Shore excursions are a crucial ingredient in the cruise experience. They allow you to make the most of your short days in port, without wasting time fumbling with maps and guidebooks or trying to work out foreign transportation systems. With family travel on the rise, cruise lines now offer a wide variety of kid-friendly options. Water sports, dolphin encounters and dogsled rides are among the offerings that tantalize today's families as they pour through their cruise documents and ponder their selections.
But, experienced cruisers know that the choice of shore excursions (not to mention the quality of the trip) can make or break a vacation, especially when little ones are involved. Take your fidgety 5-year-old on an eight-hour sightseeing bus ride, and not only you, but the rest of the tour participants, are likely to be miserable by the end of the day. Bring your sporty teen on a Mayan or Roman ruins tour, and he may lag behind, sulking, with his iPod cranked to top volume. Or, book your urban, cultured child on an outdoors nature adventure, and she may give you the cold shoulder for the entire day.
So, how do you weed out the good from the bad choices, keep everyone happy and avoid wasting money in the process? Here are some tips to keep in mind, followed by some of our favorite shore excursions for little kids, big kids and teens.
Know your kids. A lengthy catamaran ride and snorkeling tour may look great on paper, but if you know Johnny or Susie suffers from motion sickness (which may not be a problem at all on the large cruise ship), think twice. Ditto with long, "scenic" bus trips. Does your child get excited about active pursuits, animals, water sports or history? Pick your excursion accordingly.
Check out the lengths of shore excursions before you book. An eight-hour island tour is a great way to pack in a lot of sightseeing, but if your children have short attention spans and tend to get squirmy after a half-hour, opt for a shorter outing. And, even if your kids can handle some long days, you still may want to consider alternating full-day shore tours with half-day ones. Most kids 10 and younger will be unhappy with back-to-back days of touring and will have a much better time if they can get some time off to enjoy the ship's pool, play in the kids' club or just veg out watching a movie in between heavy sightseeing.
Shore excursions vary by destination, so keep your children's interests in mind when deciding where to go. The Caribbean, Hawaii and Alaska are obvious favorites, whereas long trips to exotic destinations or fall cruises to New England will likely have fewer kid-friendly options (and fewer kids onboard). This doesn't mean you can't have fun on those itineraries (see below), but do your homework before you book.
Consider the ages of your children when researching shore excursions. Alaska is growing in popularity for families, but for someone too young to appreciate the spectacular scenery, it's, well, no day at the beach. The same principle applies to Mediterranean cruises. You don't want to fly all that way to find out your kids would be happier doing water sports than touring ancient ruins and visiting museums.
In the case of young children who may need to stay onboard while you're in port, check to see whether the ship has a children's program or group baby-sitting available. Make sure the hours line up -- a children's club that opens a half-hour after the last shore excursion leaves the ship isn't going to do you any good. And even if baby-sitting is available, ask if it's guaranteed. Otherwise, by the time you're ready to book, there may not be anyone available.
If you're taking toddlers ashore, consider the question of car seats. Laws vary in different countries about whether they're required, and some tour buses might not even be set up with seatbelts to strap in the cumbersome car seats. In some cases, you might find it easier to hold a child on your lap; in others, you might opt for the extra safety of a car seat. Whatever you prefer to do, just be sure to inquire in advance about whether car seats are necessary and whether tour operators can provide child-friendly seating.
Since most kids tend to graze all day long, ask if snacks and/or lunch are available on longer shore excursions. If not, consider tucking a single-service cereal box or fruit in your backpack to stave off temper tantrums later on. And, of course, bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat or visor for outdoor activities, as well as an extra sweater in case you need it when the sun dips over the horizon.
"Teens only" shore excursions are an up-and-coming trend, and they're a great way to let your teen enjoy a day in port with his or her peers while you pursue more adult-friendly activities or cater your tours to younger siblings. If you opt for this route, be sure to ask about the ratio of kids to adults and how many of the ship's staff members accompany the outing.
Involve your kids in the decision. Narrow down the choices to a few appropriately priced excursions per port, and then let the family discuss them as a group. If your kids take ownership in the decision, they're likely to be more excited about the trip and have a better time.
Once you have decided on your shore excursions, book them immediately upon boarding or, better yet, online before you go. And, keep in mind that itineraries can change -- especially in hurricane season -- so be prepared with plan B.
Consider a private guide. Sometimes it's simply better to customize your day out to the wishes and schedules of your family, rather than to force them to fit into an organized tour's plan for the day. Why? With a private guide, you can easily stop when you need to (for a snack, bathroom break or if a passing playground or beach looks particularly inviting) and tailor a tour to your kids with shorter visits to museums or monuments, earlier lunch stops or even a visit to an off-the-beaten-path but family-friendly attraction. Some cruise lines offer private cars and drivers through their excursions programs, or you can research guides on your own. Consider splitting the cost of a guide and a van with another family, and always ask if the guide speaks fluent English, whether car seats are available (if needed) and how payment is to be made (cash versus credit, up-front versus after the tour). Popular independent guides tend to get booked up months in advance.
