Every guest’s desire for a bucket-listed cruise vacation can swiftly become a nightmare the moment a cruise ship leaves a guest behind. 

This same misfortune happened recently to eight cruise passengers on Norwegian Dawn after they failed to return to their ship on time. The guests went on a private shore excursion during a visit to Sao Tome and Principe on March 27. The incident happened just a week into the ship’s 21-night voyage from Cape Town to Barcelona. 

While cruise lines have strict protocols to avoid such unfortunate incidents, the harsh reality is that guests do, occasionally, find themselves stranded at ports. They not only test the limits of their resources but, to some extent, the cruise line’s crisis management capabilities. Such a scenario has far-reaching consequences not only for those guests left behind but other guests in future.

NCL's Norwegian Dawn reportedly leaves some guests behind in Africa.
NCL’s Norwegian Dawn.

What happens when a cruise ship leaves several guests behind after failing to return to the ship on time? 

Cruise passengers must be aware of the fact that cruise ships run on tight schedules. The rule of thumb is that a cruise ship will not wait for its late passengers. In the event that guests are not yet onboard and the ship is ready to leave the port, the crew will enter the guest’s cabin. Consequently, the crew will remove essential items such as passports and medicines and give it to the line’s port agents, which is customary protocol. Moreover, these port agents can assist those stranded guests in figuring out what their next step should be. 

In most cases, if a cruise ship leaves guests behind they will be reunited with their cruise ships in the next port of call. This is after communicating with the cruise line and arranging alternative transportation, mostly at the passenger’s expense. 

On ship-sponsored excursion

Guests who book shore excursions through the cruise line usually receive an added protection. In most cases, the cruise ship will wait for those guests for as long as possible. But in the event that the ship has to leave some guests behind, the cruise line will cover the expenses incurred in transferring the guests to the next port of call. 

On shore excursion booked through third-party

There’s a different rule for shore excursions booked through a third party. In that event, guests left behind have the option of heading home or trying to get to the next port of call. But the downside is that guests will have to cover all the expenses required to be reunited with their cruise ship. That includes food, accommodation and transportation such as flights.

There are a variety of reasons why a cruise ship must leave guests behind. But regardless of the cause, the impact on affected passengers can be severe, both emotionally and financially. Just imagine being faced with the prospect of navigating unfamiliar surroundings and even dealing with language barriers. Worse, they arrange for themselves alternative transportation and accommodations. Suffice it to say that these stranded travellers find themselves in a series of unexpected challenges.

How to avoid being left behind

Be punctual

Guests must pay close attention to embarkation and disembarkation schedules. This is especially so during shore excursions. It is a must that travellers allow ample time to return to the ship after shore excursions or overnight stays.

Book line-sponsored excursions

Cruise lines always make sure that they get all their passengers onboard especially for line-sponsored excursions. In most cases, cruise ships even give ample time for passengers to get back to the ship. And in the event that the ship has to leave some guests behind due to unforeseen circumstances, the cruise line shoulders all the cost in reuniting guests with the ship. 

Be mindful of the time gap

Cruisers must always be mindful of the time differences, especially when sailing across time zones. There are instances when ship time is different from port time. In this case, guests are advised to set their watches and clocks to ship time to avoid confusion. Moreover, an alarm clock will also come in handy and prevent guests from running late in their return to the ship. 

Stay informed

Cruise passengers are advised to be familiar with the cruise ship’s policies and protocols on tardiness and missed check-in times. Reading reviews and news about these topics before the voyage is one way to stay informed to avoid experiencing such an unfortunate scenario yourself. 

Stay in contact

Guests must make sure that they have reliable means of communication, such as a charged mobile phone, to stay in touch with the cruise line or travel companions. This way, they could check whether they’re running late or just in time for embarkation after shore excursions. 

Respect local laws

Travellers, especially during shore excursions, are always advised to respect and obey local laws. There are instances where laws of some ports of call could pose legal issues. In return, they potentially cause delays or prevent timely return to the cruise ship.

What to do when left behind by a cruise ship

Seek help from port agents

Cruise lines always have designated port agents. This is to ensure that the needs of passengers left behind are properly addressed. Port agents also serve as a line of communication between the guests and the cruise line. Furthermore, they could also help those travellers left behind to be reunited with the cruise ship in the next port of call. 

Go to the embassy

Whenever travellers are stranded or left behind in a foreign country, it is always advised that they seek the help of their embassy whenever possible. Embassy staff can help stranded guests on they plan to do next. They can also make calls to help passengers with their problems. There are also instances where an embassy can pave the way for a stranded guest to be reunited with their cruise ship. 

Have your travel documents intact

Cruise passengers must make sure that they have their essential documents with them. These documents could include a passport, cruise documents, identification cards, credit cards and other necessary travel documents. These will be crucial for making alternative travel arrangements and dealing with local authorities, if necessary.

Document or record  everything

Travellers who are left behind (especially in foreign countries) must keep a detailed record of all communication with cruise lines. Also, it is advised that they document expenses incurred and any other relevant information that may be required at a later date. This documentation may be useful if guests need to file an insurance claim. It will also comes in handy when seeking compensation from the cruise line. 

Seek assistance from local authorities 

Being left behind especially in a foreign land is both discomforting and worrisome. So, if a guest encounters any difficulties or feels unsafe, they first must seek assistance from local authorities.  

Be patient and cooperative

It’s a given that being left behind is a disappointing experience. But it is also important to remain patient and cooperative, especially with the cruise line and authorities. Having a calm and tactful demeanour will help resolve the problem more efficiently.