Updated October 10, 2019
Should you book your shore excursions on your own, independently of your cruise line -- and likely save a few bucks, while enjoying a bit more autonomy and personalization -- or is it better to take those group tours offered through your ship?
The question we posed above 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.
And no question, for the most part, cruise lines do charge more than non-cruise-related tour operators for just about the same outing. Sure, shore excursions are profit centers for the cruise lines, but you can consider the extra you pay as a kind of insurance. Cruise lines work with licensed, well-reputed tour operators and hold them responsible for quality control. Plus, they guarantee that the ship will not leave before participants on a ship-sponsored tour are back onboard.
And while many of cruising's shore tours remain way too dependent on motorcoach tours that sweep through an area with little chance of customization, the cruise lines are putting lots of effort into creating more active, hands-on and unusual experiences, ranging from cycling trips through European cities to cooking classes in Alaska and private after-hours tours at St. Petersburg's Hermitage. Often, you'd be hard pressed to put together the same tour on your own.
On the flip side, 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 friends and family. Plan a day on your own on a private tour, 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. And 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. 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 you could pay more for onboard.
Following is a set of rough rules that will help you decide between touring independently or booking cruise line travel:
Good Times to Book Excursions Through Your Cruise Line
You're a first-time cruiser.
Visiting a port of call on a one-day visit to a foreign place is a whole lot different from spending a week at a resort or in a hotel. You've got a real deadline -- that ship very well may not wait if you get lost and are a half-hour late. (And meeting up with the ship in the next port is on your dime.) Plus, ship terminals are often located outside the main tourist area, and it can be confusing to figure out how to get to the top attractions if you've never been to a port before. It's worth the extra money to book a few of the ship's tours until you've figured out the port-of-call drill; plus, you'll have the benefit of a tour guide for commentary and added insight.
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, where limited tourism infrastructure might present certain obstacles with transportation or quality tour guide alternatives. On the two cruises we took to Africa, a place as foreign in culture and language as anywhere we'd ever been, the comfort of the tours arranged by the cruise line was indisputable, especially in challenging places such as Mozambique's Maputo and Egypt's Alexandria.
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 miles and miles (and one to three hours away, depending on traffic) from where the ship actually docks. In many cases, ships will arrange two types of outings. One is for independent-minded folks who want the ease of being transported without concern about missing the ship -- and then want to venture out on their own. The only deadline is meeting the bus (or train) for the return journey. Or, you can opt for a variety of city tours.
Similarly, in some parts of the world nature experiences can require quite a journey. For example, a full-day tour to the Penguin Reserve at Punta Tombo from Puerto Madryn, Argentina, features a 2.5-hour drive -- each way.
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 -- posing logistical challenges that might thwart any attempt to easily tackle them on your own. In South Africa, for instance, the port of Richards Bay presents two entirely different, not-to-be-missed encounters with nature areas and wildlife that are separated by some distance from each other and from the port (requiring a total round trip motorcoach loop of about 115 miles). A full-day ship-sponsored excursion, including lunch, will combine a stop at the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve (home to Africa's storied "Big 5") with one at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, where hippos and crocodiles roam, so you don't have to miss out on either one.
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. Want to learn to scuba dive in Costa Rica? Windstar has its own dive program with onboard PADI instructors and ship-conducted dive trips. (In other destinations, Windstar offers dive trips through its shore excursion program.) 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.
When taking a tour that involves traveling on helicopters, planes, parasails or boats -- where you could conceivably find yourself stranded someplace remote that would make getting back to port in time for the ship's departure a near impossibility -- the extra protection provided by the cruise line-hosted excursions is really key. A popular tour on some South American cruises, for instance, is a daylong visit to Antarctica via airplane where weather might be a factor in getting you back to the ship on schedule. It's also even more important that such operators are properly vetted for safety issues. (However, for shorter trips like helicopter rides in Alaska, you could certainly do your own research -- or find out which companies the cruise line uses and see if you can book them independently.)
Good Times to Tour Independently or Book Shore Excursions on Your Own
The port is located close to downtown.
Whether you're visiting San Francisco or Barcelona, these cities are so conveniently situated to cruise terminals that it couldn't be easier to get around via a short walk or taxi ride. (One tip, too, is to research "hop-on, hop-off" bus options for sightseeing -- they're a great way to get around and get your bearings when you're short on time.) Other easy urban ports are Auckland, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Dubrovnik, Helsinki, Montreal, Quebec City, Seattle, Stockholm, Sydney, Tampa, Vancouver and Venice -- to name just a few.
You want a simple beach break.
While cruise lines often offer beach "tours," particularly in the very well-known beach destinations of the Caribbean, it really is more cost effective -- and more freeing, frankly -- to simply hop into a "safari bus" or taxi for the ride to the beach. We wouldn't hesitate to do so at St. Thomas' Magens Bay, Grenada's Grand Anse, St. Lucia's Rodney Bay and Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach. They offer major services (including eateries) and cab/van drivers flock there so you'll be assured a ride back to the ship (though always check on the status of return vehicles and have a taxi phone number on hand, before setting out to any beach). Where you need to be a bit more careful is with off-the-track beaches. For example, we love any of the beaches in St. John, particularly the little-known Salt Pond Bay, but would not want to count on taxi pick-up).
You want personal attention and in-depth information.
In places that are particularly significant in an historic or cultural sense (like Venice or Ephesus, Turkey, to name just a couple of examples), a private guide can make the experience. For example, on two cruises to Russia's St. Petersburg, we tried both a ship-sponsored city tour where we in a group of 100, and a private guide and driver through Red October, a tour agency. The difference was immeasurable. We saw so much more with the latter, the experience was superb, and we never were rushed. Plus we made a personal connection with our guide and driver that we'll always remember.
This approach, however, requires you to do serious homework; visit Cruise Critic's destination forums for recommendations of which ports are best suited to independent touring, and make sure guides are properly accredited. In some cases (and mostly on luxury lines) cruise lines will provide concierge services onboard that can book a guide for you -- Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for instance, pairs passengers with private guides and/or drivers via their Executive Collection program -- and you can assume these folks are properly trained, licensed and certified.
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 here. Instead, do a little homework before you leave home to map out the types of shops that interest you, and 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.
Snorkeling, sailing and scuba are the order of the day.
As long as you check out operators -- start with tourist boards and dive clubs, and go from there -- 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 booking (the operators are often the same ones that serve cruise lines, and with a little research, you can likely figure out when that's the case).
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 kids who may need more breaks or playtime than a ship's tour would allow. Traveling on your own and want to connect with others to form a tour group? Find the Roll Call forum for your cruise, where you can meet other people on your sailing and arrange to tour together.