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 cruises with excursions included, ranging from a selection of complimentary tours in every port to once-per-cruise special land-based events available to all passengers. You're still covering the cost in your base cruise fare, but you don't have to make price-based decisions onboard.
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 free shore excursions. 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, or one that offers a complimentary shuttle or other service but leaves the rest of the planning to you.
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 great 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.
Crystal Esprit -- the 62-passenger yacht from Crystal Cruises that sails the West Indies, Dalmatian Coast, Greek Isles and Seychelles -- also includes most shore excursions in its cruise fares. In almost every port, you can select from one or two active and cultural Complimentary Crystal Adventures. Free shore excursions include bird-watching, hiking, visits to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, culinary excursions and even ziplining over a jungle canopy. Additional in-depth experiences -- up to seven or eight options, including things like scuba diving, fishing, golfing, and private cars and guides -- are available in some ports for an additional fee.
Oceania also offers free shore excursions as part of limited-time promotions, such as the current OLife Choice. 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.
Viking Ocean Cruises includes one free shore excursion in every port and then offers a roster of extra-fee 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, generally without 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 or London from Southampton, for example), the included excursions won't cut it.
However, as the overview tours usually last just a 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.
Both Seabourn and Windstar regularly offer free "shopping with the chef" shore excursions. (Other lines like Regent and Silversea also offer similar market tours on specific itineraries with foodie themes.) Watch the daily program for details, and be sure to sign up ASAP since slots can go fast.
One of the ship's chefs will accompany a small group of passengers ashore to a local market where he or she will stock up on provisions. Most often, the chef will point out produce, fish, cheese or meat that is a regional specialty. It's a fun way to meet other foodies on your cruise and get to know the chef.
Azamara 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.
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, so there's no need to book that kayak tour for extra money.
On special days, lines with onboard water toys 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 Cartagena's Granitos de Paz Foundation, which serves poor families.
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 money- and hassle-saver for independent travelers who want to do their own thing without having to shuttle to the port exit and hail a cab before doing 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, Crystal Cruises, Viking, Regent, Silversea, Oceania and Seabourn are among the lines that offer this welcome service.