Have you ever missed a flight because you showed up late at the airport? It can be a hard lesson in the importance of planning well to allow for room into your travel plans. In many cases, it will only cause a small delay in your travels, with little or no add-on costs.

It does not happen like that with cruises.

Late-arrivers for flights in the U.S., often can hop on another flight to their destination just a few hours later, sometimes even with change fees waived due to official, un-official, “flat tire” rule. Show up even just a few minutes late for a cruise, and you can find your entire trip ruined.

At the very least, cruisers who miss a ship’s departure — as quite a few have this past Christmas season, due to record-breaking cancellations, delays and system meltdowns, often face huge expenses and logistical challenges trying to catch up with the vessel at its next port of call. In some cases, due to laws that restrict where ships can be boarded, they might not be able to join the vessel at all.

It’s for this reason that pretty much anyone having anything to do with the cruise business, will tell you to always travel to your departure port at least a day before your cruise AND don’t plan to check your luggage. It may seem harsh, but the consequences of missing a cruise departure can be so disastrous that it’s the only sensible move.

For those who may be resistant to such advice, let’s address some of the key concerns surrounding what happens if you miss your cruise.

Can I board a cruise ship late? 

Not only can you not board a cruise ship late, the cut-off time for boarding is actually a lot earlier than the sail-away time. The typical cut-off time for boarding ships is a full hour before departure so it’s important to arrive well before the ship is due to leave.

This is a case where everything you’ve learned about airplanes is true for cruise ships, too. Just because your ship is listed as leaving at 3:30 pm, it doesn’t mean you can walk up to the pier at 3 pm and expect to make it on board.

The typical cut-off time for boarding ships is a full hour before departure. That said, it can be even longer (and, in some cases shorter) depending on the line, port and itinerary. To be safe, read the documentation that you receive after booking (these days, often in electronic form) for specific information about boarding times for your sailing.

It’s also a risky move to aim to arrive exactly at the cut-off time. Keep in mind that some of the bigger departure ports such as Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades can be jammed with traffic on departure days, slowing down the arrival process. I once had clients stuck in a massive traffic jam around one of the guard gates at Port Everglades. It added at least 15 minutes to what should have been a quick five- to 10-minute Uber ride from a nearby hotel. It proved to be disastrous.

Will a cruise ship leave without me?

One common misperception among cruisers is that cruise lines will hold a ship for late-arriving passengers if they are arriving on cruise line-booked flights. 

If you do not arrive at the port before the boarding window ends, the cruise ship will most certainly leave without you. Even if you are standing at the pier, waving for them to stop. That’s because a cruise ship’s departure time is carefully planned and more than just your vacation is at stake.

Just like flights, cruise ships are on schedules — much tighter than you may realize. If a ship delays its departure by an hour while it waits for you to arrive, it can easily arrive an hour late at its next port of call.

That’s a situation that, on bigger ships, can impact thousands of people — not just you, who will see their experience at that port diminished, but also dock workers, tour guides and bus drivers at the destination who have planned their day around the vessel’s arrival.

At many ports, a local harbor pilot will be waiting for your ship on a boat just offshore to help guide it in, and they will be expecting your vessel at an appointed time. This service often comes with a high charge, and if the ship arrives too far behind schedule, it can result in hefty fees. Ship captains will do all they can to avoid disrupting the planned schedule.

One common misperception among cruisers is that cruise lines will hold a ship for late-arriving passengers if they are arriving on cruise line-booked flights. This generally is not the case. Even if you are arriving on a flight booked through the cruise line, the ship still will sail without you if that flight is delayed and you are not at the pier on time.

What cruise lines will do if you miss a cruise departure due to a delay on a cruise line-booked flight is help you get to the ship at another port. That is, if they can do so legally (I’ll say more on that in a moment).

Please note that policies vary from line to line on this issue. Some lines are a bit vague about what exactly they will do to help passengers reach the ship. Others spell it out quite clearly. Carnival, for instance, says right on its website that if you miss a cruise departure due to delays in flights booked through its Fly2Fun air program, it will “make the necessary flight, hotel and/or ground transportation arrangements to get you to the next port of call on time at no expense to you.”

Can I join the ship at the next port?

Even in cases where it is logistically easy to get to a ship’s next port of call, you may not be legally allowed to board the vessel at that port. Some countries, including the United States, have “cabotage” laws that restrict the number of ports where foreign-flagged vessels such as cruise ships can pick up and drop off passengers. These laws are designed to protect domestic shipping industries from foreign competition.

In the U.S., for instance, the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 says “foreign vessels cannot transport passengers from one U.S. port to another U.S. port, either directly or by way of a nearby foreign port (defined as ports in North and Central America, Bermuda or most Caribbean islands)”. The Act does not apply to sailings that begin and end in the same U.S. port, provided the sailings include at least one stop at any foreign port. It also has an exception for trips between two different U.S. ports that include a stop at a distant foreign port.

What that means, is that a cruise line cannot let you join a ship at a U.S. port such as Port Canaveral, Florida, if you later will be disembarking at a different U.S. port — say, New York or Miami — unless a visit to a distant port such as Aruba is on the itinerary. This is a rule that can severely limit your options if you want to join a ship part way through a cruise.

To give one specific example: Under the law, it’s perfectly fine for the Bermuda-flagged ships of Celebrity Cruises to operate Alaska voyages that begin in Vancouver, BC, and end in Seattle, Washington — a common itinerary for the line. Since the voyage doesn’t begin in a U.S. port, they are exempt from the law.

