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I've never been on a cruise ship. Say someone goes on a vacation cruise ship that travels across various countries throughout a 7-day period. When they get to these countries and there are places of interest to see, do they just dump the passengers off and let them wander? Or do guides/people help navigate them? Because it would be kind of confusing for some if you moor the ship at a dock and the passengers come out and have no idea where to go/what to do/etc. Let's not forget that you can get lost as well, correct? It's not like you take a car with you on the ship so you're likely on foot unless some guide or something takes you to places in one or helps you navigate.

Also, when it's time to depart, the ship will leave with missing passengers, I believe, if they don't embark after a long enough period of time, no?

Given so, how does this situation work out? Say I board a cruise ship and we reach the port of a pier or anchor the ship by a beach. What next? Do we leave and just wander? Do people provide maps? What if points of interest are FAR from mooring/anchoring points? Do we have to walk confused in places we've never been? It would be great to know how this works out.

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I have been on cruise twice - once from Boston, MA to Bermuda and once around western Mediterranean, covering Spain, Tunisia, Italy and France. Both times, when booking the cruises, the cruise company provided extra guided tours that could be purchased for extra cost.

It's worth noting that in many cases, the ship will berth not in the city that's mentioned in the itinerary, but rather in a port some distance away. For example, my Mediterranean cruise had "Rome, Italy" listed on its itinerary, yet the actual berthing was in Civitavecchia, which is about 50 miles (80 km) from Rome.

We did book the Rome tour - which included transportation from port to Rome and back, guided tour of Rome and Vatican, and lunch. It wasn't cheap (if I remember correctly, over $100 per person for the day trip - 10 years ago), but it did include everything I mentioned above.

In many ports there are smaller companies that offer similar tours or even the same tours - that you can book directly. Probably, these days, they all have internet booking of one type or another - but when I went on the Mediterranean, you could only book with many of them over the phone or in person and it was proving very difficult to find them in the first place. Thus, in case of Rome tour, we could pay the premium and have the guaranteed tour arranged for us - or chance it and hope that you'll find something reasonable when you arrive.

On the plus side, of course, you can often get something different on the shore compared with pre-booked tours via the cruise company directly. For example, when in Bermuda, we ourselves booked on shore a trip on a large 3-mast sailboat and snorkelling in the lagoon - this wasn't available from or even mentioned by the cruise company.

With all that, you still can just disembark and wonder on your own - which is what we did in Bermuda on the first cruise and in Nice, France on the second cruise.

To your second question (what happens if people don't arrive back on time), on both the cruises that I've been on, they clearly stated that the ship would sail at the specified time - with or without everyone aboard. It's likely that in today's paranoid times, they would also trawl through your cabin and unload all your luggage in the port, too.

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I doubt they'll unload your luggage, they'll have already scanned it looking for booze and weapons, and that might not be legal customs-wise anyway. – whatsisname Mar 28 at 6:03
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A practical tip: don't rush to buy tickets on the first day for every "extra cost" excursion that's on offer. Quite likely there will be some passengers wanting to recover part of the cost of tickets that they bought, but then decide they don't want to use. Also, on some coastal cruises there may be sight-seeing excursions where you leave the ship in the morning and rejoin it in the evening at a different port, as an alternative to sailing during the daytime. On some specialized cruises, the shore-based trips are the main event - the ship is just a very convenient mobile hotel. – alephzero Mar 28 at 6:36

I have gone on several cruises in the Caribbean and agree with the other answers regarding guides. To address the 'leaving you behind' question, there is one wrinkle to that: the shore excursions.

If you are on an excursion booked through the cruise line, and you are late getting back, the ship will wait for you. I don't know what they'll do if it is a catastrophic event, but if the tour bus has e.g. a flat tire bringing tour back, and is even 2 hours late, the ship will wait for you.

I know this for certain for Carnival and Royal, but I can't imagine any other cruise line would not play that way without making it absolutely clear.

That is part of the reason why they are more expensive booked through the cruise, when you can often go on the exact same tours for less if you go rogue and deal with the guides directly (but not always).

If you do go rogue, remember that most cruises stay on the same time zone the entire trip, and ship time will often be different than local time.

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+1 for mentioning delays on cruise company booked tours. – Aleks G Mar 28 at 9:43
    
In my experience of working on cruise ships for 10 years we always changed clocks to match the time zone of the country being visited to save confusing passengers. That was Cunard, maybe other cruise lines are different. – vascowhite Mar 28 at 17:17
    
Carnival usually does not change the time mid-cruise, I don't think Royal does either. – whatsisname Mar 28 at 17:39

All cruises I have ever heard or read about offer guided tours at their stops, often at extra costs.

When you look at the description of a cruise look at excursions and at program and things like that.

I searched a few cruises for you, in the same area so you can compare: Royal Caribean and Holland America Line
Prices for shore excursions can differ a lot and can be a fair percertage of the price of the travel.

Besides what the cruise lines offer, in many regular cruise harbours you will find that there are companies on shore who offer tours or things to do in that place. Being lost in a city is never needed. You can also prepare your own outings, as the times and locations are often given when you read the description of a cruise.

At the cruises my parents have done, they sometimes had guides on board who would tell them about the locations of the stops before coming there, often to get them to sign in for the excursions.

Cruise ship in a canal
On its way from Amsterdam to the open sea. Photo by Willeke, can be used under CC rules.

The cruise boat in the photo did go to Amsterdam, although because of a festival not all the way. Others do dock on the other end of the 25 km long canal. About an hour by local buses to Amsterdam, 30 minutes and a lot of money by taxi.

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For excursions, if you book through the cruise line, they will hold the boat for you. If you leave on your own, they will not. In the Caribbean there is generally a commercial area with shops and restaurants very close to the pier where the ship is docked. Other places (e.g., Central and South America) the ship docks in a cargo port and there is nothing close.

See The time I fell down a Volcano for an amusing story from a fellow traveler on a cruise missing the ship and trying to catch up with it.

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