Snorkeling through coral reefs, exploring ancient Roman ruins, hiking on glaciers, shopping at local outdoor markets -- all of these shoreside activities are as much a part of the cruise experience as enjoying the onboard amenities of your ship. Indeed, half the fun of taking a cruise is exploring exciting new places -- tropical islands, bustling metropolises, exotic countries.
To enhance each port visit (as well as to increase their profits), cruise lines offer organized shore excursions on all ships for additional fees. These land-based trips run the gamut from sightseeing city tours to cultural events and active pursuits. You can take a sunset pleasure cruise in St. Lucia, visit penguin colonies in the Falkland Islands, go wine tasting in Provence or bike through Copenhagen. The tours can be booked onboard at your ship's excursions desk or online before you depart on your trip.
The benefits of booking ship-sponsored tours are many. You can skip the hassle of arranging your own onshore activities, you'll know the tour provider is licensed and reputable, and the ship won't depart until all of its tour buses have returned -- even the tardy ones. You might also meet other shipmates whose company you'll enjoy back on the ship.
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But ship tours are not always the way to go. The knowledge and efficiency of tour operators vary, and some tour offerings are simply duds. All too often, shore excursions translate into time-consuming bus rides with drop-offs at shopping centers proffering souvenirs you can live without. For example, following a long, hot (but worthwhile) tour of the Acropolis outside of Athens, passengers who thought they were being driven back to their ship were squirreled into a tacky little shop, belonging to the tour guide's brother-in-law. Finally, you will often pay more for the privilege of letting the cruise line arrange your day than you would if you booked directly with a provider.
To give you the skills to make the best decisions about your days in port, here is our best advice on what to expect from shore excursions and how to make the most of your time ashore.
The Different Types of Shore Excursions
Cruise lines offer a mind-boggling array of tours -- everything from basic snorkeling trips to more involved, overnight tours to see Beijing and the Great Wall of China. Here's a primer on what you can expect to see on offer.
Active vs. Sightseeing Tours: Shore excursions cover all levels of activity and interest and vary greatly, depending on what's available in each destination. Active tours could be anything from water sports to ziplining, hiking, biking and dog-sledding. Activity-based trips might feature a day at the spa or beach, a pleasure cruise on a sailboat, wine or food tasting, a cultural performance or a visit to a museum. Sightseeing excursions are typically bus tours that take passengers to the highlights and shopping areas of the port city or nearby destinations. Remember that excursions look different in different parts of the world. In the Caribbean, you'll find options like snorkeling with sting rays or transportation to private beaches; European tours focus more on sightseeing -- for example, full-day tours from the port of Livorno to the museums and cathedrals of Florence or multi-hour lunches, featuring local produce, meats and wine at a farmhouse in Tuscany.
Full vs. Half-Day Tours: Shore excursions vary in length. Some take up all your time in port, while others are just a few hours of an all-day visit. Choose a full-day tour to see the most you can in one trip or for journeys to destinations outside the port city. A half-day tour might only focus on one specific itinerary -- a three-hour kayak trip or a highlights tour of a city -- but leaves you with free time to explore the port on your own before or after.
Guided vs. Free Time: Not all shore excursions involve busloads of tourists, dutifully following flag- or umbrella-waving guides. You will find these types of sightseeing tours, as well as athletic endeavors overseen by dive masters or hike leaders. However, some tours simply bring you to a destination where you're free to explore until it's time to meet the bus to go home, while others feature guided components, followed by an hour or two of free time.
Highlights vs. In-Depth: Some shore tours -- such as daylong trips from Tunis to the marketplace, museum and ancient Carthage –- pack many activities into one trip. Others focus on one destination or activity, like a trip to the Mayan ruins from Cozumel. It's up to you whether you'd prefer to see many things for short amounts of time or focus on one place in depth.
Concierge or Boutique: Another option for shore excursions are intimate tours that are limited to 25 or so passengers. Many lines offer these "boutique" excursions, which could be cooking classes at a renowned French cooking school or a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Many lines also offer car-and-driver packages (so you can customize your own tour) or have concierges to arrange shoreside activities exclusively for your travel party. You can skip the caravan of four large tour buses and trade up for a more exclusive experience.
Shore Excursions vs. Independent Exploration
One of the biggest questions cruisers have is whether or not to take a ship-sponsored shore excursion. The answer banks on your budget, as well as your inclinations. Shore tours vary in price, depending on the cruise line, and can run you anywhere from $40 per person for a simple beach break to hundreds of dollars each for such higher-priced options as helicopter rides, golf outings and long-day or overnight tours. Taking a tour in every port can quickly inflate your onboard bill.
Shore excursions are worth it if you want to venture to attractions that are located far from the pier, learn more about an area through a guide or participate in physical activities where gear is required (biking, diving, golf). However, if all you want to do is walk around town, shop or visit the beach, it could be much cheaper and less time-consuming to get a map and do it on your own. For instance, in St. Thomas, the shops are a stone's throw from the ship, but beaches are a cab ride away. (Although it still might be less expensive to hail a taxi to the beach than to participate in a tour.) And, in tiny Monte Carlo, the castle, cathedral and casino are all within walking distance of your ship. Don't forget about arranging your own transportation, too. In Hawaii, many ports offer rental agency pickups. In Barcelona, you can easily use a combination of local buses, the subway and hop-on, hop-off tourist buses to get around.
