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E-bike excursion on Fakarava with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
E-bike excursion on Fakarava with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

How Difficult is Your Cruise Line Shore Excursion? Tips on How to Choose the Right One

E-bike excursion on Fakarava with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
E-bike excursion on Fakarava with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Last updated
Apr 4, 2024

Read time
7 min read

Getting the list of shore excursions offered from cruise lines is always an exciting moment – with so many things to see and do in different destinations, how do you choose? And how do you know if an excursion is going to be too hard for you, physically – or so easy that you’re bored?

I’ve done my share of cruise line shore excursions that have fallen short on both counts, from a hike in Alaska that left me cursing the moment I left the ship to walking tours that fell apart because people had so many differing capabilities. Cruising is a vacation that attracts people with a wide range of abilities – and it’s very tough to scale excursion choices that are perfect for everyone.

That being said, cruise lines do publish difficulty levels in their excursion brochures. We’ll explain how to interpret what these excursion levels mean – and how you can take steps to make sure that you’re on the right one.

Realize There’s No Consistency Between Cruise Lines When It Comes To Shore Excursion Difficulty Levels

Hiking near Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Hiking near Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Unfortunately, there’s no industry standard for shore excursion difficulty levels, which makes it even harder for passengers to figure things out. What’s considered “difficult” on Holland America Line might be “moderate” on a line like Royal Caribbean.

Your best bet is to get a read on the general cruise line demographic. If it’s a mainstream cruise line that attracts active passengers in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, then excursions labeled “difficult” should probably be avoided if you have physical limitations.

Shore excursion in Costa Maya (Photo: Chris Gray Faust/Cruise Critic)
Shore excursion in Costa Maya (Photo: Chris Gray Faust/Cruise Critic)

On the other hand, luxury or premium cruise lines that have an older or more sedentary clientele tend to label most active excursions as “moderate” or “difficult.” If you’re on the fitter side, you’ll probably be OK taking that harder excursion.

When in doubt, make sure any shore excursions you book in advance are refundable and go to the shore excursion desk when you board so you can have an honest talk with the manager about what the tours entail. Shore excursion staff typically have good insight into how easy or difficult a given excursion is, particularly if your ship is based in one area for a number of months.

Study Shore Excursion Review Descriptions Carefully

Motorcoach in Alaska (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Motorcoach in Alaska (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Sometimes you have to parse the wording of cruise line shore excursions carefully so you can see what you’re really getting.

A “panoramic tour,” for example, almost always involves a motorcoach tour. These excursions often give you a nice overview of a destination, but you’re likely to be sitting on the bus for most of the time, getting out occasionally for photo stops. At the end, you might have some free time, but in general, you’re not going to be very independent on this type of tour. If you’re someone who likes to experience a destination by walking, it’s not a good choice.

Walking tour in Porto (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Walking tour in Porto (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

“Walking tours” can vary greatly in their difficulty level. If you’re in Europe or any city with cobblestones, even an “easy” walking tour can be hard if you have an assistance device or mobility issues. Make sure you have an idea of the terrain before you book, and realize that different countries have different rules and regulations regarding accessibility.

A bike in view on Skagway's Alaskan bike tour, surrounded by scenic views of the mountains in the distance (Photo: Chris Gray Faust/Cruise Critic)
A bike in view on Skagway's Alaskan bike tour, surrounded by scenic views of the mountains in the distance (Photo: Chris Gray Faust/Cruise Critic)

The difficulty of a bike tour can also vary greatly, depending on where you are. There’s a big difference between an e-bike assisted ride in the flatlands of Denmark or Holland, versus a ride down mountains in Alaska or Norway where you’re clenching the brakes the whole time. Spoiler: unless you’re an experienced mountain biker, the latter is not relaxing or a good way to experience the destination – it’s hard to look around much when you’re afraid you’re going to end up head-over-handlebars.

Another tip: Generally the smaller the size of your tour group, the more active it could potentially be. That’s because tour operators are always conscious of how many people they need to “keep eyes on.” If your group is 30 or more, expect that the activity will be more relaxed than a group of 8 or fewer.

