When it comes to all-inclusive cruising, shore excursions are one of the few items still carrying a price tag. Even so, some luxury cruise lines offer free shore excursions, ranging from a selection of complimentary tours in every port to once-per-cruise special land-based events available to all passengers.
What's not to like about a free tour? Think of these excursions as included-in-your-fare as opposed to free-of-charge; you are paying for these events in some way. If you prefer a higher up-front fare and no worries about pricing later, you might want to look for cruise lines that include many tours. If you'd rather pay a la carte, or prefer private guides to packaged cruise ship tours, you should gravitate toward a ship that does a special event or two, but leaves the rest of the planning to you. Truly independent travelers will want to look for free shuttles into town, while beach bums might prefer a ship with a complimentary-use water sports platform or an itinerary with a private beach party.
With so many different types of free shore excursions, luxury cruise travelers should have no problem finding a line that suits their touring style.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers some of the most inclusive -- and most expensive -- cruise fares in the industry. One of its hallmarks is "free" shore excursions (i.e., they're included in the cost of the cruise). In every port, there is a very good selection of no-charge tours, including city highlights tours, active biking and kayaking excursions and wine tastings. More in-depth or exclusive tours incur an extra fee, but Regent generally offers more free than extra-fee excursions in each port.
Silversea has been running an all-inclusive tours promotion on its 2016 Mediterranean, Asia and Africa sailings. Passengers can take advantage of all of the Silver Shore Select tours, which tend to be overviews and greatest hits, though have to pay for the Silver Shore Collection excursions, which are more niche or immersive. (The line has not yet decided about carrying this over to 2017.) Oceania also offers free shore excursions as part of limited-time promotions; you get a certain number of free tours based on length of sailing, you must book excursions in advance and certain collections of tours are excluded from the offer.
In these cases, the included tours are perfect for first-timers and people who don't have their heart set on seeing one specific thing, that might or might not be shown on the included tours. Repeat visitors who have seen the highlights or travelers who want to dive deep (perhaps with a hands-on cooking tour or a guided tour of the Vatican) might find the value to be less. Also know that if you choose not to do the included shore excursions, you do not get any money back.
Free Overview Tours
Viking Ocean Cruises includes one free shore excursion in every port, and then offers a roster of extra-free tours for purchase. The included tour is generally a scenic coach tour or walking tour that offers an overview of the destination, often with free time for independent exploration, without generally going into any attractions. For example, in Livorno, the included excursion includes a drive to Pisa and a walk around the main square with free time; if you want to visit Florence from this port, you'll have to pay extra.
These free tours generally work the best in ports where the main attractions are close by and can be seen via a walking tour. If you want to go into museums or explore a nearby but not portside attraction (Pompeii from Naples, London from Southampton), the included excursions won't cut it. However, as the overview tours are generally half-day, cruise travelers will have time to do independent touring before or after, going into the church or museum they most want to see, taking time for shopping or a snack in a cafe or doing some other local activity if the ship is in port late.
One-Time Special Events
Azamara Club Cruises takes a different approach to free excursions. Instead of offering included tours, it plans one special event on land -- usually a musical performance or cultural festival -- that's offered complimentary to all passengers on nearly every cruise. Events include a concert by a 12-piece orchestra performed in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey; a performance by three tenors on a Tuscan hillside; and a Burmese festival at a local park in Yangon. In this way, passengers can spend the day exploring however they'd like and then be treated to special entertainment in the evening.
Windstar offers similar special events. Its complimentary shoreside activities might include Champagne and dessert at Monaco's Monte Carlo Casino, a ballet performance in St. Petersburg, hors d'oeuvres and music at a chateau in Bordeaux, a tour and lunch at a winery in Sicily or a tour of a palace art collection, complete with folk dancing, tapas and vermouth in Mallorca. Unlike Azamara, these events can take place day or night, depending on the tour.
Beach Days, Water Sports and Caviar in the Surf
Luxury cruise lines that have ships with water sports platforms -- such as Windstar, Paul Gauguin Cruises, SeaDream and Seabourn -- offer another kind of free activity. These ships carry a variety of water toys -- snorkel gear, kayaks, standup paddleboards, rafts for floating -- and when the weather and port regulations are right, they offer complimentary water sports right from the ship -- no need to book that kayak tour for extra money.
But on special days, these lines throw sumptuous beach parties, taking over a beach and reserving it exclusively for their passengers. Activities staffers bring all the water toys to the shore and set up an over-the-top barbecue with steak and lobster and bar service, so passengers can feel like they're at an exclusive beach resort. Seabourn and SeaDream up the ante with tuxedo-clad waiters wading into the sea and serving Champagne and caviar off a surfboard. Passengers look forward to these parties as a cruise highlight.
Not all itineraries can offer these decadent and complimentary beach days. You'll want to look for itineraries to the Caribbean, French Polynesia, Indonesia, Thailand and Panama.
Do-gooder tours are rare, but Crystal offers free tours on select itineraries that let passengers volunteer their time and efforts while learning about the community they're visiting. For example, passengers might sort or package food at the San Francisco food bank, pick fruit at orchards to donate to low-income families in the Santa Barbara area or play board games with children and seniors at the Granitos de Paz Foundation in Cartagena, which serves poor families.
Transportation Into Town
Probably the least exciting free shore excursion is not really a tour -- but it's a huge boon for independent travelers. Many luxury lines offer free shuttle transportation into town, when the ship isn't docked within easy walking distance of the city center. This is a big-deal money- and hassle-saver for independent travelers who want to do their own thing, but don't feel like taking a shuttle from the ship to the port exit and then hailing a cab and trying to direct a cabbie in a foreign language to the best drop-off point -- and then do the whole thing in reverse. It also allows passengers on tours that end in the city to choose to stay longer in town and come back to the ship on the shuttle. Azamara, Regent, Silversea, Oceania and Seabourn are among the lines that offer this welcome service.