Eight Passengers Stranded After Breaking the Number One Rule of Cruise Travel

News Cruises
by Suzie Dundas Apr 1, 2024

Experienced cruisers probably know lots of tips and tricks for traveling on cruise ships: make your dining reservations early, do laundry on board instead of overpacking, and don’t fill your days at sea with back-to-back activities.

But even first-time cruisers know one major rule that applies to all cruise lines, all cruises, and all ships, no matter where in the world you are: don’t miss the boat.

Unfortunately for eight travelers on an African cruise stopped in São Tomé and Príncipe, an island just to the east of Equatorial Guinea, they found out the hard way what happens when you break that rule. When they were late returning to their ship after a day on land, it did what it warned would happen — they were left behind by the cruise.

left behind by cruise - Sao Tome city

Eight passengers on the Norwegian Dawn were left stranded in Säo Tome, roughly 300 miles off the coast of mainland Africa, when they failed to return to port in time for the ship’s departure. Photo: mbrand85/Shutterstock

The group of travelers had booked a daytime excursions through an independent company, rather than booking one directly through their ship, the Norwegian Dawn. While independent tours can be a great way to save money and have a more unique adventure, they come with one major downside, which is that ships won’t wait for passengers who are late. If you book an excursion through your cruise company, the ship is guaranteed to wait for you — but no such offer is made if you book an independent tour.

In various interviews with media outlets, the group recounted that they claimed they told their guide they were running late, causing the guide to call the ship to inform it that passengers would miss the “return to ship” time. By the time the guests finally returned to the port, the ship had finished boarding, though it was still anchored in the harbor. Harbor employees called the ship, and when they got no response, decided to ferry the passengers to the Norwegian Dawn. But the captain did not let them on board, the Daily Mail reports. Per various media sources, the ship did give the passengers their passports, which they had not taken with them.

Two Americans in the group told reporters that they thought the ship should have made an exception, seemingly implying that the following day at sea without a stop meant that it could leave late without consequence. “The captain could have made an easy decision to turn one of the tender boats back, pick us up, safely load us and then go on the way,” passenger Jay Campbell said. “They had no port to call for the next day, they were simply going to be at sea.”

Per Norwegian Cruises’ online documents, it’s the guest’s responsibility to be back to the ship on time. “In all ports of call, it is also the guest’s responsibility to be back onboard the ship no later than one (1) hour prior to the ship’s scheduled departure time. Please be aware that shipboard time may differ from the port of call and it is the guest’s responsibility to follow the shipboard 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,” reads the company’s “Frequent Asked Questions” page.

The travelers are now having to do just that, with the American couple claiming they’ve spent more than $6,000 to cover the group’s time on the island and travel to rejoin the ship in Gambia or Senegal, depending on logistics. Per People Magazine, four of the travelers are older individuals, and one has an unspecified heart condition.

Matador Network recently asked a cruise line exec what happens if passengers miss their ships, and the answer is pretty straightforward across all lines and sailings: they have to pay their way to the next port.

Why ships can’t wait on late passengers

Side view of the Norwegian Dawn ship

The Norwegian Dawn carries more than 2,000 guests and 1,000 passengers, all of whom need to be accounted for before the ship can leave a port. Photo: Dennis MacDonald/Shutterstock

I sailed on the Norwegian Dawn in February 2024, and while it had its ups and downs, the ship does make it very, very clear that it will leave without you if you’re late. It holds about 2,000 people, each of whom has to be accounted before prior to the ship’s departure — which is why the “return to ship” time at various ports is often an hour or two earlier than the actual departure time. That gives the crew and captain time to ready for departure. Large cruises like the Norwegian Dawn have to stick to a strict schedule, and can’t easily make changes.

I know this not because I’m a frequent cruiser — in fact, the Dawn was my first big cruise — but because Norwegian Cruise Lines informs you of this non-stop. The evening before you arrive, there’s a ship-wide announcement with arrival and departure times for the next day. The information is repeated — repeatedly — the morning you arrive in a port. The return to ship time is printed on the daily newsletter handed out in each room, on the free Norwegian phone app, and on all the various message boards around the ship. There’s usually a buffer time built into this window to accommodate guests who are only a few minutes late.

people walking toward a cruise ship

All cruise companies have fixed times by which passengers must return to the ship at each port. Photo: byvalet/Shutterstock

It’s also a fact listed on Norwegian’s excursion’s page. It’s one of the main reasons many cruisers exclusively book official cruise excursions, because they’re the only way to guarantee the ship will wait for you if you’re late. (Third-party and independent activity operators are also unlikely to refund you if the ship makes a last-minute change and skips a port of call).

While I support booking excursions with local operators, it comes with the known risk that you’ll be left behind by the cruise ship if you’re late. That’s exactly what happened in this case, exactly as Norwegian’s website said would happen. While it’s unfortunate and understandably stressful for the travelers, it’s hardly the cruise line’s fault, and I know I’d be a little annoyed if I had made it back in time, only to have the whole ship delayed for a small group people who made a poor decision.

By the way: guests getting left behind at a port is very, very rare — hence why this one occasion is making global headlines.

How to avoid getting left behind by cruise ships

left behind by cruise ship excursions safari vehicle

Independent excursions offer plenty of benefits — but come with the downside that the ship won’t wait if you’re late. Photo: Suzie Dundas

The easiest way for travelers to make sure they don’t get left behind at a port is to book an official excursion through the cruise line. However, official excursions are often more expensive, and a much smaller amount of the cost goes directly to local communities. Without knowing what company or excursions the stranded passengers booked, it’s impossible to know if they followed the rules below. But the following guidelines can help ensure you don’t end up waiving your ship goodbye from land.

  • Book with a company that does offer a return to ship guarantee: Third-party companies can’t make the ship wait for you, but they can handle all the logistics if you do miss it. will pay up to $500 in travel fees if an excursion booked through them causes you to miss your ship, and ToursByLocals will pay for your accommodations and transportation to the next port if you miss your ship. According to their website, it’s only happened twice — ever.
  • Read the online reviews: Plenty of independent operators are reputable and responsible, which means they’re very unlikely to play fast and loose with your return time. The best way to determine if an operator seems reputable is to look at online reviews. Feedback from actual past guests can help you gauge how established and professional the company or tour guide is.
  • Talk to your operator in advance: Reputable operators will be familiar with hosting cruise guests and understand the ins and outs of cruise ship scheduling. If you’re worried about, message your operator in advance. Ask them if they’ve ever has issues with being back on time, whether they’ve served guests on your cruise before, and how much of a buffer they build in for traffic and other potential delays.
  • If you do book a non-official excursion, always carry your passport, some cash, and any critical medication with you, in case of this exact scenario.

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