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Everything You Need to Know About Tender Ports and Tender Boats on a Cruise

Everything You Need to Know About Tender Ports and Tender Boats on a Cruise

On a cruise, a tender port is one where the ship doesn’t dock at a pier. Instead, the cruise ship drops anchor offshore and passengers are ferried to land on smaller boats, called “tenders”.

Cruise lines usually specify which ports of call on each itinerary will be tender ports, and passengers have the opportunity to obtain tender tickets if they wish to go ashore.

When you’re planning a cruise, you might notice that some port descriptions will say, “this is a tender port.” Or you might see that tender boats or “tenders” are mentioned.

Confused? Don’t worry. I’ll explain everything you need to know about tender boats and tender ports on a cruise.

Why do cruise lines have tender ports?

Some cruise ports have shallow harbors that don’t allow for today’s massive cruise ships to pull right up to a pier. Other ports only have a limited amount of berths at their piers, so any extra ships that visit just don’t have a spot available.

Or, as in the case of some cruise line private islands, they haven’t built a pier yet!

Why is it called a tender port?

Usually when we think of the word tender, it’s in the context of something being gentle and caring (a tender kiss), or soft (a tender cut of meat). But tender ports have nothing to do with being gentle or soft!

The word tender has been used nautically since at least the late seventeenth century, meaning a “small boat used to attend larger ones”. It actually comes from the Middle English verb tenden, meaning “to attend to”.

On a cruise, “tender” can be used as a noun (“We’re going to take a tender to the island”), a verb (“We’re going to tender to the island”), or an adjective (“We’re going to take the tender boat to the island”).

In the most common usage with today’s cruise lingo, “tender port” is used as an adjective to describe a port that cruisers need to access via a small boat.

You might say something like, “Yesterday we had a tender port at Princess Cays, but thankfully this morning we can pull right up to the dock at Nassau“.

How do you know if a port will be a tender port?

Cruise lines will note in the itinerary if a port requires tenders. You’ll see this in your cruise planner on the cruise line’s website, or ask your travel agent if you’re not sure.

During your cruise, you’ll also get a reminder in your daily newsletter before visiting a tender port.

However, remember that cruise ports of call are always subject to change at any time. You might have a scheduled tender port changed to a docked port (or vice-versa).

Unpredictable weather can alter a cruise’s itinerary, causing the Captain to change ports or skip the port altogether.

What boats do cruises use to tender passengers?

Tenders on your cruise generally will be one of three types of boat:

  • Lifeboats from the cruise ship
  • Privately-owned boats from the port
  • Tenders owned by the cruise line kept at the port

Maximum occupancy on most tender boats is generally between 100 and 150 passengers.

So on a cruise ship that holds thousands of guests, tender operations can take quite some time, even if they use several boats!

How do you get a tender ticket?

Years ago when I was researching my very first cruise, I noticed there were a few tender ports on our itinerary. Wanting to make sure that all of our major expenses were pre-paid before we left for vacation, I started searching for instructions on how to pay for our tender tickets.

Silly me, tender tickets are free! But you do need to get them on board for each port as soon as you can. Tickets are issued on a first-come-first-served basis.

On most major cruise lines, you’ll need to get one tender ticket for your group or each member of your party for each tender port.

Read your daily newsletter carefully each day! It will list times and locations to pick up your tickets. Tickets often will be available the afternoon before you’ll be tendering, as well as the morning of.

Many cruise lines will set up an area (often in the theater) where a crew member hands out tender tickets to passengers during specific times. Be sure to note the times listed in the newsletter. You won’t be able to pick up a ticket at these locations outside of those times.

Tip: Pick up your tender tickets the day before you visit the tender port if you want a popular tender time. Early tickets go fast!

Are there any restrictions for tendering?

Tender boats don’t have age or weight restrictions for cruise passengers. However, if you have mobility challenges, you might not be able to board the tender.

Some cruise lines require that guests be able to step on and off of tender boats with only minimal assistance. Most tenders have at least a couple of steps you’ll need to use to get on and off of the boat.

