Passengers of the Carnival Splendor wheeled suitcases down a ramp as a crowd waited at the dock. It took several hours to get all passengers off without the aid of electric conveyors and elevators.
Buses arrived to drive passengers north to Long Beach, where the Splendor is based, the Associated Press reports. Passengers also were given the option of staying overnight at San Diego hotels.
The passengers were forced to survive at sea on the 13-story floating hotel without electricity when the cruise ship lost electricity on Monday because of a fire on board. While there were no reported injuries, conditions rapidly detiorated once the lights went out.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it will open an investigation into what happened.
"We're so happy to be getting off. Everybody's been cheering and clapping," passenger Sahizah Alim, 26, of Sacramento, told the AP by cell phone.
"It's been like a nightmare," she said. "There's been no food, no power, no electricity, no flushing toilets. I spent the night tossing and turning in my cabin in the dark."
CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone reported on The Early Show that passengers were forced to deal with circumstances far worse than the luxury they signed up for initially. The pool and casino closed when the electricity went down; hot food and hot water became memories; air conditioning became nothing more than an open window or a nap on the open deck; and, perhaps worst of all, waste disposal had become a problem.
Passenger Danny Cole told CBS' The Early Show via cellphone that there were "people getting upset by the toilet situation. They couldn't flush, and there's quite a big smell issue on the ship."
Watch: Rescue Effort for Carnival Splendor
Scroll down for video of passengers cheering as ship nears San Diego
In all, six vessels will be needed to bring the ship to port, as it was no longer able to steer itself. Passengers agonized as they were initially pulled along at six miles-per-hour by two tugs that had come to rescue them off the coast of Mexico.
On Carnival's website, Cruise Director John Heald posted a blog saying passengers and crew "have risen to the obvious challenges and difficult conditions aboard."
"Obviously it has been a challenge but let me tell you the most important facts and those are that the ship is safe, the guests are safe and that nobody was injured," Heald said.
Staying safe might not have been enough for many of the passengers on board. Food lines stretched for hours, and passengers survived on a diet of non-perishable food and military rations.
The daughter of two passengers, Angela Evans, told The Early Show her parents were upset by the food options during what was supposed to be a vacation.
"They were not interested in Spam and Pop Tarts," Evans said. "I left him a text message saying, 'Hey dad, do they have multiple flavors of Spam?'"
People on the decks and about 100 onshore cheered loudly as the ship reached the dock, while all along the harbor, tourists, joggers and fishermen stopped to snap photos. Lissa Letts of Overland, Kan., said she drove to San Diego to meet the returning ship to sell passengers T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase: "I survived the 2010 Carnival cruise Spamcation." Passengers snapped up the shirts at $20 apiece.
Gerry Cahill, president of Carnival Cruise Lines, acknowledged at a press conference the difficult time everyone was having.
"They signed up for a great cruise vacation and obviously that is not what they got," Cahill said. "We know we ruined their vacation."