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How do Cruise Lines Keep Track of Passengers?

If you are taking a cruise you may be wondering how the cruise line knows where their passengers are.

It’s important that a cruise line does know where the passengers are at any given time so that they don’t leave any behind or let anybody onto the ship that shouldn’t be there.

Cruise lines keep track of their passengers through the use of cruise cards. Each cruise card is linked to a guest and is scanned when a guest enters or leaves the ship. This provides the cruise line with an accurate picture of who is onboard the ship and who is onshore.

Wearable technology such as MSC’s for me Technology and Princess’s Ocean Medallion have taken this a step further.

What Are Cruise Cards?

When embarking on a cruise every guest will be given a cruise card. The cruise card is around the size of a credit card and it’ll have information on it about the passenger.

Most cruise cards include:

  • Passenger Name
  • Ship Name
  • Loyalty Status (If Applicable)
  • Cruise Dates

Each cruise card will either have a magnetic strip or a barcode which is scanned by cruise ship employees.

On most cruises, a photo of the passenger will be taken and digitally attached to the cruise card when it is assigned. This allows staff to check that the right person is using the right card. When the cruise line employee scans the card they will see a photo of the guest appear.

Cruise cards are used to order things like drinks so this photo function is important to ensure that guests aren’t sharing drinks packages. You Can’t Share a Drinks Package on a Cruise – Here’s Why

Some cruise cards such as the Norwegian and MSC cards shown below have barcodes on the front. The rest have barcodes/magnetic strips on the back.

girl cruise cruising keycard collection msc ncl cunard room keys

It’s important that every guest on a cruise keeps their cruise card with them at all times.

Of course they do sometimes get lost and this isn’t a huge problem.

If a cruise card is lost a replacement can be obtained from the reception desk, this is usually free although some cruise lines will add a charge if the cards are lost multiple times.

How do Cruise Cards Track Passengers?

When embarking or disembarking the ship every passenger will have their cruise card scanned by a member of staff.

This gives the cruise line a picture of who is on board the ship or on land but it doesn’t give them any more information than that. The cruise line could see the times that a passenger scanned in and off the ship but it doesn’t give them any further information about where they are located in the ship for example.

Below are a collection of my cruise cards. Some have soda package stickers on them (rarely used anymore) and some have the corners cut off. This was to show that I was a child at the time of sailing!

collection cruise cruising keycards room keys msc ncl cunard

Physical Keys/Alternatives

On some smaller/older cruise lines and ships you may find that cruise cards aren’t used.

I took a river cruise on board a ship from the 1990s that didn’t have the technology in place to use cruise cards.

On this cruise, we had to hand in our room key when we left the ship and this was used to work out who was on land and who was on the ship. This approach does have its problems though as it would be easy to leave the ship without handing in the key.

All major ocean cruise lines have cruise cards and use this as their primary way of tracking passengers. If you cruise on any cruise ship that has over 50 passengers you can almost guarantee the use of cruise cards. Using physical keys or any alternatives is rare and reserved for very small, usually old ships.

Wearable Technology (MSC and Princess)

Wearable cruise technology has taken the tracking of passengers to a new level. Two cruise lines that have lots of onboard technology are MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises.

Both cruise lines have technology built into each deck which allows them to track and trace their passengers through the use of wristbands. MSC and Princess both spent years installing this technology to their ships at great cost.

princess cruises ocean medallion

This is used for covid safety protocols and in some situations for parents to be able to locate their children.

Wearable technology gives the cruise line an accurate picture of who is onboard the ship and who has left.

On the rare occasion where there might be a question about if a guest is onshore or on land, the cruise line would be able to locate the guest very easily. This is particularly useful if the ship is due to depart soon. Without this, the cruise line would have to do a ship-wide tannoy announcement.

Tannoy announcements on cruise ships are usually done by the onboard cruise director, to learn what cruise directors do, check out this post: The Complete Guide to Cruise Directors: What They Are and What They Do (Interview)

Why do Cruise Lines Need to Keep Track of Passengers?

The main reason why cruise lines need to be able to see who is on board the ship is so that they can sail away from port without leaving anybody onshore.

If a guest is late back to the cruise ship the cruise ship will sail away without them but in some situations, the ship may wait a little longer if guests are missing and there is time in the schedule to accommodate this.

Scanning all of the passengers as they embark and disembark is also a security measure and means that the ship doesn’t sail with anybody onboard who shouldn’t be there.

Tallinn Estonia Cruise Ships

I have visited a number of ships as a day visitor and by keeping track of passengers the cruise line can make sure that people like me who are supposed to disembark at the end of the day do. Without this, I would be tempted to him somewhere and stay onboard.

Other Ways Cruise Lines Can Keep Track of Passengers:

Asides from the use of the cruise card a cruise line would be able to keep track of passengers by looking at their onboard accounts and onboard spend. This wouldn’t allow a cruise line to know where a passenger was in real-time but would allow them to check for any suspicious behavior.

Cruise ship deaths are rare but they do happen, if a guest didn’t make any purchases or leave the ship this may raise some questions.

To learn more about how people die on cruise ships per year, including what the most common causes of death are, check out this post: Cruise Ship Deaths – Annual Statistics, Causes, and Real Examples.

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