Wheelchair-accessible cruise tenders with roll-on capability aren’t very common. Often, passengers who use a wheelchair and are unable to walk won’t be allowed to board a tender.

Some cruise lines specify that their crew will only carry a passenger on board in a wheelchair if the total weight is less than 100 pounds (45.5 kg). That rules out most people (except for some children) because they include the weight of the mobility device in the total.

Tip: For wheelchair users, reach out to your cruise line before you sail. Ask what their specific rules are regarding boarding a tender in a wheelchair. It’s also a good idea to speak with a customer service manager on board at least a few days before arriving in port. A timely heads-up might make them more willing to help you if they’re able.

Can any cruise passengers get priority tendering?

Passengers who’ve booked shore excursions directly through the cruise line will have priority tendering to make sure the tour groups meet their guides on time.

Some cruise lines also offer priority tendering to passengers who are at a high level in their loyalty program. Some also extend this privilege to guests staying in a full suite.

If you’re sailing on a Carnival cruise, you can pay a little extra for this perk! They allow passengers who purchase their “Faster to the Fun” pass to have priority tendering as well.

Priority access is only available for ship-to-shore tendering. When returning to the ship, all passengers wait in the same line.

Tip: Booked an independent shore excursion at a tender port? It’s a good idea to get the earliest tender ticket you can. Tender operations can run behind schedule, and your tour operator won’t wait very long if you’re late to the meeting point. It’s better to have some time to kill on land than to miss your excursion entirely!

Do you have to pick up a tender ticket to return to the ship?

You’ll only need a tender ticket to travel from the ship to shore. On the way back, you won’t need a ticket to return to the ship. However, you’ll need to wait in line, and those lines can be long at peak times!

Plan to return with plenty of time to avoid missing the last tender. Final tender times are published in the daily newsletter, and are also on signs as you’re leaving the cruise ship.

Tip: You might need to stand in a long line in full sun while waiting to board your tender. Reapply your sunscreen, and carry a hat and a lightweight layer to avoid a late-day sunburn. Some cruise lines will offer water while you wait, but don’t rely on that at every port.

What is open tender on a cruise?

If you missed getting a tender ticket or you overslept and missed your tender time, you’ll still have a chance to get to shore. (If you miss your tender time I’d still recommend asking if you can board with another group, but there are no guarantees.)

After all the scheduled tender groups are called, the tendering process will change to “Open Tender“. From this time on, passengers without a tender ticket will be allowed to get off the ship.

Often, a specific time for Open Tender is posted, but this schedule can be pushed back if tendering takes longer than expected.

If you decide to wait for Open Tender, just know that you might have to wait for the remaining passengers with scheduled tender tickets to board their boats.

Will you get seasick on a tender boat?

Modern cruise ships, with their vast size and high-tech stabilizers, usually don’t cause passengers to feel much of the sea’s motion—except in stormy weather.

But small tender boats don’t have those things going for them, so they definitely can rock on the waves!

Some ship’s tenders are pontoon-style, which are known for their stability. But if the conditions are choppy, you’re going to feel it!

If you have a tendency to seasickness or motion sickness, be sure to take an OTC remedy (lots of cruisers swear by Bonine) at least an hour before boarding the tender boat.

Or see your doctor before your cruise to find out if you might need a scopolamine patch or other prescription meds.

Most cruise tender rides last only about ten to fifteen minutes, so at least it won’t be a long, rough journey!

Read more: How to Avoid Getting Seasick on a Cruise

Why are tender ports skipped more often than docked ports?

If it’s stormy or the seas are rough, your Captain may choose to change ports or skip a tender port completely. Transferring thousands of passengers in and out of smaller boats in bad weather just isn’t a risk that the cruise lines want to take!

For passenger safety, the Captain is more likely to cancel a stop at a tender port compared to a docked port if the weather isn’t cooperating. If the weather is really bad, docked ports can also be canceled. It’s not only tender ports that can be nixed!

Weather conditions can change rapidly at sea. When you choose a cruise itinerary with tender ports, there’s a higher risk that your stop will be canceled or changed to another location.

