Cruise tender ports, what you need to know. Tender ports meaning, tender tips and precautions. Background image is the Belize City cruise port

Cruise Tender Ports – What you need to know

At certain ports of call, large cruise ships aren’t able to dock at the pier. Instead, they anchor offshore and use smaller boats to take passengers from the ship to shore. These cruise ports are then called tender ports.

The process of getting passengers from the cruise ship to these tender ports is called tendering.

Keep reading for a more comprehensive guide on cruise tender ports and the tendering process.

Tender ports, what you need to know.  Meaning, tips and precautions.  Top image is Belize City cruise port welcome sign and a cruise ship photo taken from a tender

In this article we will cover:

  • What is a tender port
  • Reasons for a tender port
  • How to tell if your cruise itinerary has a tender port
  • What boats are used to tender
  • Does it cost money to take a tender?
  • The tendering process
  • Advantages of a tender port
  • Disadvantages of having to take a tender
  • Cruise tender tips

What is a tender port?

A tender port is a cruise itinerary port-of-call where the cruise ship doesn’t dock at the pier. The ship instead anchors offshore and uses tenders (small boats) to shuttle the passengers back and forth between the ship and land.

Tenders are often referred to as water shuttles or water taxis.

Why do cruises use tender ports?

Some ports are too shallow for the cruise ships to enter, don’t have the proper docking facilities, or don’t have the space needed for the large ships to maneuver around in.

The only way then for cruises to access these areas are to use tenders. These cruise ports are then called tender ports.

How do I know if my cruise has a tender port?

Sometimes it isn’t easy to see, but if you look on the cruise line’s website, under your itinerary it should say. Often you have to look at the more detailed cruise itinerary and not just the summary of ports.

You can also call your travel agent or the cruise line directly if you are concerned about having a tendered port.

A screen shot of a cruise itinerary that shows that Mykonos and Santorini are cruise tender ports
NCL cruise itinerary

As you can see from the above screenshot, Santorini and Mykonos are tender ports on this Norwegian Cruise Line itinerary.

Grand Cayman is a popular stop on a Caribbean cruise and it is a tender port.

What boats are used as cruise tenders?

The boats used as tenders vary depending on the cruise port. Sometimes the ship’s own life boats are used as tenders, other times local water shuttle boats are used.

The size of the boats used as tenders varies. Some are larger open air boats and some are smaller more closed in boats.

The boats use are well-maintained boats.

Do you have to pay to go on a tender?

No, you don’t have to pay. It does not cost anything additional to take a cruise ship tender to port. It is included in your cruise fare.

How does the tender process work?

The tendering process may vary slightly cruise line to cruise line. It is important to listen to announcements from your cruise director, as there will be a process in place to minimize crowding and long lines.

Most cruise lines have a tender ticket system in place. These numbered tickets will be available for guests to pick up on a first-come, first-served basis. The ticket pick up time and location will be announced.

Once the cruise staff are ready to start the tendering process, priority will be given to those who have purchased shore excursions directly through the cruise line and have an early tour start time. Your shore excursion ticket will give the meeting time and place.

Once those guests are loaded onto the tenders, the crew members will start calling passengers holding certain numbered tender tickets.

Often the cruise will switch to an open tender process in the late morning, meaning at that point you don’t need a ticket to get off.

Some cruise lines have pay-for-benefit programs that allow priority debarkation. For example, Carnival Cruise has Faster to the Fun. If you purchase Faster-to-the-Fun, one of the perks will be priority debarkation.

Tendering can be a lengthy process depending on the number of cruise ship passengers and the number of tenders (water shuttles) operating.

The cruise line and cruise ship staff prioritize safety.

Note that while having purchased a cruise line shore excursion may give you priority in tendering off the ship, it does not give you priority returning to the ship.

Tender tickets are not required to return to the ship. You will need you cruise card and photo identification to get off and on the ship.

Me on one Carnival cruise ship looking at another Carnival ship anchored in Belize
Anchored off of Belize City waiting for our turn for the tender.

How long does the tender take?

The actual boat ride varies depending on the port and type of tender. It can be anywhere from 15 minutes to a half an hour and in some cases longer.

Don’t forget to factor in waiting in line to get on the tender and then waiting for the tender to fill up before departing.

