Disembarkation - the Party's Over

For most of us, disembarkation (the process of getting all of the passengers and their luggage off of the ship at the end of the cruise) is the most hectic and unenjoyable part of the whole cruise experience, especially in this day and age of "mega-ships," when it has become something of a logistical nightmare which the crew enjoys even less than the passengers.

When those luggage tags, custom forms, comment cards and disembarkation instructions appear on my bed, usually a good three days before the cruise is actually over, I can't help thinking, "they just can't wait to get rid of me." Well, that isn't true, the crew really does enjoy our company, but the truth is they need to jumpstart our planning for getting off the ship well ahead of schedule, or else some of us probably just wouldn't make it. We need time to recheck our flight schedules, and discuss what kind of extra bag we need to get those rumcakes home.

The Night Before Departure For those of you who have yet to take your first cruise, disembarkation ( or "debarkation" for some people) works like this; Your room steward has already provided you with color-coded luggage tags, the color representing a group you are allocated to according to the time you need to meet your transportation from the ship to your next destination. You are asked to pack all of your luggage, attach the colored tags, and leave it outside your cabin door the night before the ship docks in your disembarkation city, excepting what you plan to wear to bed that night and what you plan to wear the next day to leave the ship. Toothbrush, razor and other essentials are optional.

On the final morning, assuming you do as instructed, you clear your cabin by 8:00 a.m. (so the cabin cleaning process can begin). With luck, you can catch a little breakfast in the buffet area. You then sit in a public area waiting for your assigned color to be announced over the P.A, system, giving you "permission" to go to the gangway and leave the ship. Once you are on shore, you find your luggage stacked in the terminal, along with that of everyone else assigned the same color tags. You collect your luggage and stand in line to give your customs declaration card to the local customs official. He will look you and your luggage over, maybe ask you a few questions, and then wave you through, assuming all goes as planned.

Meanwhile, what has happened behind the scenes is so complicated you don't even want to be thinking about it on this hectic morning. The room stewards have been walking the ship all night collecting luggage as people get it packed and placed outside their door. They work throughout the night to take thousands of suitcases down to the lower level to be off-loaded as soon as the ship arrives in port. Maybe they catch a few hours of sleep while the ship arrives in port while other crew move all of the luggage into the terminal onshore. The next day the room stewards go through all the cabins stripping the beds, gathering all the linens, and cleaning and disinfecting all the surfaces.

The Old Ways I have been cruising a long time, and on a recent cruise I had time to contemplate this whole disembarkation process. In the early 80's, when there were no mega-ships and passengers numbered only in the hundreds, it was relatively easy to leave the ship. Everyone would wait for the announcement that the ship had been "cleared" (by the customs offcials) and then they proceeded ashore carrying their luggage with them, some of them even waited in their cabins for their room steward to help them. Today, it just isn't that simple due to the huge numbers of passengers. To let everyone leave at the same time, with their luggage or waiting for their room stewards would clog the cabins and gangways for hours, resulting in chaos.

And so they have adopted the tag system, which works very well in the sense that it not only gets people off the ship in an orderly and logical fashion, it also makes it easy for them to find their bags once on shore. It works great, except for the people who don't follow directions. I call them the "gangway crashers," those people who are determined to leave first regardless of the color called. All this does is create a traffic jam as cruise staff try to explain to them why they must wait their turn - often to no avail.

Who Should Be Allowed Off First? Those with early flights home can request - and will receive - a special tag that will be called first. In addition, there is the VIP list; those people who are assigned to a special lounge where they wait for a member of the cruise staff to escort them quickly off the ship before any color code announcements are made. They arrive in the terminal before the herd descends, and thus have no problem finding a porter to assist them and no lines for the customs officials. Disembarkation for them is a breeze, as long as they have someplace to go until their flight leaves.

A New and Better Way? A few cruise lines now offer passengers a way to be the very first off the ship regardless of VIP lists and early flights -- if they are willing to carry all their own luggage without assistance from staff. So, if they can haul everything themselves across the gangway, down steps and escalators, they can be first off the ship. It sounds like a great idea for those in a hurry -- and judging from the long lines of people bogged down with suitcases near the exit doors, waiting for the "go" signal, many are taking advantage of the new plan.

