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02.12.2009

Disembarkation Madness
One thing that has changed in the cruise experience due to new port security procedures is the end of cruise disembarkation process. It now starts later and takes much longer than it did just a few years ago. In the "old days" before border security was stepped up, when cruise ships returned to their home port Customs and Border Patrol officials would come aboard to check the manifest and clear the entire ship before dawn. Generally, when we passengers walked off the ship the only thing we had to present was our customs declaration. They didn't even check passports.

Not today. Every cruise terminal now has Border Patrol stations just like the airports. People must get in line and show their passports to a federal officer and present the customs card at the same time. You are usually asked questions and might even have your luggage searched.

Now, I am all for security. I just want to impart upon cruisers that this has changed the disembarkation process. The procedure now starts later than in the past. On my last cruise, a relatively small 2000-passenger ship, our assigned color code was not called to leave the ship until close to 10:15 (the first passengers got off about 8:15 am).

In the "old days" the first people would be off the ship as early as 6:45. But these days it takes far longer for the process to even get started, probably because of new Border Patrol procedures. And then once the ship begins the disembarkation process, the entire process takes much longer than expected.


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While we were waiting for our color code to be called, there were several announcements made that the dock was overly crowded so no colors would be called for several minutes. We were advised to sit back and relax until things had settled down. Good advice.

Now, the most amazing thing about getting off the ship at 10:00 am was that the next cruise's passengers were already in the waiting room ready to board the ship! Now, this is where I say "stop the madness".

In the last couple of years people have started arriving at ships earlier and earlier, like it is a game to see who can get on first. But, there is no logical reason for anyone to arrive at a ship for boarding at 10:00 a.m. You will be held in the waiting room, generally until at least noon. The official time they ask you to arrive for boarding is 1:00 pm, but waiting until 2:30 will probably get you on board much faster.

This trend of arriving earlier to board is only creating a logjam. As more and more people congregate in the embarkation lobby, the ticket booths feel pressure to open earlier. They get people signed in, but then must ask them to wait until the ship is ready. People actually line up to be first in line to get onboard, and by the time the ship opens there are over 1000 people who must snake through hundreds of yards of hallways and passages one at a time to get onboard.


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The last time I got to a ship about 11:20 a.m. it took us literally 90 minutes of standing in line before we crossed the gangway and boarded the actual ship. We had to stop for photographers taking group pictures, and then everyone had to be photographed individually - in a separate place and process - for their keycards. It was claustrophobic, people were cutting in line, people ran us down to get ahead whenever a new line opened up, and Heaven help those of us who had a wheelchair in our group because we were shown no mercy.

Once the early birds got onboard our cabins were not ready for an hour. The hallways to the cabins had their firedoors closed so we all had to carry our bags everywhere we went. The only decent place to go was the buffet area, which started serving food about 12:00. With the entire passenger load waiting in the buffet area, in food lines swollen with bags and trays of food, the chaos was overwhelming.

From the time we arrived (11:20) to the time we got in our cabins (1:30) we waited over two hours. Had we arrived at a reasonable time, like 2:00 pm, we probably would have been checked in, boarded the ship and in our staterooms in under 20 minutes.

To their credit, several cruise lines have changed their disembarkation policies to allow guests to remain in their cabins as they wait for their colors to be called (this was led by NCL's "Free-style" policies). But most cruise lines still ask you to be out of your cabins by 7:30.

Most ships will keep the breakfast buffets open until about 8:30. The one thing they ask you to do is NOT to congregate in the hallways and public thoroughfares. This is one thing I agree with - please stay out of the lanes. Find a comfy place to sit and park it, do not sit on the ground next to the gangway.

Disembarkation is the toughest part of a cruise by far, and the new but necessary Customs and Border Patrol policies have made it even slower. So, do us all a favor, make it as painless as possible by keeping cool and not being in a rush; to get ON or OFF the ship.


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