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by Alan Walker

Disembarkation Day - the least fun day on a cruise. It's not just the sadness of your wonderful cruise experience coming to an end: there's a whole ritual to disembarking that can be both mystifying and aggravating to the first-time cruiser, and even for repeat cruisers. Let's see if we can demystify and de-aggravate the disembarkation procedure (which one jokester has called "deboating" in the same way as leaving a plane is called "deplaning").

Tips Welcome

This article is written with first-time cruisers in mind, but even if you're an experienced cruiser, perhaps I can share a tip or two with you. If you can tell me any of your own techniques for surviving disembarkation, I'd be happy to hear from you.

Why the Disembarkation Doldrums

Consider the problem that a cruise ship has when it enters its final port of call. An average cruise ship nowadays might have some 1500 passengers in 750 cabins, and the average passenger has at least two bags. Those same 1500 passengers and 3000+ bags who embarked fairly leisurely over perhaps a five hour time span a week earlier must now all be off the ship in as little as two hours. Imagine a hotel of the same size (and a 750 room hotel would be a very large hotel), having all its guests check out the same morning and another 1500 guests checking in the same day! But your cruise ship has more to contend with than just the logistics of off-loading us passengers and our luggage; the ship's crew must deal with port authorities in respect of the formalities of a ship arriving in port (whether a freighter or a cruise ship), AND, dealing with immigration and customs officials. Immigration formalities, in particular, can vary from port to port, but in many ports, immigration officials come on board, and will not allow ANY passengers to leave the ship until all passengers and crew have been properly checked.

Disembarkation Lecture

Almost every cruise ship will have a "disembarkation lecture" on the second last day. It's not a bad idea for first-time cruisers to attend this lecture, although you will often find that the lecture is repeated on your cabin TV throughout the last day. The ship's daily paper will also have a summary of the major points of the next day's disembarkation.

Pecking Order

Having finished your cruise, it's natural to want to get on with your homeward journey. When the ship's staff tell you that you can't leave the ship until they tell you, it seems like your former cruise ship paradise has now become almost a prison. Passengers invariably have flights to catch, and the purser's staff (now sometimes called the "guest relations staff") will find out all the individual flight details (by way of questionnaires delivered to your cabin), some time in the middle of your cruise (sometimes even at the beginning of your cruise). The time of your flight will determine your pecking order: the earlier your flight, the earlier you will be allowed off the ship. Typically, cruise lines issue different-colored luggage tags to passengers the night before, and the color of your baggage tag determines the order of disembarkation. In addition to early flights, the ship will likely organize a city tour or other shore excursion for later-leaving flights and the tour will end up at the airport. The ship may also organize bus transfers for those passengers staying overnight or longer in the disembarkation port as part of a post-cruise package. It's not unusual to find that there are more than 10 different categories for disembarkation, and the last passengers off the ship are usually those who live in the disembarkation port, or whose travel plans are not time-sensitive.


Before You Cruise

It may seem strange to be thinking about getting off the ship before you've even got on it, but there are a couple of important decisions that you can make about your luggage before you leave home. First, you need to know that the usual routine on board a cruise ship is that you must put your major baggage (and I don't mean your spouse (grin)) out in the hallway before you go to bed on the last night. This procedure gives the ship's crew the opportunity to get all the suitcases at one central point on the ship so that the bags can be rapidly unloaded with equipment upon arrival. You will obviously need some kind of overnight bag to take off your toiletries, valuables and extras on the last morning. Pick your overnight bag with some care. It's tempting to use the typical airline bag on wheels, but keep in mind that you're on a ship, not in an airport. As you line up to disembark, you'll probably end up going down a few staircases (the elevators on board will be too busy to use), and it's no fun having to carry that heavy bag down staircases and off the ship - the wheels won't help you much. Think about a smaller bag that you can carry over your shoulder.

Pink Bags?

The other baggage issue you should think about is actually finding your bags once you get on-shore. Remember those colored luggage tags I spoke of before - your bags and all bags with the same color tags will be together, but you still could be searching through a pile of 300 bags or more - and you'll do the walking around to find them - you won't have the equivalent of an airport luggage carousel passing all the baggage in front of your eyes. So, those bags of yours that you think you can spot anywhere - make 'em stand out! Fluorescent- pink duct tape of your initials may be overkill, but whatever you do, remember that your bags (which are unlikely to be grouped together) could be standing vertical or could be flat on the ground with either side up. I can guarantee you that you won't feel relaxed when disembarking until you find those bags. Depending on where you disembark, there may be skycaps (boatcaps?) around to help with your bags, so keep some US bills handy for any necessary tip.