Read Online Reviews of Shore Excursions Before You Book

Eating vanilla ice cream on a Le Truck excursion on Huahine in French Polynesia with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Eating vanilla ice cream on a Le Truck excursion on Huahine in French Polynesia with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Online reviews are another way to get insight into how difficult shore excursions really are. Our Cruise Critic forums and member reviews are full of first-hand accounts of all sorts of different tours.

These can be crucial. On my Paul Gauguin cruise in French Polynesia, I had signed up for an excursion called drift snorkeling, not really understanding what made this type of water sport different than regular snorkeling. Once I read reviews of the excursion not only from Paul Gauguin, but competitor Windstar, I realized that I didn’t relish the possibility of scraping my knees in shallow waters and signed up for something else that day.

Some cruise lines have reviews of their shore excursions on their sites as well. While I will look at this, I will often cross reference the offered excursion with what’s offered by a third party, such as Cruise Critic’s sister sites Viator or Tripadvisor.

Know Your Own Physical Limitations When It Comes to Shore Excursions

Kayaking among the icebergs in Greenland with Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)
Kayaking among the icebergs in Greenland with Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

The biggest mistake that I’ve seen from fellow passengers on the dozens of shore excursions that I’ve been on? Not knowing your physical limitations – and insisting on taking an excursion that is too far outside your capabilities.

This creates a situation that is frustrating for everyone – the tour guide, the other tour participants, and the passenger themselves – if passengers wind up on a tour that is too physically challenging. I’ve seen tours grind to a standstill when passengers had to quit a walking tour halfway, for example. I’ve also seen passengers stomp off a large group river cruise walking tour because they didn’t think it was going fast enough, or didn’t offer enough time for shopping. Expectation setting and knowing yourself is key.

Zodiac excursion in Antarctica with Lindblad's National Geographic Endurance (Photo/Ming Tappin)
Zodiac excursion in Antarctica with Lindblad's National Geographic Endurance (Photo/Ming Tappin)

Which brings us to expedition cruises. These cruises, which go to destinations like Antarctica, the Arctic and the Galapagos, are active by nature, and often require getting in and out of Zodiacs (inflatable rafts), where you need to climb out of the boats in sometimes challenging circumstances. It’s probably worth an honest conversation with not only the cruise line, but your family and a well-regarded travel agent if you have doubts about your physical capabilities on these sailings. (Cruise Critic also has articles on which expedition cruise lines are best for those who enjoy a more leisurely experience).

Don’t Do (or Be Careful Doing) a Physical Activity for the First Time on a Cruise

Couple in kayak in Alaska in front of Wilderness Legacy by UnCruise Adventures (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)
Kayakers on UnCruise Adventures (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Cruises can be great places to try new experiences, yes. I never would have gone kayaking if the guides at UnCruise Adventures in Alaska didn’t teach me. But in general, it’s not a great idea to try a new sport in a foreign country unless you’re very sure of your physical capabilities.

I’ve seen my share of bike accidents on excursions, both on ocean cruises and river cruises (and I had my own in Denmark once when I didn’t see a curb). Usually, they happen because people haven’t ridden bikes since childhood – and they fall or crash within the first mile.

A snorkeling shore excursion in Roatan (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
A snorkeling shore excursion in Roatan (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Likewise, snorkeling is something that many people try for the first time on a cruise. That’s OK, as long as you are with a small group in calm water or a protected lagoon. You do not want your first snorkeling outing to take place in open water, with strong waves. Ask the tour operator where the boat will take you before you go.

When in doubt with any physical activity that’s new, start with a beginner group. And, as with any physical activity, avoid alcohol before participating. We once witnessed a passenger who had a heart attack and died while snorkeling after a hot day on the beach and a lunch filled with free-flowing alcohol.

Research Plus Self Awareness Will Lead to a Better Shore Excursion Experience

Bike tour in Bordeaux (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Bike tour in Bordeaux (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

In summary, choosing the perfect shore excursion involves a mixture of research and self-awareness. It’s fine to go outside your comfort zone physically, but make sure you have all the facts before you set out.

If you really want to go at your own pace and know that you get annoyed if other people slow you down, hire a private guide or book with an outside tour company that you know takes people out in small groups. Download your own walking tour or set out on your own amble through town.

Just remember: if you set out on your own, or on a private tour, you are responsible for getting back to your ship by the all-aboard time. Unlike cruise-sponsored shore excursions, your ship will leave without you if you’re not back in time.

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