With all this in mind, here are a few of our favorite kid-friendly shore excursions. Note that, while we've listed the best tours for kids in various age groups, many of the offerings do have crossover appeal. Just be sure to keep your family's interests, attention span and activity level in mind when planning.
For Little Kids (7 and under)
Snorkeling from shore. If your kids are tiny or you aren't sure they're going to like being in the water for your whole excursion, try snorkeling from shore. The option is usually available on the cruise ship's private island or at resorts and beaches at various ports of call. This way, you can flop down on the sand and relax at any time during your excursion, and little ones can practice using their masks in very shallow water.
A day at the beach. Typically among the least expensive of the organized excursions, beach outings are usually just that: transportation to a family-friendly beach with access to such options as deck chairs, floaties and snack bars. Many little kids love to sit and play with sand toys for hours or wade in at the very edge of the water. Keep in mind, though, that you may not need an excursion if all you want to do is sit on the beach. Find out ahead of time what the best beaches are, and hop in a cab to save money. On the other hand, if the beach is at a private resort, the excursion will facilitate your entrance.
Aquariums, zoos and animal encounters. Sometimes aquarium or zoo visits are combined with other sights and can provide a fun "edu-tainment" component for families during a cruise. If the attraction is right near the port and the admission is low; however, it may be less expensive to go it on your own. A shore excursion to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas lets you visit the complex's extensive aquariums, as well as enjoy a beach day. Other options might include a visit to the Belize Zoo, the Stingray City Sandbar in Grand Cayman, a safari breakfast at Singapore's Zoological Gardens or a visit to Sydney's Koala Park Sanctuary coupled with a boat ride.
Glass-bottom boat rides. Kids who are too young or timid for snorkeling can get a similar experience in a glass-bottom boat. The boats are designed to get close to the reef and allow for viewing of marine wildlife, coral and even the remains of shipwrecks through the floor-level viewing pane. As an added bonus, kids may have the chance to look for dolphins or whales frolicking near the boat.
For Big Kids (8 - 11)
Snorkeling from a boat. School-age children can usually handle snorkeling from a boat (check to see if there is an age limit), and adults who have never tried it can learn in a few minutes. The equipment is provided (in a variety of adult and child sizes), and children are required to wear personal floatation devices. Best of all, kids who do have trouble getting the hang of it can float on the surface with their heads out of the water and still see the colorful fish below. The Bahamas and the Caribbean are perennial favorites for snorkeling, and generally, the skipper of your boat will anchor where the best coral and fish are. If a wind kicks up, try holding hands with your young snorkeler as you float to keep him or her close by.
Dolphin encounters. This increasingly popular excursion is available in Bermuda, Hawaii, the Caribbean and places in between. Typically, school-age children and adults enter the water in a small group with the dolphin and the trainer, whereupon they are instructed on how to interact with the animal. Some programs allow kids to actually "swim" with the dolphin (that is, hitch a ride by hanging onto its fins or be pushed along the surface of the water with the dolphin's nose in the arch of their feet.) Be prepared to have the dolphin smooch you for a photo op during the encounter, after which you will likely be pitched to buy expensive photos and videos of the experience. These excursions are pricey -- usually more than $100 a person -- but they can be the highlight of the trip, especially for first-timers.
Nature tours. Rainforest hikes and guided excursions to botanical gardens interest some children, especially if there are exotic-looking birds, iguanas or animals nearby. In Alaska, the options are especially enticing -- kids can pan for gold, join in whale-watching excursions and even go "flightseeing" over the glaciers on a floatplane. Just check for the age requirements of tours; sometimes children need to be at least 8 or 10 years old.
Kayaking. Some kayaking excursions allow children to participate in two-person kayaks, and venues can range from calm lagoons on private islands to ecological excursions through tangled mangroves. In Key West, for example, guides will point out interesting sea fowl and pass around gooey sea creatures; in season, you might even spot a manatee. In Ketchikan, Alaska, kayakers might spot eagles, seals, land otters or sea lions. Just be sure to check age requirements, as many kayak excursions -- especially those in Europe -- have age minimums.
Amusement and Water Parks. Amusement and water parks can be a huge hit with kids of all ages. Roller coasters and waterslides are attractive in any country, and the adrenaline-pumping rides let kids expend their pent-up energy. Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is both a quintessential Denmark attraction and a fun day out for kids. For a more natural version of a water park, try an excursion to Xcaret Natural Adventure Park outside of Cozumel, where the whole family can frolic in natural pools and lagoons, take a wildlife-viewing boat ride or float through underground rivers; for the traditional waterslides and wave pools, head to Acquafelix Water Park from Civitavecchia (port of Rome).
