Going on the cruise shore excursion or catching the shuttle bus into the nearby town center to explore on your own are not the only touring options available to you on your cruise. It's likely that every port you call on will have a multitude of choices, as local tour operators and entrepreneurs are used to dealing with a constant flow of eager visitors looking to explore the area.
After years of cruising on all the major cruise lines, I can safely summarize these as your five main options for seeing the sights in a foreign port of call:
Cruise line shore excursions
Typically after booking a cruise, you should be able to review the excursions available through your cruise line at least 90 days before your cruise departs. You can review and usually book these via the online cruise personalizer tool provided by them, or in some cases (especially for high-end luxury cruises) by your travel agent. In addition to providing the tour length and cost, the online tools will describe the content of the experience, rate it by activity level and highlight who the tours are best suited for.
The shore excursions will have been screened by the cruise line for reliability, safety and popularity among their passengers. Each cruise line will typically have one of their onboard team members accompany you in addition to the tour guide. The ship will guarantee to wait for these groups to return before the ship departs, even if they are delayed. So, while cruise line shore excursions often cost more than independent operators, that peace of mind and ease of use if what prompts many cruisers to stick with a cruise line excursion.
There are a number of independent operators providing alternative shore excursions that are established and proven, offer competitive prices and have detailed traveler reviews. Some make it simple by allowing you to input your cruise line, ship and departure date online, and they'll generate a list of the excursions they offer in each port for your itinerary. This makes for easy comparison and decision making. Examples include Viator and ShoreFox.
In addition to offering better prices in most cases, independents will meet you dockside, have smaller tour group sizes and provide guarantees to get you back to the ship in time for departure. If they do not, they will make arrangements and cover the costs to get you to meet the ship in the next port. You should always make sure that you get this commitment in writing or as part of the terms and conditions before booking. I've done a fair number of independent excursions and I know a lot of people who swear by them.
The volume of passengers visiting ports has fostered the growth of an independent guide sector. They will take individuals or small groups around the main sights and are able to tailor and build great flexibility into your day. It's important to select those with some form of accreditation with the local tourism board or tour guide association. I recommend booking these in advance rather than negotiating with people offering their services when you get off the ship to ensure they are reputable and trustworthy.
A good way to find a private guide is on the discussion boards on sites like CruiseCritic, where you can ask experienced travelers for their recommendations and experiences. Guides can also be found by contacting the local tourism office and by searching online.
Hop-on, hop-off bus
I often use the local hop-on, hop-off bus tour. Virtually every port I have been to has one of these. Most seem to be run by global operators like City Sightseeing and Big Bus Tours with reliable standards, quality information and good prices.
They usually stop at, or close to, the port and sell tickets as you disembark the ship. The tours provide a helpful map of the city, take you to the key sights, provide multilingual recorded commentary and run frequent schedules, enabling you to hop off at the sights you desire without worrying about long waits for the next bus. This makes them a good alternative to organized tours. The downside? You're on a tourist bus.
If you decide the best excursions are the ones you plan and do yourself, make sure you know what the must-see sights and activities are and the best and most cost effective way to get there. While some cruise lines have destination speakers on board and provide port guides, not all do. Before your trip, read the advice on cruise forums, search for and review cruise and travel blogs that provide destination reviews and consider buying guide books (including ebooks) from major travel brands like Fodor's or Lonely Planet, many of which have books focused specifically on cruise destinations.
How about you?
I usually use a combination of these on my cruises to bring some added variety, better balance my budget and get more out of my trip. But how about you? Do you use your friends to whisk you around from place to place when you travel abroad, or do you have other techniques that have worked for you? I'd love to know!