However, in big cities like Athens, Rome and Florence -- which are far from the port -- it might make more sense to spring for a tour. It is also wiser to take a shore excursion in any third world country or in foreign ports, where language and customs might prove to be barriers. For example, in Brunei, you would definitely want to take the guided tour to sites like the biggest mosque in Asia, Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. You'd probably never find it on your own and, without guidance, you might not realize the necessity to respect local customs by covering your body from head to toe in long pants, long skirts and long sleeves. (Luckily, the locals are used to this and usually have a few robes on-hand to loan visitors.) In Tunis, you might not wish to participate in the aggressive haggling conducted by the taxi drivers at the pier. Opt, instead, for a ship-arranged tour to the souk or ancient Carthage.
The third option is the hybrid: Book your own tour in advance through a local provider. You can often save money by eliminating the cruise line middleman, or customize the trip to your interests. However, remember that while the cruise ship will wait for any late-returning passengers on ship-sponsored tours, you run the risk of getting stranded in port if your independent tour gets stuck in traffic and is late returning to the pier.
Advance Planning and Resources
The secret to a wonderful day ashore is to plan ahead. Learn about the attractions in each port, so you can decide whether to book a tour or go it alone. For example, you'll want to know that Livorno is actually the port for Florence, but the city is quite far from the port. It's also helpful to note that in the Greek Isles, Santorini does not have great beaches, while Mykonos is internationally renowned for its sandy spots. Planning ahead will let you balance relaxing beach days with days spent shopping, sightseeing or in active pursuits.
Cruisers have multiple resources for researching in-port activities.
Cruise Line Websites: Look up your cruise line's list of shore excursions with tour descriptions and prices. Many cruise lines have this information available online; on higher priced cruises, you might also be sent a booklet of all the tours with your cruise documents. Most lines allow you to reserve tours in advance through their websites (see our Online Reservations feature) or through a travel agent.
Cruise Critic: Once you know your itinerary, visit Cruise Critic's Destinations area and Ports of Call message boards for tips on spending your day ashore. You'll find information on the best excursions, as well as suggestions for restaurants, beaches and must-see attractions.
Guidebooks and Travel Websites: Browse online destination guides, or pick up some guidebooks on the destinations you're planning to visit. If you find that it's pricey to buy multiple guidebooks for all the regions your ship will visit, consider borrowing them from your local library and photocopying pertinent pages to take on your vacation. Or, buy a guide aimed at cruisers, from major guidebook companies like Fodor's or Frommer's.
Tourism Bureaus: Contact the tourism bureau for your destination. Tourism websites typically offer a wealth of information, and the bureaus will often send you maps or print materials that detail activities, restaurants and tour companies. You might want to find out if there's a tourism office at or near the port, so you can pick up a map and get information.
Booking in Advance vs. Booking Onboard
If you've done your research and have decided to book ship tours, think carefully about whether to book in advance or wait until you get onboard. It's best to book in advance for limited-availability excursions (like flightseeing in Alaska or Hawaii) and must-do tours. (For example, if you'd be heartbroken if you didn't go snorkeling in Cozumel or to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, book in advance.) If you're uncertain or are happy with several options, waiting might be a good idea. Some cruise lines charge penalty fees for canceling shore excursions onboard or within 24 to 48 hours of the port call, so you might want to wait to see how the weather is or how you like the line's tours before booking all of your excursions.
Don't forget to come up with a Plan B, in case your desired tour gets canceled or is sold out.
How to Get the Most from Your Shore Excursion
Here are a few final tips to keep in mind in order to get the best experience out of your shore excursion.
- Read shore excursion descriptions very carefully to understand exactly how your time will be spent on the tour. Add up how much time is spent on the bus, driving between attractions, and compare that to how much time is spent at each destination. If you are unsure, ask the shore excursion manager to describe the tour in detail. You might have to decide between spending short amounts of time in a variety of places and getting an in-depth tour of one area, while missing out on several others.
- Some tours involve strenuous treks in hot, humid climes or long days with lots of walking. Cruise lines are typically good at pointing out which excursions are strenuous and even which are best for travelers with limited mobility. Be sure to pick tours that you can handle physically.
- Staff members who work aboard ships are great sources of information on the best local beaches, restaurants and shopping (since they often visit the same ports every week). Ask where they go -- the purser's office is an especially good resource.
- Your final bill can add up if you buy a shore excursion in every port. However, in some ports -- especially in Alaska, Europe or exotic destinations -- shore excursions are the only way to go. Budget accordingly.
- If you are a scuba diver, check out local dive clubs on the islands you intend to visit. They are listed in information obtained from tourist offices.
- Hiring a private taxi is often less expensive than the ship's excursion, depending on the number of people you have in your group. When hiring a taxi, be sure to negotiate a flat rate -- based on your destination and the approximate amount of time you'll need -- before you depart. If you want narration in addition to transportation, choose a driver with a good command of English.
- When renting a car in port, it's always best to reserve it before departure; rates are lower, and you know the agency won't be sold out. Check with your rental company to find out whether you'll need an International Driving Permit (available through AAA and other automobile associations) or if your driver's license will suffice.
--Updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor