Shore excursions are cruise activities that take place while your cruise ship is in port. Think: snorkeling through coral reefs, exploring ancient Roman ruins, hiking on glaciers and shopping at local outdoor markets. All of those fun tours are as much a part of the cruise experience as enjoying the onboard amenities of your ship.
Shore excursions are not required. With few exceptions, you are free to walk off the cruise ship and do your own thing. However, if you prefer guides or easy transportation, a shore excursion is probably for you. To give you the skills to make the most of your days in port, read on for our advice on what to expect from shore excursions and maximize the fun on your cruise vacation.
Shore excursions inspire plenty of questions for first-time cruisers. Here are some of the most frequently asked:
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 Antarctica, 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.
Some cruise lines and even some travel agents offer shore excursion credit as a booking perk. It is essentially a credit of a preset amount (often $50) applied to each day in port for which you book a shore excursion. If your excursion costs more than the credit amount, it becomes a discount. You rarely get credit back for unused excursion credits.
While luxury lines, river cruises, small coastal ships, expedition ships and even some premium cruise lines include some shore excursions in their fares. Other tours on those lines and all excursions offered by mainstream cruise lines must be purchased.
For shore excursions that are not included in your cruise fare, budget a minimum of $50 per adult per excursion. There is no real upper limit as exclusive tours could cost thousands of dollars.
You absolutely do not have to do shore excursions on a cruise. You are free to come and go at will from most cruise ships while they are in ports of call. Shore excursions are simply one means to explore the areas visited by the ship and to participate in available activities off the ship.
For first time cruisers, shore excursions are definitely worth it. Arriving in multiple ports you are unfamiliar with and expecting to find the best things to do would be challenging at best and disastrous at worst. In most cases, shore excursions give you access to something that might otherwise be hard to arrange on your own.
Most ships have a shore excursion team through which you can get detailed information about the available tours and purchase excursions.
Your cruise director or the daily newsletter will usually inform you if it's necessary to take your passport with you on a shore excursion. At a minimum, you need a photo ID and your cruise ship ID card. It’s also wise to take along the information provided by the ship about their agent in each port and the contact information for the local consulate. Are there instances where having a passport would help you? Of course. If you miss the ship’s departure, life will be easier with a passport. The same would be true if you are injured and unable to contact the ship. Most travelers rely on carrying a copy of their passport in ports, leaving the originals locked away safely in their staterooms. There are some cruise lines that hold your passports for you throughout the cruise. In those cases, you should carry a copy with your photo ID.
Related: U.S. Passport Card vs. Passport Book
It depends on the tipping habits of the country you are in, but in most cases, tipping the bus driver, tour guides, and/or local experts or wait staff on your shore excursions is acceptable and appreciated. There is no need to tip any cruise ship staff who are along for the excursion (which sometimes happens on river cruises).
The benefits of booking a shore excursion through your cruise ship are many. You can skip the hassle of arranging your own onshore activities, you'll know the tour provider has been vetted by the cruise line and is licensed and reputable. The ship also won't leave until all of its tour buses have returned -- even the tardy ones. And you might meet shipmates whose company you'll enjoy back on the ship.
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. You'll also pay a premium for letting the cruise line arrange your day. Ship-arranged excursions also tend to have broad appeal, so if you're interests in a given port are more specific or niche, you may want something outside of the cruise line's offerings.
There are instances when you might be limited to excursions provided by the ship. These usually are cases where local restrictions simply do not allow cruise passengers to freely wander the streets. Your cruise line will advise you in advance if this might be the case in any of your scheduled ports of call.
Shore excursions are designed for all activitiy levels in almost any mainstream cruise destination. Active tours can include water sports, ziplining, hiking, biking, dog-sledding and more. 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 shore excursions look different in different parts of the world. In the Caribbean, you'll find options like snorkeling with stingrays 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.
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 of 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 -- while leaving you with free time to explore the port on your own before or after.
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. Others feature guided components, followed by an hour or two of free time.
Christmas market river cruises are a good example. The ship’s excursions get you to the markets, often with some city highlights along the way, then leave you with a few hours of shopping time. You are then free to make your way back to the ship or to a meeting point for the return trip as a group.
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.
Another option for shore excursions are intimate tours that are limited to 25 or so passengers. Many lines offer these boutique-sized excursions, which could be cooking classes at a renowned French cooking school or visits to Native American villages in Alaska. 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.
If you've done your research and have decided that you want to do a specific excursion offered on your cruise, think carefully about whether to book in advance or onboard. It's best to book in advance for must-do tours and limited-availability excursions (like almost every excursion in Alaska or flightseeing in Hawaii).
Waiting might be a good idea if you're not inspired by the shore excursions you're seeing on your cruise. 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 before booking. You may also get some good word-of-mouth tips on board the ship that change your mind about what tour you'd like to do. Don't forget to come up with a Plan B, in case your desired tour gets canceled or is sold out. This happens more often than you’d think.
If you're a first-time cruiser, it can be helpful to have a few hacks to make your shore excursion experience amazing. Keep these tips in mind when booking, preparing for and embarking on your tour.
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 climates 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're listed in information obtained from tourist offices. They might lead you to shore diving options at a fraction of the cost of a boat diving tour. Grand Cayman and Bonaire are good examples of places with those options.
Hiring a private taxi is often less expensive than the ship's own shore excursions, 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 leave. If you want narration in addition to transportation, make sure your language needs are met by whoever you choose if you're outside the U.S.
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.
Pay attention to the time. Yes, people do get left behind if they haven't returned to port on time and aren't part of a ship-organized shore excursion.