You might think that when the ship docks right at the pier, you can walk right off, but you can't. Before the gangway is open to disembarking passengers, lots of papers must be signed and local authorities must give their clearance, a process that can take as long as 2 hours. Don't even bother going to the gangplank until you hear an announcement saying the ship has been cleared.
If your ship anchors rather than docks, you will go ashore in a small boat called a launch or tender, which ties up next to your ship and shuttles passengers back and forth all day. Getting on the tender may require a helping hand from crew members, and the waves may keep the tender swaying, sometimes requiring passengers literally to jump to board.
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The tenders, by the way, are usually part of the ship's ample complement of lifeboats lowered into the water for the day in port.
To make life easier when tendering, try to not be the first off the ship. Like standard disembarkation pierside, you'll save yourself a lot of pushing, shoving and maddening frustration if you just kick back and have that second cappuccino; most ships will run tender services from ship-to-shore throughout the day. Guests on shore excursions purchased through the ship typically get tendering priority, particularly if they are on a tour that departs soon afer the ship drops anchor. Tip: If you're going to participate in a ship-sponsored excursion, tender ports are a great time to do so. These ports are typically annotated in some way in the cruise line's brochure (and your own personal schedule), so you shouldn't face any nasty surprises. Plus, tender ports are a great chance to get some photos of your ship at anchor on the deep blue sea.
Whether the ship is docked or anchored, you are in no way required to get off at every port of call.
The ship's restaurants will remain open, and there will still be activities on offer throughout the day, though usually on a limited basis. On bigger ships, staying on board in ports you've already been to can have an added advantage: The ship is virtually yours to enjoy, free of the typical crowds.