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What Happens to Late Passengers Left Behind by a Cruise Ship

by Eben Diskin Feb 13, 2024

It’s an eventuality that probably enters the minds of most cruisers but only materializes on the rarest of occasions: missing the ship. The reason it happens so infrequently is because of how catastrophic we imagine it will be — being stranded on an island somewhere, needing to catch the cruise at the next port Amazing Race-style — so we try to avoid it at all costs and take extra care to return to the ship on time. But what if a tardy, breathless passenger shows up at the port only to find their ship pulling away from the dock, sailing ominously into the sunset?

Luckily, the cruise lines are on your side. They don’t want to leave people behind or deal with the logistical nightmare that would ensue. If you’re only a few minutes late, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you miss the all-aboard time by a significant margin, you’ll likely find yourself furiously Googling flights or ferries to the next port, filled with self-reproach for not keeping better track of the time.

Every cruise line has their own way of dealing with late passengers and those who miss the ship. Here’s what you need to know if you do.

What it takes to actually miss the ship

Sometimes, cruise lines must walk a thin tightrope between customer satisfaction and making sure everything runs smoothly. Leaving without a few tardy passengers might mean the cruise stays on schedule, but it results in some not-too-happy campers left onshore and a potential logistical nightmare ensuring they reach the next port safely and on time.

“Sailors missing the ship is an extremely rare occurrence at Virgin Voyages, with only a handful of instances ever recorded,” Alex Zeitz, Senior Director of International Operations, Experience, Inclusions, and Events for Virgin Voyages, tells Matador Network. “We have established protocols to assist anyone who feels they may be at risk of missing the vessel. Our designated Port Agents, representing Virgin Voyages locally, among others, are available to provide support and assistance in such situations.”

Say you find yourself running down the pier, checking your phone’s clock every 30 seconds, because the ship leaves in three minutes and you’re cutting it as close as humanly possible. Well, there’s good news (probably). The ships don’t want to leave anyone behind. Chances are, if you’re just a minute or two late, or you’ve been in touch with the cruise line to alert them to your situation, you’ll be fine.

“We always strive to wait for [late passengers] as long as possible,” Zeitz says. “However, several factors come into play when determining how long we can wait, including the time needed to reach the next scheduled destination, local port regulations and operating hours and procedures, port traffic conditions, and environmental considerations such as tidal levels.”

When I was on a Caribbean cruise, one woman failed to be back on the ship by shipboard time. She hadn’t been in touch with anyone onboard, and the Guest Services department made at least five announcements via the shipwide loudspeaker hoping to get in touch with any passenger who might know her whereabouts. Just as the boarding crew were all packed up and ready to depart, she ran down the pier waving her arms, about 10 minutes past the ship’s departure time. The moral of the story? She was lucky. Every cruise line is different, but they’ll likely give you a very small grace period to show up late. Miss that grace period, and you’re on your own.

So you missed the ship. Now what?

Maybe you completely lost track of time. Maybe you didn’t know you could get in touch with Port Agents to alert them to your tardiness. Maybe you were just too deep in rum punches to remember to catch the ship at all. Whatever the reason, you missed the ship and found yourself alone on the pier with a tear dripping slowly down your face. Are you truly alone, or will the cruise line lend a helping hand? Again, it depends on the cruise line.

“In the unlikely scenario where the ship is unable to wait and must continue with the scheduled itinerary,” Zeitz says, “our shipboard teams collaborate with no less than five to six different local partners and governmental agencies to ensure that we are doing our utmost to assist our Sailors in reaching the next port on time.”

While it’s certainly in the cruise line’s best interest to keep their passengers happy, and generate goodwill by helping them to the next port, they are under no actual obligation to do so. Indeed, “while Virgin Voyages is most often not directly responsible for facilitating a Sailor’s return,” Zeitz says, “our designated Port Agents, as well as our corporate headquarters Crew, will offer local and remote assistance to the best of their ability.”

Even if you do get some logistical assistance, however, you will almost definitely be responsible for your own expenses when reaching the next port. That means covering your own flights, ferries, and lodging.

According to the Norwegian Cruise Line FAQ page, “In all ports of call, it is also the guest’s responsibility to be back onboard the ship no later than one hour prior to the ship’s scheduled departure time … In the event a guest misses the ship, it will be the guest’s responsibility to pay all expenses incurred to rejoin the ship.”

Hopping a flight to a neighboring island or nearby port might be entirely feasible, but keep in mind the associated costs — and the blow to your peace of mind — which likely didn’t factor into your initial cruise booking.

Don’t disembark without these essentials

There are certain steps you can take to avoid missing the ship, beyond the obvious “keeping track of time.” Time simply slips away quicker when you’re on vacation, and unfamiliar environmental conditions like traffic, currency, and time zones can also complicate matters.

“Taking simple steps like setting alarms, and being mindful of local traffic and transportation constraints, can help prevent Sailors being late,” Zietz says. “It’s also important to be aware of the local timezone vs. shipboard time.”

That’s right — the ship’s time isn’t always the same as the local time in the port. This varies by destination and by cruise line, so be sure to double check before disembarking exactly when you need to be back on board.

If the unthinkable happens and you do miss the ship, you don’t necessarily have to feel lost at sea. Disembarking with certain documents can ensure that you have a much smoother transition to the next port.

“Always carry at least one physical government issued photo ID and have easily accessible digital copies of all IDs, documents, and any required visas,” Zeitz advises. “Additionally, Sailors should have the contact details for Virgin Voyages Sailors Services … and travel insurance as well. I might also recommend at least one dose of necessary medication if practical.”

It’s also a good idea to carry a little local currency, just in case you need to bribe your way to a distant shore

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