The Night Before

In addition to all those packing decisions on the last night, including what to wear off the boat (and don't forget to keep a complete outfit - there's all kinds of stories of people who have packed TOO much into their cases that have been whisked away overnight, leaving an embarrassed passenger who doesn't have something essential like shoes or even pants to get off the ship!), you need to keep an eye on what your cabin steward is going to do in preparation for your leaving and his new customers arriving the next day. That folder on your cabin table with the postcards, stationery and other goodies will likely disappear on the last night - take what you want the day before. If bathrobes were provided, you'll find they've gone for washing on the last night. Your stocked mini-fridge may be locked up, so don't rely on accessing it or storing your own stuff in it the last night. Your basket of fresh fruit may disappear. The last night changes can be a little aggravating, but have pity on your cabin steward and all he has to do to get ready for your replacements the next day.

Breakfast Blackout

You've been sailing for a week and enjoying a casual late breakfast at the breakfast buffet on deck some days. Perhaps you've also enjoyed having a room service breakfast on other days. Or perhaps you even made it a few times to the formal breakfast in the dining room at some relatively-civilized hour. Guess what? - none of these alternatives are available on disembarkation morning. Yes, you (and ALL other passengers) can have a formal breakfast at your assigned seating, but it's likely to be at a much earlier hour than usual AND it will be very crowded. (And it doesn't help that a lot of passengers will be dragging their carry-off luggage with them).

If you're not that big on a full breakfast, you may want to consider getting something small ahead of time, and keeping in your cabin. Perhaps pick up some Danish pastries the day before and wrap them up. Take some of that fresh fruit and hide it away so your cabin steward doesn't take it. And this is must for my wife and I: take one of those unbreakable thermoses with you - not only can you get coffee the night before and keep it for the dreaded "D" morning, you can also use it throughout your cruise. Even with room service options, we like being able to pour our own coffee when we finally wake up in our cabin each morning. Also think about buying a bottle of water the night before so that you'll have something to drink in the morning and on the bus trip to the airport. (While there are usually one or two bars open on the ship on the final morning, these are often very crowded).

Ignore Instructions?

Invariably, the ship's newspaper will tell you that you must vacate your cabin by some early hour such as 8 a.m., and you must then wait in the "public areas" until it's your turn to get off the ship. I find that if you've packed up and all you have left in your cabin are your packed carry-off bags, you cabin steward doesn't mind how late you are actually leaving the cabin, so long as he can get into your cabin and start doing his major cleanup. It's certainly convenient for you, and for other passengers, that you don't go off to breakfast trailing all your carry-off luggage behind you (if you haven't followed my suggestion about not using those wheely-carts (grin)).

What To Do and Where To Do It

Almost everyone is bored and frustrated waiting for their color luggage tags to be called for disembarkation. Knowing that ahead of time, plan for it. First of all, get a comfortable place to wait after you have finally given up your cabin. Inconsiderate people (and I know you are not one of those (grin)), will wait right next to the gangway or on adjacent stairs, despite strict instructions from the ship's staff not to do so. Most will wait in the public lounges as instructed, but these can often be very crowed as everyone wants to wait in the lounge or lounges closest to the gangway. Check out the ship the night before as to a comfortable but uncrowded location to spend that last hour or hours. I find that the disco lounge (usually situated on a high deck) is virtually unused and very comfortable, but wherever you pick, make sure you can hear the disembarkation announcements. If you're traveling as a couple or with friends, have one of you check out ahead of time the most efficient way to get to the gangway line-up from your comfortable waiting area.

Save your best magazine or best book for the last morning (and the subsequent plane ride). There's no point just sitting around getting aggravated by the delay in getting off. Bring a deck of cards with you if you're into Solitaire, or if you can find a fellow player. Or keep that Walkman or portable video game handy for those last few hours. Think about taking those last-minute photos up on deck, even if the pool looks strangely uncrowded (grin).

Final Notes

Remember that super deal on rum that you bought in San Juan? Sure, you saved $30, but now you have to carry it off the ship, onto the bus, off the bus, onto the plane, off the plane. etc. Is that really worth $30 to you, especially if you happen to drop it in front of the Customs officer (as happened to a friend of mine)?

It perhaps goes with out saying that you want to do all your paperwork the night before. If you're an American and going through US Customs as you disembark, you'll want to have all your receipts handy, and know what the rules are for what you can bring back duty free.

Disembarkation Day will never be fun, but being aware of what happens and why it happens, plus a little advance planning, can make it survivable. Hope you have a good one(s)!


Alan WalkerOriginally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.

To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Alan Walker" as your search phrase.

Alan is also a member of the Cruise Staff of the CompuServe UK Travel Forum. Alan loves email, and can be reached at: AGWalker@compuserve.com.

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