If you have cruised before, you know that you have seen those runners trying to make it to the ship before it leaves. It happens on pretty much every cruise, at every port. People usually make it back in time, but once in a while, they get left behind.
First off, the cruise ship will not wait for you if you are late. However, if you are on a sponsored excursion booked through the cruise line and are late coming back, the ship will wait. Excursions booked through a 3rd party normally always allow for extra time so you won’t miss the ship. The locals know what time the cruise ships leave and the last thing they want is for you to get left behind. The majority of cruisers who miss the ship miss it because they lost track of time and are late getting back on their own. What happens to those who miss the ship? Here is the procedure that Carnival Cruise Line (all cruise lines have a similar process) goes through when a passenger is not back on board when the ship is scheduled to leave port.
If a passenger is not on board at the scheduled departure time, their name is called over the PA system to make sure that they didn’t board without their cruise card checking them back in when they boarded. If there is no response after five minutes, another announcement is made over the general emergency system.
If there is still no response, a member of guest services will be accompanied by a security officer to check the passenger’s cabin to see if they are there. If they are not there, they will look for the passenger’s passport and use a master key to check for it in the safe.
If they are unable to find the passports, the ship assumes that the passenger has them with them. If they find the passport, it is given to the ship agent (there is an agent stationed in every port) so the passenger will have them when they arrive back at the pier. A passport is needed for all international flights so they can catch back up with the ship. Which, in my opinion, is very thoughtful.
The passenger is then responsible for all fees and for the cost of lodging and flights to meet back up with the ship. Last minute international fares can be extremely expensive. The ship agent will assist the passenger in booking flights and a hotel.
Travel insurance may or may not cover flights if you miss the ship due to your own negligence. Cruise ships wait as long as they can before leaving but are often on strict time schedules.
To avoid being late, I recommend leaving extra time in case something does go awry. Also, you can set your watch to the ship time, and set an alarm for when you should head back to the ship. This ensures that you will not be standing on the pier watching your ship leave without you.