Australian writer Alan Walker rightfully refers to disembarkation day as D-Day—just as dreaded as it is inevitable. You will have to get up earlier than usual to get breakfast. You will feel anxious as your luggage is swept out of your control and taken off the ship, and you may become bored and frustrated during the hours you will be required to wait before stepping foot ashore.
If you understand the process going on all around you, you might find D-Day a bit easier to handle. The disembarkation process is intended to get you and the several other thousand passengers off quickly, load supplies for the next cruise, and check in the next trip's passengers before nightfall. Consider the level of coordination and hustle required to pull this off, and cut your ship's crew members some slack. Try to look like a seasoned pro instead of a curmudgeonly novice. Keep a positive attitude as you wonder about your luggage, and bring along a good book to read while you wait (and wait … and wait …) for your turn to climb down the gangway.
You'll have to say goodbye to all of your checked luggage the night before disembarkation day. Your ship will give you written instructions or will broadcast instructions on your cabin television telling you exactly when you can begin to put your bags out in the hallway, and you can be certain that the ship's personnel will start collecting it immediately. After all, they need to get you and your stuff off quickly so they can clean your cabin before the next cruise passengers arrive in just a few short hours.
Your luggage will be taken to a central location on the ship where it can be offloaded easily by forklift. After you disembark, you will have to find your bags among the hundreds of others with which it was offloaded. Consider tying a ribbon to your suitcase handle, or wrapping a colorful bungee cord around your bag (which is great both for identifying it and keeping it closed in transit). It will make your personal search-and-recovery mission much easier.
Remember to leave yourself a change of clothes to wear home on the last morning of your cruise. More than a few passengers have been known to pack all their outfits into their suitcases before having ship's personnel carry them away the night before disembarkation day, only to wake up without a pair of pants to wear to the airport.
Biding Your Time
Your brochure may say that your ship arrives back in port at 7 A.M. on the last day of your cruise, but that's not when you should expect to step onto shore. You will be assigned to a disembarkation group (by numeric or color-coded system, usually) that takes into account your flight or transfer time, your VIP status, and the needs of guests who require special assistance. If you have an early flight and booked a suite, you will probably be one of the first people allowed to leave the ship. If you were in one of the least expensive inside cabins and plan to drive a half-hour back to your home, expect to settle in for a few hours’ worth of waiting.
Expect to wait in the ship's public areas until your disembarkation group is called over the loudspeaker or by crew members. Sometimes you can hang out in your cabin, but the housekeeping teams are usually out in full force by breakfast time, trying to get the ship ready for the passengers arriving later that day. You'll find a lot of people waiting by the gangway, or in the public areas closest to it, so if you don't like crowds you should get as far away from those spots as possible. (Just stay within earshot of the disembarkation announcements.)
You will need your passport and U.S. Customs Declaration Form if your ship cruised outside of U.S. waters. Clearing customs, of course, adds to the time needed to get the several hundred or several thousand passengers off your ship. Try to be patient.
If you plan in advance for this long morning of delays, your family will be much happier in the long run. Have books, a deck of cards, and other keep-busy items on hand. If you don't expect to make it out of bed in time for the early breakfast in the dining room, make sure you have some snacks in your carry-on bag. The few eateries still open on the ship during disembarkation will have long lines, and you'll save yourself a lot of hassle if you simply pack a granola bar to tide you over until you get to the airport.