Missed the boat? Here’s what to do next.
It’s a nightmare that cruise passengers hope never to experience—arriving at the pier late to watch their cruise ship sail off on their vacation without them onboard.
But all may not be lost in that situation. Missing a cruise departure may not necessarily mean returning home defeated. There are usually options available, particularly if passengers have purchased travel insurance. Here are the first things to do once you realize you won’t make it to your embarkation port on time.
Call the Cruise Line
The first thing you need to do when you’ve either missed the ship or know you will miss the ship (e.g., a flight delay where there are no other options arriving before your cruise departs): call the cruise line. If you’ve purchased your airline ticket from the cruise line, they may be able to salvage the situation—even if that means rebooking passengers on another airline if the carrier experiencing the delay is unable to get passengers to the port city in time.
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If that situation doesn’t apply, cruise line agents can present passengers with their options. In most cases, that means determining whether a passenger can join their ship at one of the scheduled port calls. This can be an option on several itineraries, provided local customs authorities at the next port will allow passengers to embark, but there are exceptions. Passengers who miss departures to Alaska from Vancouver are generally out of luck since U.S. law prohibits foreign-flagged ships from transporting passengers between ports in Alaska, and Vancouver is often the only foreign port on the itinerary, but southbound passengers on the same itinerary have no such restriction.
For added flexibility, be sure to ask if embarkation is permitted at the next port or at a port or two after that. Even with the added expense of hotel nights and last-minute plane tickets, it may often net out better than forfeiting the entire cruise fare (which passengers do if they miss a sailing and don’t embark at a later port call).
The Value of Travel Insurance
Once you’ve called the cruise line, call your travel insurer—and it’s always a good idea to have travel insurance for a cruise.
Most travel insurance policies will cover trip interruption as long as the cause of the interruption wasn’t your fault (like oversleeping or going to the wrong airport or cruise port). Once you’ve contacted the cruise line and determined whether you’ll be able to board at a subsequent port, contact your insurer for details on whether your expenses will be covered. Many insurers also offer concierge services that will assist with booking alternate flights.
Travel insurance policies covering trip interruption will typically cover expenses up to a specified amount, generally a percentage higher than the original trip cost, as trip interruption expenses can mount quickly. Without travel insurance, those expenses are yours to shoulder.
Check Flights Right Away
The first thing to check is whether there are flights to the port of call where you’ll be joining your ship—bearing in mind some destinations may not require a flight. Some Caribbean sailings from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami make their first calls at Key West—a relatively short bus ride or one-way car rental away.
In some cases, there may even be flights to the next port on the same evening. Of course, time is of the essence, so it’s important to make decisions quickly, particularly if the first port is scheduled for the very next morning (although this is uncommon). If the first port call is more than a day away, it may be worthwhile to secure a local hotel room first, then pore over the details of whether total outlay will be cheaper to fly to the next port immediately or wait in the embarkation city and plan to arrive closer to the time the ship will call.
It might cost a bit more than you’d planned, but perhaps a quick flight and a day or two in Cancun or San Juan salving your wounded pride in a beach chair won’t be so bad—and you’ll still get to enjoy a portion of your cruise.
Keep the Cruise Line Informed
Once you’ve figured out when and where you’ll be joining the ship, call the cruise line back to inform them and get more details—don’t just show up at the next stop! Once you’ve stated your intentions, the cruise line needs to do several things differently to prepare for your arrival, from alerting the crew onboard to contacting the local port agent.
Port calls for cruise ships are designed for passengers to disembark from the ship and return to it—not to embark passengers. Cruise lines work with port agents wherever the ship docks who act as points of contact on shore since cruise lines don’t maintain their own offices in every port. The cruise line will likely give you contact details for the port agent at the port where you’ll be joining the ship, and they’ll work through the logistics of getting you onboard the ship at the port.
Missing the Ship at a Port Call
Port agents are also your best resource if you will or have missed your ship while at a port of call.
Before heading ashore, take a copy of the daily cruise program, or know where in the cruise line’s app to find information on the local port agent. If you are running late getting back to the ship (or have an emergency and cannot return to the ship), the local port agent can liaise with the onboard crew to determine whether departure can be delayed. Cruise itineraries often have some padding built in for delays (they’ll always wait for their own late-returning shore excursions), and crews are more likely to agree to delay a sailing slightly while waiting for tardy passengers if they have a good estimate of how long the wait will be—although conditions may not always allow for a delayed departure.
If you ultimately miss the ship’s departure, it’s the port agent who can stay in contact with the ship’s crew to inform them of your intentions to join the ship at the next port or simply find a flight home if your cruise is near its end—they’ll need to know, for example, whether to pack and ship your luggage if you won’t be rejoining the ship.
The most important thing to remember, whether missing the ship at the port of embarkation or a port of call, is that it’s generally fixable. It’s not always easy, but with a little extra work and some patience, it’s possible to salvage most cruises—however frustrating they may be at the outset.