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Why A Cruise Ship Can't Simply Turn Around And Let Late Guests Back On

cruise ships can't just turn around - norwegian bliss in puerto vallarta mexico

As an experienced cruiser and travel agent, I'm often asked why cruise ships can't just turn around for late guests. It's not a simple task. This is due to strict safety protocols, the time it takes for a turnaround, and the significant costs associated with delays. There are also preventative measures in place to help guests avoid such situations. Though accidents and unforeseen events such as traffic delays or mechanical failures can create issues that are unavoidable, most of the time, the failure to return to the ship on time is due to guests not planning properly and situations involving alcohol-related carelessness. If you're left behind though, it may be comforting to know that while each case is treated differently, cruise lines and port agents have procedures in place (where possible) to help you return to the ship at the next port.

Unfortuantely for guests that are left behind, the ship can't simply stop and turn around to pick them up. That can be extremely frustrating. However, understanding the complexities of cruise ship operations can help you avoid such predicaments, so let's dive in and look at what you should know if you miss your ship at a cruise port.


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There are many reasons why cruise ships can't just stop and turn around to pick up guests that are left behind. Even seemingly simple solutions like taking a private boat or tender to reach the ship and allow guests on board aren't as easy to do as one might think. With that being said, nearly ever experienced cruiser that I know has stories about "pier runners" that caused ships to delay departure by minutes or even as long as an hour. Typcially these longer delays are caused by cruise line organized excursion trips where they guarantee that you will be returned safely to the ship. Other times the guests simply got lucky.

I feel like as they industry has become more corporate and ships have gotten larger that these exceptions are far less frequent though - especially for the mass-market lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Princess where every penny is pinched. For instance, on one of my first cruises I remember that our ship left the dock in Cozumel and paused for a half our a few hundred yards off shore till a group of guests met the ship in a private boat. That wouldn't happen today though, even if there were calm seas that would allow for a smooth but unplanned tendering.

Ultimately, there are two main reasons why cruise ships can't - or won't - simply turn around or wait for guests to reach the pier after the scheduled departure time. The first is that cruise ships are HUGE vessels displacing 100,000 gross tons or more and can't just turn around or hang out in the harbor waiting for guests. The second is that delays cost enormous amounts of money and cause a handful of late guests to inconvenience thousands of others who respected the ship's schedule.

Cruise Ships Are Huge Vessels That Can't Just Stop And Go Back

Cruise ships are ultimately colossal floating cities. It is physically impossible to stop on a dime and turn around when a guest is late. Even if they could, in many harbors it would be disruptive to marine traffic to have a huge vessel blocking the channel while waiting for a couple guests to arrive. 

Every action that a captain makes when it comes to cruise ship operations is carefly planned in cooperation with local authorities to ensure that his (or her) ship and those around it are able to operate safely. It's not just about size and mechanics, it's also about safety protocols, legal implications, and passenger responsibility. You see, each ship has emergency procedures that need to be followed. Communication methods, such as announcements and alerts, are used to keep you informed. If you don't heed these, you're putting yourself and others at risk. Besides, there are legal implications to ponder. Cruise lines have a responsibility to all passengers, not just one late guest. Remember, the sea is not a highway that you can simply U-turn on. 

On some occasions - as I mentioned above - it is technically feasible to run a tender out to the ship but this brings with it complications such as the captain already filing paperwork listing the number of guests on board, paid taxes based on those numbers, and possibly most important ... every deviation from schedule results in thousands of dollars being wasted because a guest wasn't able to plan to arrive back in time.

Delays Cost The Cruise Line Lots Of Money

You might not think about how much money cruise ships make during the voyage since people typically think of their cruise fare as how ships make money. Cruise fare however only makes up 62% of the total revenue, while onboard spending makes a whopping 38%. If we break that down to an average of $650 onboard spending per passenger on a 7-day cruise, that works out to be about $0.064 per minute ... not too bad right?   Well, multiple that by 3,000 passengers! That's nearly $200 per minute that the ship is delayed due to not be able to operate as planned.  This is a bit over simplified but the point remains - this is an industry where small things scale up REALLY FAST and so you might not think about how individual actions can make big impacts, but they do!

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Let's take a look at how these extra costs break down. Some of the other expenses that you might not even think about will affect a ship's ability to wait for guests, much less turn around and go pack.

Casino and Shops May Remain Closed

One major consequence of delays caused by waiting for late passengers is the financial impact on the cruise line. The casino and shops onboard may remain closed, resulting in substantial loss of income. You need to understand passenger responsibility. When you're late, the ship faces timetable constraints. The crew's workload increases as they must deal with the fallout. Financial penalties can mount up quickly, affecting everyone on board.