But if someone misses the departure of such a voyage from Vancouver, they can’t simply board at a later stop. All the later stops on this route — the Alaskan towns of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway — are in the United States. Someone boarding in one of those ports and disembarking at the end of the cruise in Seattle would be traveling between two U.S. ports without a stop at at distant foreign port, creating a violation of the Passenger Services Act.

Cruise ships do, occasionally, violate the law. For instance, it’s standard policy in the industry to evacuate a passenger with a medical emergency to the nearest suitable port even if it means triggering a Passenger Vessel Services Act violation. In such cases, a line would face a U.S. Customs and Border Protection penalty that currently is set at $778 per person, unless the agency granted a waiver.

Some lines also will occasionally allow waylaid passengers to join a ship at a forbidden port if they agree to pay the penalty themselves. But it isn’t common, if only because the penalty is so high. A family of four would pay $3,112 for the privilege — more than the cost of many cruises.

If you are legally allowed to board a ship at a later port, you will be responsible for paying all the costs related to getting to that port. One exception, as noted above, would be in a situation where you missed the original departure because of a delay with a cruise line-booked flight. Another exception would be in a case where you had a certain type of travel insurance (I’ll get to that in one second).

Can I get a refund or credit for the missed cruise?

Cruise lines generally do not offer refunds or future cruise credits for passengers who miss a cruise due to travel delays. This includes partial refunds for missed days if you join a cruise a day or two late.

The only exception here is that some lines may offer at least a partial refund if you miss a cruise due to a documented emergency. But they do this on a case-by-case basis, and you can’t count on it.

Will travel insurance help if I miss my cruise ship?

Even if you haven’t bought travel insurance specifically for your cruise, you may be able to tap into the trip interruption insurance that’s a benefit of some credit cards for at least partial reimbursement of expenses related to missing a cruise departure.

If you miss a day or two of a cruise because of a delayed flight, you might be able to get some reimbursement through a travel insurance policy, assuming you have one. Then again, you might not. Most travel insurance plans offer “trip interruption” coverage that kicks in after missed connections. But there often is fine print that limits the circumstances where it is valid.

Some plans offer missed connection coverage only for weather-related delays, while other plans may also cover delays caused by … mechanical breakdowns. In addition, while the missed connection coverage in many plans only requires a delay of three consecutive hours to be valid, some less pricey plans may have a six- or 12-hour delay requirement. Coverage maximums for missed connection claims also vary widely. Some are as low as $250.

If it does kick in, missed connection coverage would cover the cost of flights or other transportation needed to reach your cruise ship at a secondary port as well as “reasonable” costs for accommodations, meals and telephone expenses incurred while in transit to the ship. Such policies also would reimburse any prepaid expenses for unused land or water travel arrangements.

If you drove to your cruise and miss the ship due to traffic delays, travel insurance isn’t as accommodating. Traffic delays typically aren’t considered a covered reason for reimbursement under missed connection coverage.

That said, “some travel insurance policies will provide trip cancellation coverage if the insured is involved in a documented traffic accident on the way to their departure point”.

Even if you haven’t purchased travel insurance specifically for your cruise, you may be able to tap into your trip interruption insurance that’s a benefit of some credit cards for at least partial reimbursement of expenses related to missing a cruise departure. Many premium Chase cards, including Chase Sapphire Reserve, for instance, provide trip interruption insurance with relatively high maximum coverage amounts for trips booked using the cards.

Just be warned that this benefit often comes with a lot of fine print that can make it tough to collect in many circumstances. The fine print on Chase Sapphire Reserve’s travel insurance benefit, for instance, says its trip interruption coverage does not apply to “loss caused by or resulting from … Common carrier caused delays, unless they are as a result of an organized strike that affects public transportation.” It also specifically says it does not apply to loss from “travel arrangements canceled or changed by a common carrier, tour operator, or any travel agent, unless the cancellation is the result of severe weather or an organized strike affecting public transportation.”

Not liking what you’re hearing … we don’t either.

Can a travel agent help me?

There are plenty of travelers these days who bypass the option of booking through a travel agent (of which I am one). But in the case of a missed cruise departure, travel agents can be a big and likely your only source of help.

Many of the big travel agencies do many millions of dollars of business with each of the major cruise lines, giving them clout they can deploy to your advantage. They also have agents with personal relationships with problem solvers at various lines who can jump into action on your behalf.

You have an advocate available to you to help if something doesn’t go as planned. I can tell you from experience, the occasional cruiser will not know where to begin to salvage their trip after a missed departure.

I recently had a family experience a delayed connection in Atlanta heading to Ft. Lauderdale for a Carnival Cruise Line miss their trip by minutes. While the family made their flight, the baggage delay, created a situation with some complicated logistics to fix. This is one reason I personally suggest carry-on luggage.

When the family finally arrived to the port, their cruise was pulling off. Although I had urged the family to fly to the port a day early, buy travel insurance and carry on their luggage. They hadn’t heeded the advice on any count and ended up spending their week in Ft. Lauderdale.

The bottom line

It’s not going to be easy to salvage your trip if you are late for your cruise departure. My advice is to always travel to the port of departure at least a day in advance of a cruise and plan to pack your carry on. Now if you need to learn how to pack like a professional check out my previous blog “Ten Amazon Travel Must Haves for Your Next Trip”.

Until next time, be well and be blessed.


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