How to disembark your cruise ship before everyone else

Bigger ships mean more cabins, and more cabins mean more people trying to disembark at the same time. Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, currently the largest ship in the world, can carry 6,988 passengers when completely full. Just imagine the crowds as everyone tries to leave the ship on the final morning of your cruise.

Want a more peaceful debarkation? Here, TPG shares its favorite secret for disembarking your cruise ship ahead of almost everyone else on the last day of your voyage. This tip is especially helpful for newbie cruisers who might not know this option exists.

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How cruise ship disembarkation works

Before we share our secret, you should have a basic understanding of how cruise ship disembarkation works.

As you approach the end of your cruise, your cabin attendant will leave a newsletter in your room with information about the disembarkation process. It should answer most of the questions you have about how to spend your last morning on board.

You’ll be told to leave your packed luggage outside your cabin door by midnight on the evening before disembarkation. (Just remember to leave out shoes and clothes to wear the next day — yes, people have forgotten to do this — and any medications and paperwork you’ll need in your carry-on until you are reunited with your luggage.)

Related: 16 mistakes cruise ship passengers make on disembarkation day

You’ll also receive color-coded luggage tags indicating if you’re taking cruise line-arranged transportation to the airport or a hotel or if you’ve made independent plans. Affix those tags to your bags before leaving them for crew pickup — that’s the only way the crew will know where to direct your luggage.

In the middle of the night, crew members pick up the bags in the ship’s hallways; in the morning, they move them out onto the pier’s holding area. This is where you’ll claim your things before exiting the cruise terminal and boarding transportation to the airport or your next destination.

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luggage dock cruise ship

Before you can exit the ship, you must wait for your group (remember those color-coded tags we mentioned) to be called. Depending on where your group falls in the debarkation process, you could be waiting a long time.

Once your group is called, it can feel like a stampede as everyone races to the gangway at the same time. The stairwells and elevators will be crammed with people, and the line to swipe your keycard one final time can snake throughout the atrium and the surrounding public areas. People are often grumpy and can be pushy as they try to get off the ship as quickly as possible.

How to avoid the crowds

Cruise lines do give you a second option for debarkation, and we suggest you choose this option to avoid the queues and crowds. It’s called self-disembarkation (sometimes self-assist or express departure, depending on your cruise line).

The main difference is that you don’t leave your luggage outside your cabin door and instead commit to carrying it yourself. In most cases, independent travelers using the self-disembarkation option may leave the ship before anyone else. You can exit the terminal before the customs line is packed or before the taxi queue gets out of control.

Related: How long does it take to disembark a cruise ship?

This independent option isn’t always obvious, especially to new cruisers who don’t know to look for it. It’s easy to go into auto-pilot and leave your bags outside your door along with everyone else. But if you want to disembark your ship before the other cruisers, self-assist is the way to go.

Who should and shouldn’t try this disembarkation hack

This method is especially useful for travelers who didn’t buy the cruise line’s transfer back to the airport or local hotel and those who have an early flight. Just listen for the onboard announcement saying self-disembarkation travelers may go ashore (which happens as soon as customs officers clear the ship), grab your things from your cabin and proceed to the exit gangway.

You will need to carry all your bags yourself, with no help from the crew, and cruise ships don’t offer luggage carts like hotels do. We don’t recommend this option for passengers traveling with lots of unwieldy luggage. It’s a much easier option for people who travel light.

Related: How to cruise with just a carry-on

Also, some elevators might shut down on disembarkation day to allow the crew to use them exclusively to move luggage from the ship to the dock. Even when all the elevators are operational, they can get crowded with everyone simultaneously going to and from breakfast and heading with their bags down to the lower-level public areas. You might need to carry your luggage down a flight or more of stairs, so we don’t recommend this option if you cannot manage your bags on your own.

Finally, you must be prepared to be up and out of your cabin early because the self-disembarkation group is the first one called. You might be asked to leave the ship as early as 7 a.m. You will avoid the crowds, but you also won’t get one last leisurely morning of vacation.

Bottom line

For independent and fit travelers who don’t have a ton of luggage, self-disembarkation can get you off the ship and on your way to your next destination in a matter of minutes. It’s worth missing some extra sleep to have an easy, rather than exasperating, last morning on board.

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