One of the greatest fears of any cruiser new or experienced is getting back to the ship after it has already begun to push back from the dock. This could quite litterally be the end of your cruise since depending on the conditions you may be forced to fly home or if you are lucky pay hundreds, or even thousands of dollars to have someone from the port take you out to the ship on a tender.
I'll admit that there have been several times when this has ALMOST happened to me. The first and closest call was in Georgetown, Grand Cayman when my companions and I were having too much fun at a rum distillery. We looked up in a not exactly sober condition and discovered we had exactly 30 minutes till the last tender back to the ship. However, with about a 20 min ride and a 10-20 minute expected wait time for the taxi that was not a sure thing. Thankfully, we were not the last to arive and the tender departed late. That's not something I want to ever happen again since the anxiety and stress of missing the boat is not a feeling that I wish on anyone.
As a result, going forward we always try to be 30-45 minutes early to return so that if something goes wrong we have a buffer.
Sadly, this isn't a rare occurance but it seems more common in certain ports than others. For instance, in places Cozumel or Ensenada, Mexico it is very common because in both locations there is a large percentage of people who have been drinking in bars or beach clubs during the day. Other places such as many Alaska ports of call also face this problem for a similar reason. Specifically here, many excursions are far from the port such as whale watching trips, helicopter flights to glaciers, and bus or train tours. In those instances, you are far from the port and any number of mechanical issues can cause the entire tour to be delayed.
In fact, this exact situation happened to us a few years ago in Victoria, British Columbia where our boat had engine problems. At one point the captain and engineer are tending to an engine that is giving off smoke while we sit in the middle of the Salish Sea. Once again though, we were lucky and managed to get back to the boat on time.
Tips To Help Avoid Being Late To The Ship And Risking Possibly Being Left Behind
Verify The Time In Port Before You Disembark - for new cruisers, one of the more challenging things is that sometimes your ship will be on a different time than the local community. This is extermely important to check before disembarking because if the ship is operating an hour ahead of the port then getting back to the pier at 5pm local time when the ship departs at 5pm ship's time is going to be a problem!
Write Down The All Aboard Time - at very least you should text or message it to your partner or someone in your family but if you think you may forget it, put it on a slip of paper and put it safely into your wallet.
Always Have A Digital Copy Of Your Passport On Your Phone - while it is a generally good idea to carry an approved government issued ID such as a REAL ID enabled drivers license, passport card, or something similar with you as well, having easy access to your passport is also a good idea since you never know what might happen if you run into trouble with law enforcement.
Carry Extra Cash With You - while you can usually use a credit card for most transportation in cruise port areas, cash is always king. Not only will this help eliminate situations where a taxi driver does not accept credit cards but it can also be used for tips to encourage the driver to get back to the port more rapidly.
Take Official Cruise Line Tours If You Will Be Far From The Port - In the situation where we nearly got stranded outside Victoria, the captain of our cruise ship was under no obligation to wait for us if we had been late returning. However, on excursions booked directly through the cruise line it is generally the policy that they will either wait for the tour to return or pay for your transit to the next port where you can meet the ship. If you choose to book excursions independently - as I do very frequently - then make sure you have plenty of time to return safely. In the case of our whale watching tour, we were scheduled to get back several hours before the ship would be departing so even if we had been delayed significantly, there would have been no issues for us.
So, What Happens If You Get Back To The Ship After It's Pushed Back?
As I mentioned above, people miss the embarkation time on a fairly regular basis. It's almost a statistical guarantee that when you have 2-3,000 (or more) guests on a ship that SOMEONE will be left behind. Because of this, every port has a Ship's Agent. This person's job is to assist anyone who misses the ship and they will be able to communicate directly with the ship to determine any potential help in getting the guest onboard at this port or meeting the ship at a different port later in the itinerary. They will also help with arranging hotels, onward flights, or sometimes even a tender or pilot boat to meet the cruise ship in the harbor. Do NOT expect the pilot boat option though as this is a very rare option and completely at the discretion of the captain and port.
Many factors go into consideration when this rare option is evaluated and the comfort, safety, and security of the ship is always the prime consideration.
While guests may think it would be a simple proceedure to run a boat out to meet the ship, than can lead to a delay of 30 minutes or even an hour for the rest of the passengers. Additionally, factors such as the location of the next port, tides, current, nationality of the passengers left behind, and any fees and penalties that the ship may incur by waiting at the dock or even waiting in the harbor so that the guest can get out to the ship are all taken into consideration.
Frankly speaking, the stress factor or an individual guest or two is usually not worth the thousands of dollars in cost as well as inconvenience of the rest of the ship.
Just Don't Be Late Getting Back To The Cruise Ship!
Mistakes sometimes happen but it is up to you to do what is in your control to reduce the chance that you'll be late to the port. Make sure to follow our advice above and most importantly, just plan to return 30-45 minutes before the ship is scheduled to depart. In many ports there will be bars or restaurants by the cruise pier and so if you want to squeeze every last drop out of your visit to Mazatlan for instance, come back an hour early and enjoy some margaritas and tacos in the shopping village before returning to the ship. The folks there will make sure to let you know when it's time to return to the ship and you can be sure to not be left behind!