means a lot has to happen to have the vessel, crew, and supplies ready in just a few hours.

What is turnaround day?

Known as turnaround day, there are just a handful of hours in the morning and early afternoon to get everything ready while simultaneously ensuring passengers disembark so new ones can board.

The process is anything but simple, and involves a great deal of logistics from Royal Caribbean's headquarters, the ship, and the cruise terminal staff to make it all work seamlessly.

It's a fast-paced day of unloading, loading, stocking, preparing, and serving. All while ensuring the cruise ship passengers never notice any of it happening around them.

The disembarkation process

As a cruise ship returns to its homeport to complete its journey, the busy disembarkation process begins quite early in the morning.

Most cruise ships arrive at the terminal in the early hours of the morning, usually around 6 or 7am. The ship docks at the pier and then is required to file paperwork with the local authorities to allow the disembarkation process to begin.  A ship returning to port is no different than an airplane flying into an airport; the immigration and border patrol process needs to occur.

Once the ship is cleared, crew members begin working to get what's necessary off the ship and start prepping for the next sailing. Hundreds of crew members start turnaround day at 6:30 a.m., before guests onboard have even started disembarking.


Passengers can enjoy one final breakfast onboard and then must disembark the ship shortly thereafter. Royal Caribbean requires all guests to be out of their stateroom by 8am.

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

Luggage being brought on

At the same time, passenger luggage is offloaded to the cruise terminal so that it can be retrieved later. Thousands of pieces of luggage will be taken by a crew of longshoremen from the ship to the terminal.

Luggage was collected the night before by housekeeping staff from the ship's hallways, and organized based on the tags guests used to indicate what time they would be disembarking.

In addition, the process of unloading waste begins.  Cruise ships have a sophisticated approach to managing where everything goes once people are done with it, from human waste to recycling to leftover food.

Read more: Where does the poop go on a cruise ship?

Recycling center

Royal Caribbean's ships have a designated waste and recycling center. There are separate teams to deal with each incoming recyclable: glass, cardboard, plastic, and metal.

The ship has an incinerator, as well as a compactor for processing plastic waste. The compactor crushes approximately 528 gallons of water bottles.

Once the ship returns to port, it can then transport plastic, aluminum, paper, and glass for recycling through a third party vendor.

Cleaning and maintenance

Prepping a cabin

While the ship is being resupplied, other crew members are hard at work prepping the ship to look its best.

Every cabin on a ship is turned over at once, which begins as soon as the first guests disembark.  An army of crew members tackle the cabins to clean and sanitize the room for the next room. The thousands of cabins need to be ready for the next set of passengers by as soon as 1pm. The Oasis Class cabins have around 2,700 cabins each.

Dirty laundry
Photo by JohnK6404

Dirty laundry is taken from the cabin to the laundry rooms below the ship's waterline so it can be sanitized for use again.  Meanwhile, clean linens, towels, and duvet covers are brought into the cabin to replace what was taken.

Not only do cabins need to be cleaned, but the rest of the ship too.

Public venues such as bars, restaurants, shops, and the pool deck are all reset accordingly.  Surfaces are wiped down, and dining facilities readied so they can be used again.

Cleaning the ship

Depending on the circumstances, this is also when shoreside maintenance teams come aboard to repair and service various parts of the ship.  Similar to a race car pit stop, some work gets done on turnaround day if it requires supplies not onboard.  Every ship has a team of maintenance workers and engineers to keep things operating, but occasionally workers are needed to come onboard to do additional work.

Restocking and preparation

Resupplying the ship

A Royal Caribbean cruise ship has to be supplied with just about everything passengers and crew will need for the duration of the cruise.  Some supplies are actually stocked for more than one sailing will need, in case there's a delay returning to port. 

Frozen items, such as prime rib or fish, are brough every two or three weeks. More than 10,000 rolls of toilet tissue, 1,000 new light bulbs, almost 2,000 pounds of coffee are typically brought onboard.

Read more: How over 6,000 people are served meals every day on the world's largest cruise ship

Pallet of supplies

On turnaround day, trucks carrying 500 pallets of new inventory will arrive at the cruise terminal to be loaded.  In the case of Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class ships, about 600,000 pounds of food and beverages get loaded on the ship. And it all has to be loaded onto the ship in about 9 hours.

Supplies coming onboard

The supplies need to be perfectly planned for the next cruise so that there's enough of what the ship needs without having excess and not running out of anything at the same time. 

All of the new supplies get brought onboard on the ship's lowest deck, which is usually deck two. 

Chef inspecting new supplies

The chefs inspect all of the herbs, fresh fruits and vegetables, specially sourced meats, and other food items to ensure the best quality for our guests.

The embarkation process

Guests on gangway

While a cruise ship is still unloading waste and loading provisions, new guests are ready to start their Royal Caribbean vacation.

The final passengers are usually off the ship around 9:00am - 9:30am, and the embarkation process begins in earnest around 10:00am.

Once the local authorities clear the ship, new passengers are allowed to board and that means certain venues need to be ready for them as soon as they board. Bars, pools, and certain restaurants are open and ready for new passengers just a couple of hours since they waved goodbye to guests on the previous sailing.

Crew member emuster

One requirement of all new passengers is to complete the mandatory passenger safety drills, which is required by SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea). This is an international maritime agreement that establishes all passengers know what to do in case of an emergency.

In the case of Royal Caribbean, the eMuster drill allows guests to watch a safety video on their mobile device and then report to their muster station so they know where it is.  A subset of crew members must staff the muster stations to be able to check guests in, ensure they understand what to do in the case of an emergency, and answer questions.

Read more: 15 Royal Caribbean boarding process tips for a fast embarkation

Luggage being brought on

Back at the cruise terminal, luggage from new guests is brought onboard the ship to be delivered to passenger's cabin. Embarkation runs until about 3pm, so that means a steady stream of new passengers boarding and getting luggage on the ship.

Each piece of luggage needs to be screened to ensure there are no prohibited items. Any bag flagged by security in the security process is held back and the guest notified to come to security so the bag can be opened and inspected.

Read more: What can you not bring on a cruise

If there's no contraband in the luggage, it is then taken onto the ship and delivered.

A frenetic and well-planned day

Loading at the pier

It's no simple task to unload and load a cruise ship in just a few hours, but Royal Caribbean makes it look so easy considering how it's done every few days on every ship in the fleet.

Turnaround day ensures everyone and everything gets taken off the ship in a timely manner, and then subsequently getting ready for the next sailing. It's an exercise in extreme logistics, and the average cruiser has no idea how much goes into making it all work.

Crew members from officers to the lowest ranks work together to make such a complex operation run smoothly. The cruise line and all of its crew have to be really efficient every step of the way.

Cruise ships are often described as a small city, and it takes a great deal of effort to make it all work just right.

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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