The Docking Difference
When a cruise ship docks, it tethers itself to a dock or port and lowers a bridge so passengers can walk directly off the ship and into the port of call. Cruise ships most commonly dock at larger ports because they are usually better equipped to accommodate cruise ships' enormous size.
When ships anchor, passengers are "tendered" to shore on tender boats. Tendering usually involves a shorter stop time because ships -- even large cruise ships -- can shift positions over time, even with a dropped anchor. If your itinerary indicates that your ship will tender at a particular port, that port is likely smaller in size, or the waters surrounding it cannot support large ships. Your ship will be in the waters away from, but still in sight of, the shore -- a roughly 10- to 40-minute small boat ride from the ship.
The difference between docking and tendering can mean the difference between having all day or only a few hours to explore a port of call. This is because docked ships allow passengers to leave at their will -- and at their own pace -- to explore the town. Anchored ships, however, usually provide small boats that can ferry passengers to shore approximately 20 to 30 at a time, although some ports provide larger ones. These tender boats sometimes serve double duty as lifeboats. On some of the larger ships that regularly hold multiple thousands of passengers, this can mean a hefty wait time before you can even begin to disembark. Couple that delay with the fact that you must return to the port in time to catch one of the tenders back to your ship, and you have a severely limited day of exploring.
Smaller cruise ships can more efficiently offload passengers when they must tender, but smaller vessels don't always have the same luxurious amenities as larger ships. If you're on a larger ship and want to save some time at a particular port of call, consider booking a guided tour or activity that caters specifically to cruise passengers. Many of these companies send smaller ships to anchored cruise liners to pick up only the passengers who have made reservations with them, which can save you an hour or more of wait time. Remember to check how long your ship will be in each port. Some only stop for a few hours -- a situation where tendering can prevent you from seeing much of anything -- while others stay overnight, which eliminates many of the time concerns.