Have a question that I haven’t answered about tender ports of call or tender boats on a cruise? Ask me in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen

al fife

Monday 1st of April 2024

how deep must a channel be for 100 passenger tender boat be to go thru

Carrie Ann Karstunen

Saturday 6th of April 2024

Hi Al, I can't give you an exact number, mainly because tenders aren't always the same type of craft. However, they're often lifeboats - which usually don't have a very deep draft.


Friday 25th of August 2023

I've been all over the internet and can't find the answer. Perhaps it's glaringly obvious do you know what tender to take back when returning to the ship?

Carrie Ann

Saturday 26th of August 2023

Hi Kevin, you just return to the spot where the tender from the ship dropped you off, and get in line for the next boat to go back to the ship. The cruise line will have signs and crew members there, and there's often a sizable line of passengers waiting, so you can't miss it! Hope this helps, and happy cruising!

Lynette Smith

Saturday 10th of September 2022

Do you know how high the tender steps are to get down and up. My husband has a hard time with steps do to his knees

Carrie Ann

Saturday 10th of September 2022

Hi Lynette, thanks for the question. Tender boats on cruise ships can really vary. Even at the same port, you might be faced with a different type of boat at different times of day! I wish I could give you a solid answer to your question, but with variations from boat to boat I can only give you a general answer (I also don't know the degree of your husband's knee issues).

In general, to get on and off of most cruise ship tender boats, you'll have a short step or two up, then a few steps down. The steps going down into the tender (and back out again) are generally a bit steeper. It's usually not more than 2-3 stairs going in and out.

If he's fine with walking up or down a few (steep-ish) steps in potentially rocky wave conditions (with handrails and a crewmember lending a hand from the gangway to the landing), I'm guessing he'll be fine.

The one issue on some tenders that could pose an issue is if the lower level of the boat is full and you have to head to the top deck. Some tenders have a full flight of steep metal stairs (with railings) to access the top level.

My advice? If the boat looks full, let the crew know he can't climb the steps to the top deck before you board the tender. Best case scenario is that they ask for volunteers to move upstairs to make room on the lower level. Worst case is you'll need to wait to be the first guests on the next tender. Hope this helps!


Monday 5th of September 2022

Are there port fees at tender ports? If the ship manages to drop anchor but then is unable to run tenders due (for example) to bad visibility, are the port fees refunded?

Carrie Ann

Monday 5th of September 2022

Hi Dave, thanks for the question! Yes, at tender ports (just like docked ports) port taxes and fees are assessed. You'll have pre-paid these fees by the time final payment is due for your sailing. If any port stop is canceled, the cruise line will refund you the taxes and fees for that specific stop.

If (like in the scenario you asked about) your ship drops anchor but no tenders go out, guests will still be refunded for those fees. But usually, the captain would make the call for weather-related reasons well before approaching the port to drop anchor.

When foul weather causes the captain to cancel the original port and head to a different one, guests are responsible for taxes and port fees at the new port. So you might find yourself paying a little more at the new port, or a little less. Or you might just have an extra sea day if a replacement port isn't practical!


Wednesday 17th of August 2022

I had a stroke about a year ago, and am unsteady walking. Will I be able to board a tender?

Carrie Ann

Friday 19th of August 2022

Hi Rick, when you're boarding a tender, there's always a crew member or two there offering a hand to help steady you as you're transitioning from the gangway to the smaller boat. You'll often have to step up on a small portable stair before you step onto the tender, but you can mention that you need a hand on the steps as well so you don't lose your balance.

If the water is choppy during tendering, it can be a bit challenging to make the transition to and from the tender boat, even for those of us who are usually pretty steady on our feet. Some tender boats also have a second level, and I've had to go up some pretty steep stairs to find a seat if the first level is full!

I'd advise chatting with Guest Services at least the day before your tender port if the weather looks iffy or if you're worried about getting on and off, climbing stairs, etc. I've been on hundreds of tenders and they're all a bit different. Crowds and weather can also make a big difference in your tender experience, so asking ahead could really help you decide if the assistance that the crew can offer will work with your level of mobility. Hope this helps!