Kid-Friendly Museums. Some kids enjoy art and history museums, but others need to be coaxed with more kid-friendly attractions. If you want to ease your traveling child into the joy of museum-going, seek out museums with themes aimed at the younger set. Consider the Museum of Geopaleontology in Lerici (near La Spezia), which houses exhibits on dinosaurs in an old castle or the Chocolate Museum in Barcelona. Also, check if art or natural history museums have hands-on activities for kids.
For Teens (12-17)
Snuba. Not ready for scuba but want to be underwater where the (marine) action is? Consider this alternative, which hooks an air line to your mask -- connected to a scuba tank that floats above you -- and allows you do swim below the surface breathing comfortably. While some programs allow kids as young as 4 to participate, this activity is best for older kids and teens.
Scuba. Even if you aren't certified, some excursions will allow you and your youngster (age 12 and older -- check at the time of booking) to try an introductory dive with an instructor. Keep in mind that scuba dive excursions are the first to get canceled in high wind, and make sure you and your children aren't suffering from head colds or allergies at the time of the dive, or you may end up with sore ears.
Archeological and historic sites. So, you want to see a Mayan ruin, but you aren't sure about whether the excursion will work for the kids? It might not. While pyramid-shaped temples, ancient sports courts and bloody histories will appeal to many teens, the long bus rides may not. (For example, the popular excursion to Tulum from Cozumel takes about eight hours, several hours of which are spent on a bus.) Instead, consider taking a cruise that stops at Progreso, Mexico, where there are more ruins from which to choose -- and they're closer. The same principle applies in Europe, where the ruins of ancient Rome, Ephesus and Pompeii necessitate long drives from Civitavecchia, Kusadasi and Naples or Sorrento. Just remind the kids to bring their iPods or portable gaming devices for the bus rides -- the ancient cities should be fascinating enough to claim most older kids' attention.
Horseback riding. Even novices can take part in riding excursions (again, check the age restrictions if little sibs are tagging along), which usually involve a bus transfer from the port to a ranch or farm; being assigned a horse based on your respective ages, sizes and abilities; and receiving brief instructions before heading out, single-file, on a guided trail ride. This is an option that works better if the weather isn't blistering hot, when riding helmets become bothersome. (They are usually available in adult and kid sizes, but ask ahead of time.) On the other hand, in a destination like Halifax, Nova Scotia (where the weather is cooler and water sports aren't plentiful) riding is a great family-friendly option.
Zip-line. Zip-line thrill rides have become so popular that every port seems to have one; rides are available in the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico and Hawaii. Daredevil kids will enjoy the rush of zipping along a high wire through the treetops, and nervous parents will be glad to know that participants are required to wear helmets and attend safety briefings. The excursions can be pretty pricey for a very short thrill ride, so choose your tour wisely. Some offer one long ride, while others feature a series of shorter rides. Also, pay attention to whether the tour focuses exclusively on the zip-line itself or whether it includes other adventure activities, such as traversing wobbly suspension bridges, ATV rides, ropes courses, cave-tubing or hiking.
Bike tours. A great compromise between a sightseeing excursion and a more physical activity that would appeal to antsy teens is the bike tour. Some take place in cities like Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, where cyclists cruise by the key attractions while biking on city streets. Others take riders into the countryside, past villages or through the jungle. Some tours have age or height/weight requirements, so make sure your kids meet the criteria before booking.
Warning: Adults Only
Okay, we've helped identify the great-for-kids options. Now let us warn you away from shore adventures that generally don't appeal to small fry.
Sunset or "fun" cruises. Any description that includes the words "free rum punch" or the equivalent is a tip-off that the outing wasn't designed with children in mind. Fun cruises are typically suited to young adults who want to mingle and party hard.
Shopping excursions. To most children, being dragged through Nassau's Straw Market or St. Thomas' jewelry shops for hours is not going to make Mom and Dad popular. Save it for when the children are in the kid's club -- or for another cruise.
Motorcoach sightseeing. Even children who like lighthouses and museums are going to balk at hours of stops and starts on a motorcoach -- especially if they are zipping by sandy beaches and inviting blue waves. If you really want to sightsee, consider an excursion that tacks a few stops -- at, say, a botanical garden or a shipwreck museum -- onto an activity-based outing on a boat or beach.
Culinary tours. There's no kids' menu at the French chateau or Italian villa that's serving you a long, leisurely lunch and winery tours may not appeal to under-21's who can't drink. As hungry as the tour descriptions make you, parents should probably leave the fine dining for onboard restaurants. However, there are several exceptions to this rule; these include family-friendly cooking tours (Disney, for one, offers classes especially for kids), and Alaskan salmon bakes, which are more like outdoor BBQs or picnics with more kid-friendly cuisine and space for kids to run around outside.
--Updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, with additional reporting by Christine Koubek, Cruise Critic Contributor.