Shore excursions are a highlight of nearly every cruise itinerary today, whether you're romping through a rainforest in Costa Rica, exploring ancient Greek ruins on Delos, flightseeing in Alaska or snorkeling in Tahiti.
How best to enjoy these experiences? You have three options:
- Sign up for a shore excursion arranged by the cruise line
- Sign up for an independent tour
- Head off on your own and do it yourself
Which option should you choose? It depends.
Option A, the shore excursions offered by the cruise lines, are now so popular that many of them sell out with a day or two of your ship's departure. The main attraction here is that it's more convenient than the other options: It may cost more, but all the details are arranged, the tour operator has conducted this excursion many times before and if things run late (say, the vehicle breaks down on the way back to the ship), they'll hold the ship for you. To many, that peace of mind is worth the added cost.
Option B, the independent tour, is for folks who prefer an organized outing with often a smaller group and who don't mind doing the extra research and the signing up on their own.
Option C, the do-it-yourself approach, can work, depending on the port, the itinerary and your travel style. Do you like organizing your own shore adventures? Do you like going off to explore on your own?
Decide on your travel style
Let's run down these options in more detail. Keep in mind you can take a shore excursion in one port and then go off on your own at the next port.
Cruise line-organized excursions
Advantages: If you go with an excursion organized by the cruise line, you'll be traveling with anywhere from a handful to 40 or more fellow passengers. After you return, you can compare notes on the trip with your fellow shipmates. Another benefit is that you'll know the tour provider is licensed and reputable, while independents can be hit or miss (so it pays to do some research).
Downsides: You could face potentially long lines, crowded buses and sometimes excruciatingly long stops at souvenir shops.
Cost: Port tours vary in price depending on cruise line and can run you anywhere from free — that is, sometimes included in your fare — on cruise lines such as Viking, Crystal and Uniworld to $50 and up a person for a simple snorkel or walking excursion to well over $100 each for such higher-priced options as golf, helicopter rides, seaplane rides and visits to ancient ruins. Some lines even offer overnight excursions to swanky hotels or private limo tours that can run $400 per person and up.
My experience: Traditional shore excursions are worth it if you want to venture to sites far from the cruise dock, have easy access to historic monuments, forts or castles and learn more about a region.
My colleague Gary Bembridge will be comparing tours from independent operators and cruise line sponsored excursions tomorrow. To join one, you can do some research online and sign up before your departure day, or you can head to the pier after your ship docks and you'll likely see several local guides hawking their tours to last-minute takers.
I've been on indie tours that were fantastic and others that turned out to be duds. For instance, in French Polynesia we often stroll off our ship and into the arms of local tour operators who take us snorkeling, diving and to the beach at half the price charged by the cruise line. Heaven! For more info on this approach, see 3 reasons to consider an independent shore excursion.
If all you want to do is walk around a port town, shop or hit the beach, don't feel obligated to go on an organized tour. Wing it! It could turn out much cheaper and less time consuming to do your port planning on Cruiseable and go it on your own. For instance, St. Barts lends itself to exploring on your own. One of the best beaches, Shell Beach, is just a stroll from the pier, and the port of Gustavia is very maneuverable on foot, making it easy to shop or try out a restaurant or bar.
Different types of shore excursions
If you decide on taking a cruise line-sponsored shore excursion, be aware that they come in all kinds of flavors.
Active undertakings vs. less demanding tours: If you're the active sort, you might want to sign up for ziplining, scuba diving, kiteboarding, sled-dogging, flyboarding, flightseeing, cave spelunking, nighttime kayaking in a bioluminescent bay, mingling with penguins in the Falklands, hiking across a glacier or the like. If that's not your thing, there are plenty of less intense options, such as taking a sightseeing tour bus to take in London or taking a guided tour of the Acropolis in Athens or doing a wine tasting in Bordeaux or visiting an art museum in Amsterdam. Take it at your own speed — remember, it's your vacation.
Differing lengths: Shore excursions come in all lengths, from a 90-minute quickie lunch at a stone mansion to a full-day cultural immersion in a city. My preference is to take one or two shorter excursions and leave enough time to explore a port at my own pace.
Guided and self-guided varieties: Some tours come complete with guides leading you through, say, the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey while the guide and tourists wear headsets and transmitters. Others simply drop you off at a location to shop, relax or explore on your own before it's time to return to the ship.
Some personal experiences
In big cities it makes sense to pop for a tour. I think it's also wiser to take a shore excursion in the developing world or in any foreign port where language and customs present a barrier, for both convenience and safety. For example, in Brunei you would definitely want to take the guided tour to sites such as the biggest mosque in Asia, Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. You’d probably never find it on your own, much less pronounce the name correctly. And without guidance you may not learn that local custom mandates covering your body from head toe in long pants, long skirt and long sleeves. (More than one cruise passenger has appeared scantily clad at the mosque steps. Fortunately, the locals are used to this and have robes available to drape over visitors).
You should know that local businesses operate most port tours and cruise lines are somewhat at their mercy. This can be a good or bad thing, as in the case of our recent visit to Costa Rica. We were booked on a rainforest trek. Our giddy young female tour operators kept warning us that since it was late in the morning we may not spot any denizens in the area. “We don’t know why they send you on these tours so late,” they moaned, “the animals are only around in the early morning.” Well, one reason it was late was because the ship doesn’t arrive any earlier — which the cruise line should have thought about before adding this tour to the program. Not only didn’t we see any creatures in the woods, we pretty much didn’t see anything but millions of ants.
Shore excursion comfort also factors vary from ship to ship. Princess Cruises’ New Waves snorkel and scuba trips can’t be beat. Luxury lines Crystal Cruises, Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas also run a tight ship with handpicked tours that usually run smoothly. Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea and Regent often provide a free shuttle service to town.
Some final caveats & consumer tips
The best way to decide on a shore excursion is by reading the brochure either online or at the Tour Operator’s desk on board. Keep a lookout for red flags such as: “once there you will have two hours to swim, snorkel, beach comb or just relax.” While that doesn’t sound so bad, we’re talking a 6-hour tour that includes two hours on a catamaran. And while champagne (usually bad bubbly) and drinks may be proffered, do you really want to spend four hours on a boat after being on a ship? Maybe you do if it's whale watching in Cabo. But think about it. The length of the tour is always noted in the brochure; deduct time spent getting there to time available once at your destination to decide if this is right for you.
Shore excursions have gotten longer. On a recent cruise it was difficult to find any less than five hours long. A couple of hours in a catamaran or sailboat may not to be tough duty; the same amount of time in a bus may not be that pleasant.
Shore excursion managers are eager to please, answer questions and take your reservation. So be sure to discuss the excursion in detail before you plunk down your dough. Some tours involve strenuous treks in hot, humid climes. Cruise lines are quick to point this out to avoid liability or problems. Be sure to pick tours that you can handle physically.
One final caveat: The bigger the ship, the faster the shore excursions sell out (especially the best ones), so if you want to take an organized tour, don’t delay, book it soon after you embark or online if the cruise line permits. Also remember that more passengers mean longer waits in lounges to get off the ship and begin your tour.
It’s also a good idea to get your hands on a few good guidebooks to learn about the ports of calls you’ll be visiting. Tip: See whether Cruiseable features a travel guide for your port.
- 3 reasons to consider an independent shore excursion
- Should I book a shore excursion with the cruise line?
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- A perfect day in San Juan
- My ziplining experience across a canyon in Cabo
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