But there is a big downside, which I observed after deciding I wanted to return home early from a Carnival cruise out of Port Canaveral. I did not have an early flight (I only live an hour from the port), but I wanted to avoid the mad rush to disembark. Instead, however, I found myself in a traffic jam equal to Times Square on New Year's Eve. Luggage was everywhere�large suitcases with carry-ons piggy-backing a ride, shopping bags of souvenirs tied on the handles, plus cardboard cartons of liquor purchased in the islands. Then there were the families with children and all that goes with them, such as strollers and diaper bags.

Crowded and Angry As we all stood there waiting, I listened to people talking about why they wanted to be first off the ship, and I was surprised that very few had an early flight. The majority were like me�wanting to avoid the kind of crowd that we were now immersed in. Had I not seen luggage outside cabin doors the night before, I would have wondered if anyone was still disembarking by tag colors. And even though the announcement not to block the entrance to the gangway was made and repeated several times, passengers kept coming and inching everyone forward, much to the annoyance of the cruise staff.

Then I noticed there were people in line who had no luggage except carry-ons. Some of the cruise staff also noticed; upon questioning, these people admitted they had checked bags but still wanted to get off first. They were asked to go to a public lounge and wait for their color code to be called. Some did so, but others angrily refused to budge.

After what seemed forever, the announcement came that those of us with all our luggage in tow could disembark. The herd began to move, but slowly, due to the large number of people. Sadly, it seemed to me that passengers that actually did have early flights and thought it would be quicker to take their own bags were now likely to miss their flights.

Some Cruise Lines Vary Their Procedure Norwegian Cruise Lines, known for its "free-style cruising," has added a free-style disembarkation policy as well. Passengers can use the color tags they are given, leave the ship when an announcement is made, then proceed to the terminal and find their bags in the section by color code. But they also offer a relaxed system that allows passengers to stay in their cabins as long as they wish, or until their tag color is called, instead of waiting in public areas. According to NCL, this procedure is working quite well, despite the recipe for mass exodus and the ensuing problems if everyone decides to go at once.

Among other cruise lines: Holland America merely announces by color code, noting that the smaller size of its ships requires nothing special.Celebrity uses the color codes according to flight departure times, and then the remaining passengers are called, also by color. But those on the priority list are instructed to meet in a special place with coffee and are escorted off the ship before everyone else.

In addition to "first-off-if-you-take-your-own-luggage," Carnival has implemented a relaxed system that allows passengers to stay in their cabins as long as they wish, or until their tag color is called, instead of vacating the cabins and waiting in public areas.

Crystal Cruises asks passengers to leave their cabins after breakfast (8:30 a.m. at the latest) and gather in a specified theater or club to wait for a crew member to escort them, by color, to the gangway. Early flights and VIPs go first.

Princess Cruise Lines offers special options for passengers in its "Captain's Circle" loyalty program. Platinum status is obtained after a fifth cruise or 50 cruise days, and members relax in a designated Platinum lounge and enjoy light refreshments while waiting for their group to be called. After a 15th cruise (or 150 cruise days), passengers become Elite members and, in addition to enjoying the special lounge, may contact the onboard "Circle" host to determine the most convenient time for them to be taken off the ship.

Why Not Wait? Having been through this procedure dozens of times, I have found that I prefer to savor every last moment of my cruise if I do not have an early flight home. So, I enjoy a leisurely breakfast - which I have to plan to get to early as dining rooms and buffets generally stop serving by 8:30 a.m. Afterwards, I seek out the coffee, tea, and pastries which are often available on deck. Then I stroll about the ship to see features I might have missed during the cruise, like inspecting every class of cabin and suite. I have one last chat with people I have met during the cruise, waiting with them until they are called to leave. And by the time I do leave the ship, the crush is over, and I have no trouble finding my bags, since by then there are not many left in the terminal.

As for my luggage, while some people do not mind having a roll-along bag with them that last morning, I do not want to worry about carrying anything as I make my rounds, so I pack everything in the bags I leave outside my door -- except for what I wear home, plus toiletries I can carry in my purse, and, of course, my passport, airline tickets, and any medications.

If I am flying home, I try to schedule a late flight so I won't be rushed. Also, the cruise lines offer day trips in port, affording a great opportunity for extra sightseeing. You can also plan your day yourself by browsing CruiseMates' informative articles on port cities. You can even book some of your excursions online.

A cruise is something to be enjoyed every single minute, so why end it any sooner than absolutely necessary?

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