Tender Ports vs. Docked Ports

IDGAF How It Happens Just Get Me OFF of This Ship

The party onboard is only half the fun; adventure awaits on shore!  When cruising you get ashore one of two ways: docking or tendering.

A docked port is where your ship tethers itself to a dock or pier and lowers a bridge so passengers can walk directly off of the ship and into the port of call.  Typically cruise ships dock in larger ports because they’re more equipped to handle the logistics of such a massive ship.

A tender port is where your ship drops anchor offshore and shuttles passengers to and from the port of call using smaller “tenders”, or boats.  Typically you’ll find tender ports in smaller ports of call because they either don’t have a dock or aren’t able to handle maneuvering a large ship so close to shore.  You may also find a tender port where there’s shallow water or fragile marine life and coral that could potentially be damaged by the passage of a cruise ship.

Which is better?

Both have pros and cons.

Docked ports definitely offer more convenience, especially when traveling with children.  You’re able to walk back and forth as you please without waiting in a long line to get back on your ship – huge selling point with littles.  However, this could backfire. More walking back and forth also means MORE WALKING BACK AND FORTH and we all know how littles have patience for that.   And since docked ports are typically found at larger ports of call, that means potentially even more walking. Unlike tender ports, larger docked ports oftentimes have more than one ship in port simultaneously, so there could be thousands of passengers crammed onto the same streets and sidewalks, making passage difficult for families with strollers or for those with other handicaps or mobility issues.

Tender ports can get tricky, tricky indeed.  Tender ports require a boat ride to shore, so during bad weather or rough seas tender ports are skipped for a day at sea instead.  It’s a bummer to miss a port of call but it’s totally uncontrollable and a part of the cruise contract you agree to upon booking and embarkation.  Ultimately the cruise line isn’t going to risk the safety of its passengers and few would legitimately argue otherwise. Tender ports also don’t offer the convenience of getting on and off the ship at your leisure.  Since all ship passengers are in the same port and using the same tender boats back and forth, there can sometimes be long lines and long waits to tender back to the ship…disastrous words with little ones in tow.

Both types of ports can offer fun and memorable experiences for you and your family, some with a little more forethought and planning than others.  Here are some tips to help!

  • Sit at the top of the tender boat.  

    Typically a tender boat is double or triple-deckered.  When tendering back to your cruise ship from your port of call, I don’t care where anyone tries to direct you sit on the top level of the tender boat!  Or, at least, as close as you can possibly get to the top. Usually sitting at the bottom means you get off faster…WRONG on a tender boat…the bottom means you’ll get off last.  When your tender boat reaches your cruise ship, a gangway will extend from your ship to your little tender, allowing passengers to exit. The gangway attaches to the TOP platform or level of a tender boat, allowing those people to exit first.  These tender boats are not small and if you’re stuck at the bottom you’ll find yourself waiting in line to exit for 15+ minutes with hot and hangry children (and adults). Sitting at the top of the boat will also allow you to take in all the beautiful scenery of your destination.  If you have to tender, you might as well turn it into a free boat ride excursion. Bonus!

  • Plan to stay on shore longer and pack accordingly.  

    Snacks, sunscreen, swim diapers, snacks, change of clothes, money, snacks, hats, shoes, snacks, bottles, snacks – you should have a full day’s worth of these things, and whatever else you deem necessary, in your bag when leaving your ship the first time.  You won’t be able to travel back and forth to your ship as quickly or easily so make sure you come onto shore fully prepared the first time around.

  • Send a messenger to scope out the line for the tender boat first.  

    If you are considering heading back to your ship, send someone to check out the line to tender back before you pack up all of your stuff and kids and hike it only to wait 20 minutes in the hot sun.  If the line is too long, wait about 20 minutes and check back.

  • Tender back early or tender back late.  

    Beware that 2-3 hours after lunch is when you will find the longest lines to tender back to the ship.  To avoid this, either tender back soon after lunch or wait until the lunch rush passes. You might be cutting your time short by leaving after lunch, so if you catch one of the late tenders back, the lines are more likely to be shorter and you could use that extra time to play on the beach instead of waiting in line.  The ship won’t leave without you if they know there are still tenders going back and forth. Don’t purposely delay your ship, but enjoy the most out of your time ashore!

  • Bring good walking shoes for the whole family.  

    Plan on doing a lot more walking in a docked port so be sure everyone is wearing comfortable shoes that don’t chafe or rub the wrong way.  Kids get whiny in flip-flops all day and husbands do, too.

  • A stroller is needed for smaller children.  

    Lots of walking + little legs = wheels.  Plus the handles and bottom basket can serve as a purse/bag hanger and storage for all your souvenirs.

  • Be prepared to navigate carefully. 

    Streets and sidewalks in docked ports can get crowded, creating problems if you’re traveling with a stroller or if a member of your party is using a wheelchair or walker.  If you don’t want to lug the stroller around and your little is little enough, invest in a good baby carrier or wrap and navigate hands-free instead.

Tender ports may offer a little less convenience and a little more planning, but don’t let them scare you off from choosing a certain itinerary.  Some of my absolute favorite ports have been tender ports and oftentimes the tender boats can get you to the remote, untouched destinations that can’t be accessed by large cruise ships.  

Plan appropriately and you’ll have a good time no matter where you end up dropping anchor!

List of Tender Ports

The following is a current list of tender ports in the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico, and Latin America.  

This list is an average from the major cruise lines but may not be comprehensive of all. If your destination isn’t on this list be sure to check with your specific cruise line.

  • Bay Harbor, Maine
  • Belize City, Belize
  • Bora Bora, French Polynesia
  • Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
  • Catalina Island, CA
  • Cienfuegos, Cuba
  • Golfito, Costa Rica
  • Grand Cayman Island
  • Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
  • Kona, Hawaii
  • Lahaina, Hawaii
  • Newport, Rhode Island
  • Playa del Carmen, Mexico
  • Princess Cays, Bahamas
  • Samana, Dominican Republic
  • Santa Barbara, California
  • St. Barts
  • St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
  • Sitka, Alaska
  • Tortola, British Virgin Islands