Have you ever missed a flight because you showed up late at the airport? It can be a painful lesson in the importance of building wiggle room into your travel plans. But, in many cases, it’ll only cause a modest delay in your travels, with little or no add-on costs.
Not so with cruises.
Late-arrivers for flights often can hop on another plane to their destination just a few hours later, sometimes even with change fees waived due to quasi-official “flat tire rule” policies. But travelers who are even just a few minutes late for a cruise sometimes can find their entire trip ruined.
At the very least, cruisers who miss a ship’s departure 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 — cruise line sales professionals, cruise-selling travel agents, cruise-focused travel writers — will tell you to always travel to your departure port at least a day before your cruise, even if you’re traveling by car. It may seem like overkill, and it’ll add to the expense of the trip. But the consequences of missing a cruise departure can be so disastrous that it’s a sensible move.
For those whose initial impulse is to resist such advice, some things to consider:
The Cut-Off for Boarding Can Be a Lot Earlier Than the Sail Time
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 4pm, it doesn’t mean you can stroll up to the pier at 3:57pm 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. Just last year, I got 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.
No, They Won’t Hold the Ship If You’re Running Late
Just like airplanes, cruise ships are on tight schedules -– much tighter than you may realize. If a ship delays its departure by an hour while it waits for you to arrive, it very well may 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 passengers who will see their experience at that port diminished but dock workers, tour guides and bus drivers at the destination who have planned their day around the vessel’s arrival.
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 (more on that in a moment).
Note that the 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.”
You Can Join the Ship at the Next Port … Maybe
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 United States, for instance, the Passenger Services Act of 1886 says foreign vessels cannot transport passengers from one US port to another US port, either directly or by way of a foreign port. The Act does not apply to sailings that begin and end in the same US port, provided the sailings include at least one stop at a foreign port. It also has an exception for trips between two different US ports that include a stop at a distant foreign port.
What that means, in practice, is that a cruise line cannot let you join a ship at a US port such as Port Canaveral, Florida, if you later will be disembarking at a different US port — say, New York or Miami. 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 Princess Cruises to operate Alaska voyages that begin in Vancouver, BC, and end in Whittier, Alaska — a common itinerary for the line. Since the voyages don’t begin in a US 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 — Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway in Alaska — are in the United States. Someone boarding in one of those ports and disembarking at the end of the cruise in Whittier would be traveling between two US ports, 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 Services Act violation. In such cases, a line would face a US 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 (more on that below).
You Won’t 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.
Travel Insurance May Help
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 breakdown,” said Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, a leading travel insurance comparison site.
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, Sandberg said. Coverage maximums for missed connection claims also vary widely. Some are as low as $250, Sandberg says.
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, Sandberg said. Such insurance also would reimburse any prepaid expenses for unused land or water travel arrangements.
If you drive to a 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, according to Sandberg.
That said, “some travel insurance plans will provide trip cancellation coverage if the insured is involved in a documented traffic accident on the way to their departure point,” he added.
Even if you haven’t bought travel insurance specifically for your cruise, you may be able to tap 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.”
To our ears, that sounds pretty limiting.
A Travel Agent Can Help, Too
There are plenty of travelers these days who pooh-pooh the notion of booking through a travel agent. But in the case of a missed cruise departure, travel agents can be a big help.
Many of the big travel agency groups 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,” said Jill LaBarre, vice president of business development at Palm Coast Travel, owner of Oasis Travel Network and SmartCruiser.com. “I’m not sure the occasional cruiser would know where to begin to salvage their trip [after a missed departure].”
LaBarre recalled the case of a family that missed its flight to Miami for a Norwegian Cruise Line trip by minutes. While the family didn’t make the flight, its bags did, creating a situation with some complicated logistics to fix.
For starters, she quickly rebooked the family on a flight to St. Thomas, where the ship would be two days later, so the family could join it there. She also booked the family into a resort in St. Thomas for the two days until the ship arrived. But the more complicated issue was reuniting the family with its bags. The bags now were stranded at the Miami airport. LaBarre sought help from the assistant hotel director of the ship, which had yet to leave Miami. He, in turn, arranged to have Norwegian’s transfer company pick up the bags and rush them to the vessel before it departed.
When the family finally boarded the ship, Norwegian Escape, two days later, the bags were there in the family’s room. Speaking of the room, LaBarre’s contact on the ship had the family upgraded, too.
LaBarre said she had urged the family to fly to the port a day early and buy travel insurance. But they hadn’t heeded her advice on either count.
“It all worked out, but with a lot of unnecessary stress and expense,” she said.
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.
This story was originally published on The Points Guy. Sign up for the TPG daily newsletter and wake up to unbeatable flight deals, travel industry news, and credit card bonuses that let you travel first-class to some of the world’s most incredible destinations at a fraction of the price.