Remember, in most cases there are thousands of people trying to get off the ship and the tenders can only hold so many people.

On our recent Carnival cruise, Belize City was a tender port. They used a local company to tender us back and forth. The boat ride was approximately 20 minutes. While some think of having to tender to port is a hassle, I found the boat ride quite relaxing.

Benefits of visiting a tender port

There are two benefits of visiting a tender port.

1. Seeing places you wouldn’t otherwise cruise to

Offering tender ports allows the cruise line to offer more variety in cruise destinations and itineraries. These are ports that you wouldn’t otherwise get to visit on a cruise if it weren’t for tendering.

2. Great views of your ship

One of my favorite things about tendering from the ship to shore is that you get a good view of your cruise ship. That vantage point makes for a great photo opp. The ships are so large that when docked in port it is often hard to get the full ship in view.

Photo of a Carnival Cruise ship taken from a cruise tender in Belize

The above photo is taken from the tender taking us from the ship to Belize City.

Drawbacks of a tender port

There are some drawbacks and potential issues with a cruise tender port.

1. Tender ports can be more affected by weather

In adverse weather (strong winds and/or high waves) the tender port may be cancelled.

The captain’s primary concern is the safety of the passengers and the crew. If he or she feels that passengers cannot be tendered safely then that port-of-call will be cancelled. This tender port will be replaced with a sea day or an alternative port.

2. Accessibility concerns

Extra caution should be taken getting on and off the tender boats. While the crew do their best to stabilize the boat, there is some movement as it is on the open ocean.

Those with mobility issues should contact the cruise line to determine if special assistance is available.

3. More movement

Since it is a smaller boat on the ocean, you may feel more motion that you do on your large cruise ship which has a stabilizer.

It is likely that the extra movement won’t bother you, but it is a possibility that you should be aware of.

A few tips if you are worried about movement of the tender boat.

Don’t be the first person on the tender.

Often you will feel the most movement when the boat is not moving but rather rocking with the waves as other passengers board.

If you are one of the first passengers on the tender you will me exposed to the movement longer as you wait for other passengers to load then unload.

– Sit in the open air.

The tenders or water shuttles often have part that is in the open air and part that is covered. You may feel better sitting in the open air.

– Wear your SeaBands

4. Time ashore can be limited at tender ports

When planning your time ashore at a tender port you have to factor in the time it takes to get off the ship, the time of the actual tender ride, and the wait for the return tender. There can often be long lines for the tender to return to the ship.

This is especially important to remember if you have shore excursions pre-booked with a local tour company (not through the cruise line).

You often don’t have as much time ashore as you would at ports you can just walk off.

Cruise ship viewed from our boat on our way to our tender port
View from a cruise tender

Top tips for a smooth tender process

Here are a few tips to make the whole tendering experience a little better.

– Listen to the announcements and follow crew member directions

– Know the time of the last tender time

Before leaving the ship be sure to know the time of the last tender back to the ship. It will be earlier than the ship departure time on your itinerary.

– Know the ship’s time compared to the local time

Not all cruise ships follow the local time. This is very important especially if you are relying on a local clock or asking a local for the time.

– Wear sunscreen

You may be exposed to the sun for the whole tendering process, either by choice or by no other option. Be sure to wear sunscreen and a lip balm with sunscreen to avoid a sunburn.

– Bring a travel sized umbrella

– Don’t book an early shore excursion with a local company

If you decide to book a shore excursion or a tour with a local company and not the cruise line, don’t book it for the time your itinerary says you arrive.

Choose a later time to allow for time to tender in. Keep in mind those with shore excursions booked with the cruise line will have priority tender times (if they have an early tour).

The local tour company may not wait for you or refund you if you are late for your tour start time.

– Don’t miss the last tender (a tender precaution)

Catch an earlier return tender and don’t wait for the last one. It is too big of a risk.

Welcome to Belize City sign at the cruise port you tender to
Belize City is a cruise tender port

Tender ports summary

In summary, tender ports are a unique aspect of cruise travel that offers passengers the opportunity to explore destinations that don’t have traditional docking facilities.

Understanding the tendering process, following safety guidelines and instructions, and planning ahead are keys to making tendering to port enjoyable.

Embrace the experience and enjoy your boat ride as it allows you to see your destination from a different perspective. It’s almost like a free excursion.

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