Is it better to book shore excursions through your cruise ship, or should you arrange port activities on your own, independently of your cruise line? That question is one of the most commonly asked by cruise travelers, and it doesn't have an easy answer. It all depends -- not just on circumstances but also on the ports of call and the travelers' own penchant (or lack thereof) for independent travel.
Following is a set of rough rules that will help you decide between booking independent cruise excursions or booking cruise line travel.
Good Times to Book Excursions Through Your Cruise Line
You're a first-time cruiser.
Exploring a port of call on a one-day visit to a foreign place is surprisingly different from spending a week in a hotel. You don't have time to get acclimated to the area, your home base is typically outside the main tourist area and you have a hard stop to your sightseeing day -- That ship won't wait if you get lost and return late to the cruise port. On a ship-sponsored tour, however, the ship will not leave before participants are back onboard and you'll have the benefit of a tour guide for added insight, so it's worth the extra money to book the ship's tours until you've figured out the port-of-call drill.
The port is particularly exotic.
Consider booking cruise line shore excursions in smaller, more offbeat ports on itineraries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. Limited tourism infrastructure might present obstacles with transportation or quality tour guide alternatives, so a cruise line tour guarantees you'll make good use of your sightseeing time, rather than struggling with logistics.
Related: Most Exotic Cruises
The port is a long ride from the main attraction.
This applies particularly in Europe, where some of the most important destinations -- i.e., Paris, Rome, Florence and London -- are one to three hours away, depending on traffic, from where cruise ships dock. Independent-minded folks who want the ease of being transported without concern about missing the ship can book cruise line-provided transportation with freedom to explore as they choose in port. Travelers who want a more guided experience can book a variety of city tours and activities.
You want to experience a broad swath of a region.
Sometimes ports propose access to more than one regional diversion or locale of interest, which can be spread out over considerable distances. Avoid the logistical challenges of visiting multiple attractions on your own by booking a ship-sponsored tour. For example, in Richards Bay, South Africa, a cruise line tour can take passengers to both the Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Game Reserve (home to Africa's storied "Big 5") and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, where hippos and crocodiles roam, with a daylong tour covering 115 miles by bus.
The cruise line specializes in a particular area.
In some cases, cruise lines really go to a lot of effort to offer special shore excursions and tour opportunities. Paul Gauguin Cruises, for instance, has its own scuba diving program in the South Pacific with onboard PADI instructors and ship-conducted dive trips. Foodies, meanwhile, might look to Oceania Cruises, a luxe line known for its culinary chops, for its series of chef-led, small-group Culinary Discovery Tours that take in local markets, eateries, restaurants and/or cooking schools in port.
It's a trip with risks.
Cruise lines work with licensed, well-reputed tour operators and hold them responsible for quality control. When taking a tour that involves traveling on helicopters, planes, parasails or boats, you want to guarantee your operator has been properly vetted for safety issues. Plus, you could conceivably find yourself stranded someplace remote if something were to go wrong.
For both these reasons, you'll likely want the extra protection provided by the cruise line-hosted excursions. (Though, for shorter trips, such as helicopter rides in Alaska, you could certainly do your own research and book a highly regarded operator; however, sometimes these tour companies have been booked up by the cruise lines.)
Good Times to Tour Independently or Book Shore Excursions on Your Own
You want to save money.
Saving money is always a consideration, especially when you're traveling with several people in your group or are looking at flightseeing tours or other pricy expeditions that cost hundreds of dollars a person. For the most part, cruise lines do charge more than non-cruise-related tour operators for the same (or similar) outing. If you trust the company and feel confident that you won't miss the ship, it certainly makes sense to pay less by booking an excursion independently that could cost you more onboard.
The port is located close to downtown.
Whether you're visiting San Francisco or Barcelona, some cities are so conveniently situated to cruise terminals that it's easy to get around via a short walk, taxi ride or hop-on hop-off bus. You won't need a tour to visit a couple of museums, shops, cafes or historic attractions.
You want a simple beach break.
While cruise lines offer tours that include transportation and a day pass to a beach or resort, it really is more cost-effective to hop into a "safari bus" or taxi for the ride to the beach. Major tourist beaches, such as St. Thomas' Magens Bay and Grand Cayman's Seven Beach, offer services (including eateries and water toy rentals), and cab/van drivers flock there so it's easy to find a ride back to the ship. If you're setting out on your town to an off-the-track beach, make sure you have return transportation.
Related: Day Passes at Caribbean Resorts
You want personal attention and in-depth information.
Sometimes it's nice to escape the large group tours for more intimate explorations with a smaller number of participants or perhaps even just your travel party. Plan a day on your own on a private tour -- though some cruise lines will book you a private guide and driver as part of its shore excursions program, too -- and you'll see the sights you want to see and at your pace, rather than some prearranged plan by the ship-arranged tour guides. Plus, a private guide can give you more in-depth information about the place you're seeing, answer your questions and cater to your interests.
You want to shop till you drop.
Keep in mind that most ship-sponsored shore excursions don't allot more than 15 to 30 minutes for shopping stops, out of respect to the group dynamic, so serious shoppers likely won't be happy. Instead, do a little homework before you leave home to map out the types of shops that interest you their locales … and then just go. Note: Cruise ship staffers can be a great source of information, so do be sure to ask for some insider's tips.
Related: Duty-Free Shopping on Cruises
Snorkeling, sailing and scuba are the order of the day.
Snorkeling, sailing and scuba diving expeditions in major water sports ports, such as the Caribbean's St. Thomas or Grand Cayman, are good bets for independent cruise excursions. Just check out operators to find one with a good reputation; start with tourist boards, dive clubs and Cruise Critic's message boards go from there.
You're traveling in a pack.
If you're cruising with a large group of friends or family, it may be more cost-effective for you to hire a tour guide, rent a car or van, or take a taxi tour than to book sightseeing excursions through the cruise line. You'll have more control over where you go and the timing of the day -- and you already know that you'll like the other people on your tour! This is also a useful strategy when you're traveling with who may need more breaks or playtime than a ship's tour would allow.
Related: How to Plan a Group Cruise