Tax Policies On Drinks May Be Higher In Port

In addition to the income loss from closed shops and casinos, you might not realize that delays could also inflate the cost of your onboard drinks due to higher tax policies in port. This is mostly passed on to the guests but that in turn results in some guests waiting to buy their next drink until after departure so that they an avoid paying extra taxes. Some ports may even prohibit the drink packages from being used for similar reasons.

Delays Require The Ship To Burn More Fuel To Go Faster To The Next Port

The ripple effect of a delayed departure doesn't stop at just a minor inconvenience for the guests; It also forces the ship to burn more fuel to make up lost time, which can significantly inflate the cruise line's expenses.

Speed adjustments must be made to guarantee you reach the next port on time, and these maneuvers aren't fuel-efficient. Not only does this impact the company's bottom line, but it also increases the environmental footprint of your voyage. Finally, in the event of emergencies, protocols need to be followed which may also be hampered by delays. So, being punctual isn't just about avoiding inconvenience, it's about ensuring a smooth, sustainable, and safe journey for you and your fellow passengers.

Maritime Fees May Increase The Longer The Ship Is In Port

Besides the added fuel costs and safety concerns, you'd also have to factor in the maritime fees that can stack up the longer a ship remains in port. You see, port regulations aren't made to be broken. They're strict, and any delay can result in increased fees.

Consequences of tardiness don't just inconvenience the cruise line - they hit them where it hurts - their wallets. This is why ship departure policies are so rigid.

Clearance Procedures Have Already Been Completed

Clearance procedures aren't just a quick stamp on a piece of paper - they're a complex process that involves rigorous checks, careful coordination, and thorough compliance with regulations. They guarantee passenger safety and crew accountability and adhere to legal implications.

Before the ship leaves port, several steps are completed:

  • A passenger and crew check guarantees everyone is accounted for. 
  • Clearance procedures with local port authorities are finalized.
  • Security checks and screenings are conducted for safety.
  • Loading of cargo, food, and other supplies is completed.

These steps aren't simply about customer service but also about maintaining the strict protocols that govern cruise ship operations and help to ensure smooth transit through a web of international bureaucracy. Once these procedures are completed, turning back isn't as simple as it might seem.

What Cruise Ships Do To Help Guests Avoid Being Left Behind In A Port

To help you avoid the stress of being left behind, cruise ships implement several measures such as scheduled return times, frequent reminders, local port agents, and technology-assisted updates.

With guest safety in mind, clear return times are communicated before and during your excursion. Frequent reminders ensure you're aware of the ship departure time. If you're running late, local port agents can assist you, acting as a part of the emergency procedures.

Additionally, technology plays a critical role in guest accountability, with some cruise lines using apps to send departure reminders and updates directly to your mobile device. Finally, before the ship leaves a port, crew members perform a headcount to ensure everyone's on board, maintaining port security.

What Happens If You Are Late And Your Ship Leaves Without You?

Knowing the steps to navigate this stressful situation is critical if your cruise ship leaves without you. As a passenger, your responsibility doesn't end once you step off the ship.

  1. First, find your passport. It's likely with the port staff as part of the ship's communication protocols.
  2. Next, contact the cruise line's port agent. They'll assist with emergency protocols, including reuniting you with your ship.
  3. Immediately call your travel insurance provider. They can clarify liability issues and help with travel arrangements.
  4. Reach out to your travel agent. While the port agent is your best "boots on the ground contact", your travel advisor may be able to help with booking your emergency flights or facilitating other assistance including communicating to family and friends who are on the ship that left with out you.
  5. Finally, understand your insurance benefits. If you have missed connection or travel delay coverage, they'll prove beneficial.

Conclusion: Mistakes Happen But Your Ship Can't Just Wait For You To Get There

Even for conscientious cruisers, mistakes can happen that cause you to be late returning to the port. This happened to me several years ago in Grand Cayman when my friends and I had "too much fun" at a local rum distillery and didn't remember that our watches were not set properly to ships time. We got lucky and the last tender was running late so we managed to make it back to the ship and avoid getting left behind. That's an experience that I don't want to repeat and I don't want you to deal with that stress either!

So, if you're on a cruise, don't be late back to the ship! It can't just turn around for tardy guests. Doing so would break safety rules, cost lots of money, and mess up the ship's schedule. Luckily, ships use announcements and tech to keep you informed. But if you do miss the boat, don't worry, there are procedures in place to help you. Remember, being punctual is key to a smooth sailing experience!