Booking shore excursions is a fun way to get yourself pumped for your upcoming cruise. We love being on ships themselves, but there's no denying that we look forward to stretching our legs and taking in the vibes, culture and scenery of the port cities we visit on our cruise itinerary.
Unfortunately, there's no getting around the fact that cruising during the pandemic has been its own kind of adventure. That said, the inconvenience of constant COVID-19 changes doesn't have to affect every single area of your cruise. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make sure your shore excursions are the least of your worries while on your cruise.
We're big believers that good preparation can make or break your cruise experience, and that's never been truer than during the pandemic. Check out these five tips for booking a shore excursion during these pandemic times.
As one of the most-scrutinized forms of travel, cruises have had to be strict about limiting the possibility of COVID-19 exposure onboard and protecting people in locations with lower vaccination rates than the U.S. Some of the ways they work to achieve this is by offering bubble tours. Shore excursion group bubble tours are fun and borrow from the idea of a travel bubble, offering cruisers a way to go ashore with limited exposures to anyone not already onboard.
The availability -- and sometimes requirement -- of bubble tours varies between destinations based on local COVID-19 protocols and current situation. If you're unvaccinated or have an unvaccinated member in your group (a child, for example), you will be required to book a bubble tour in order to get off the boat at all ports. If you don't want to book a bubble tour, then you don't leave the ship.
So, before you book that shore excursion, see if you'll need to book a bubble tour to avoid any surprises on port day.
Outdoor excursions are likely your best bet if you want to get off the ship and have minimal chance of disruption to your tour. By nature, the bulk of your time will be spent outside, which has a lower chance of viral transmission, compared to crowded streets, indoor restaurants, bars, markets and other activities offered on shore excursions. These tours will also usually have a lower chance of being cancelled or altered for the same reasons. (As a bonus, for some outdoor shore excursions, you may even get to forgo wearing a mask due to the built-in social distancing and breezy outdoor location.) Plus who doesn't want to explore a new place by bike, kayak or hike?
If you're like us, a big part of the reason you cruise is to sink your teeth into the local cuisine and cheers with glasses filled with delicious local beverages. (Even the humble frozen daiquiri just doesn't seem to taste as good unless it's served with a side of beautiful beachfront or lively poolside music, right?)
Choosing a food or drink tour excursion during the pandemic can be a gamble, however. Most likely, the tour has been modified from its original itinerary, stops, and description because of COVID-19 precautions.
Food and drink tours are also more likely to be canceled due to unforeseen pandemic protocol changes, simply because they require several steps to make them COVID-19 safe – and they inherently require participants to repeatedly remove their masks. Because these establishments are being visited by tours as well as the public, owners and workers have a high exposure risk which could lead to cancellations or last-minute tour adjustments due to an unexpected COVID-19 outbreak.
Cruisers have already begun to take to reviews to air their disappointments over how their food or drink shore excursions have panned out, citing fewer stops, fewer tastings and the overall loss of value in the tour. Some cruisers have also noted that cooking classes were less about cooking from scratch as they had expected and more about just assembling a dish from pre-cooked ingredients.
Our advice: Wait for these kinds of tours until the pandemic has eased up.
Snorkeling is one of the most popular shore excursions offered by cruise lines since it's got a relatively low barrier of entry and exposes you to an otherwise not-seen underwater world. When you book a snorkeling trip, at the bare minimum it usually includes snorkeling gear – a mask and snorkel that has been reused repeatedly, from tour to tour.
If you've been on a snorkeling excursion, you've probably seen the guides toss your used mask and snorkels into a tub of water (hopefully) mixed with an unknown disinfectant (that is often just soap), and the water is not changed for the entire day.
An easy, safe solution? Bring your own snorkel gear to the party. As a bonus, you'll know that it actually fits – and you won't have to worry about clamping down on a snorkel that may or may not have been effectively sanitized. This one isn't mandatory, but probably a smart idea. If neither option floats your boat, there are plenty of underwater shore excursion alternatives to snorkeling.
It may seem tempting to dive right into an adrenaline-pumping shore excursion when you book your next cruise, but we suggest pulling back the reins just a little bit depending on where the excursion takes place.
While travel insurance companies will often, somewhat surprisingly, cover adventure activities like white water rafting, black water tubing, ziplining, cave diving and even ice fishing, most policies do not cover accident or injury in destinations that have a government-issued "do not travel" advisory placed on them.
This list changes frequently, and the placement of travel warnings issued by agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. State Department and U.K. Home Office has yo-yoed even more throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if your fun activity takes place in an a-oked destination at the time you book it, there's no guarantee that the country will stay at a particular designation
This insurance detail is important to think about even in non-pandemic times, too – though with the uncertainty of this virus, constant variants and overwhelmed hospitals, even something as simple as a broken finger could end up being costly and inconvenient. Best find your adrenaline fix elsewhere for now.
One last quick reminder that you should always double-check your ship rules around what you can and cannot do while ashore. If you're part of a ship-approved tour and given free time, the cruise line may still prohibit interaction with local vendors outside of any place the tour visits.
This is because the ship-approved tours, from the tour operators to the places you visit on the tour, have all been vetted and deemed safe by the cruise line in terms of COVID-19 protocols. If you visit or interact with outside vendors, you may not be allowed back on the ship without going into onboard quarantine or other restrictions.
Updated January 11, 2022