Planning a cruise? I've been on several cruises with my family and shore excursions are always my favorite part. It's so fun to explore a new destination.
Because our time in port is always too short, we've found that it pays to plan our shore excursions before our trip. There are three good reasons to plan ahead.
- Saves time – You only have a few hours in port. Get right to the fun, instead of figuring it out when you get there.
- Saves money – Cruise ship excursions aren't cheap. You can save a lot of money by planning ahead.
- More options – Popular excursions sell out. Don't miss a great one by waiting until you board.
Your cruise ship will offer a long list of excursions and activities for every port. It's quick and easy to pick the ones you want and move on with your life. However, booking everything through the cruise ship can be a lot more expensive than it needs to be.
Read on to find out when to book excursions through the cruise line, when to book your own excursion, and tips for successful shore excursions.
When to book through the cruise line
When your excursion is long
One big advantage of booking your excursion through the cruise line is that the ship won't leave without you. What if you break down? Or get lost? Or your tour guide is incompetent? All are unlikely, but if it's an official cruise excursion, they'll hold the ship for you.
When we took an all-day excursion to the Lamanai ruins in Belize, this was a no-brainer. It was an all-day tour, scheduled to return to the port within an hour of departure. We booked directly through Norwegian cruise line and this excursion was one of the highlights of our trip!
When the activity is risky
If you like adventurous activities like zip lines, ocean kayaks, or glacier hiking, booking through the cruise line ensures that the tour provider has been vetted and is insured.
When your port isn't completely safe
Unfortunately, there are parts of the world where crime and anti-American sentiments make travel risky. The tourist zones are usually safe, but it's a good idea to learn more about the countries you're cruising to at the official U.S. State Department's travel website travel.state.gov.
On our most recent cruise, we were concerned about safety in Mexico and Belize. And COVID-19 was still a problem. Booking official cruise excursions gave us the most peace of mind. We left the ship, boarded a bus, and never stepped out of our tourist bubble. It wasn't ideal, but we felt safe, had fun, and made great memories with our kids.
When convenience matters most
Sometimes researching and planning your own excursion is part of the fun. Sometimes it's stressful! When it's stressful, it's OK to just read through the list of shore excursions and sign up for your favorites.
On our Eastern Caribbean cruise, we booked a whale-watching excursion in Dominica on which we saw zero whales. It was disappointing and we needed a slam dunk for the following day in Grenada.
We had planned to take public transportation to the Seven Sisters Falls hike, but thought better of it. We marched down to the shore excursions desk and signed up for the tour. It saved us so much time and stress, and we had a great day. Worth. Every. Penny.
When to plan your own shore excursion
When you want to stay close to the port
There are always shopping, dining, and activities within walking distance of the ship. Read up on what's nearby before you go. Look for interesting historical and cultural attractions, which are always high on my list.
In Puerto Rico, we docked in Old Town, just down the street from San Juan National Historic Site. This is a fantastic 16th-century fort also known as El Morro. It cost about $5 per person to walk a few blocks and go inside. By comparison, the Carnival tour of El Morro currently costs about $60 per adult for the added comforts of air conditioning and a tour guide.
When you just need a ride
Don't book a cruise ship excursion if you want to spend your day at the beach or another point of interest near the port. Just get a taxi. You can get out early and beat the official tour bus – usually for less money. In Alaska, Honduras, and Tobago, we asked our taxi drivers to return for us and they always arrived at the agreed-upon time.
You'll find taxi drivers and tour guides waiting for the ship in most ports, ready to take you wherever you'd like to go. In Mexico and other places, taxis often have set rates for popular destinations.
On our most recent cruise to Cozumel, we just needed a ride to Mr. Sancho's – a popular all-inclusive beach resort. This resort is popular with cruise passengers and local taxis have a set rate of $17 USD. Taxis were waiting at the cruise port in the morning and at the resort in the afternoon. It was so easy!
When you're keeping costs down
It nearly always costs less to plan your own shore excursion than to book through the cruise line.
On our family cruise to Cabo San Lucas, we booked our own snorkeling excursion with Cabo San Lucas Tours. It cost less than $40 per person for a 2-hour tour. We saw Land's End, got all the snorkeling we wanted, and BONUS… we were the only people on the boat. All the other boats near us were packed.
By comparison, snorkeling tours from Carnival cruise line are usually longer and cost $60-$150 per adult. They included amenities we didn't care about, like lunch or an open bar. Booking a shorter, simpler tour saved us money and gave us more time to do other things at the port.
When you want it YOUR way
Expect a large group and a by-the-book tour when you book through the cruise line. If you want a custom experience, shop online for a private guide who will give it to you.
TripAdvisor.com is a good place to start. It has lots of activity ideas and reviews of local tour guides. Most guides will customize your tour if the price is right. Families and groups have more negotiating power because they can fill a tour van.
This was our experience in Falmouth, Jamaica. We found great reviews for a particular guide and contacted her before our trip. She helped us plan our day, which included hiking down a waterfall at Blue Hole, river tubing, and local food with a private van and driver. It was so fun!
Related: Everything you need to know about cruise dining
Tips for shore excursion success
Do your homework
Time is short, so go with a plan. Read up on ports of call on my Destinations page, online, or in a guidebook before you go. We usually find good guidebooks at our local library. Find out what's near the port and what transportation is available. These can vary greatly between ports.
Be ready to disembark
Be ready to disembark the ship as soon as the doors open. Expect other passengers to have the same idea, but the crowd often clears quickly. Don't delay if you have a tour guide to meet or just want to make the most of your limited time in port.
Plan extra time for tenders
A tender is a smaller boat that ferries passengers to and from the cruise ship when the ship cannot pull all the way to the dock. Tenders take longer to get everyone on and off the ship. It's easy to find out in advance if any of your ports will use a tender.
Assume that you'll need cash to pay for independent shore excursions, taxis, tips, roadside refreshments, and souvenirs. Expect to pay top dollar and bring more cash than you think you need. Local businesses serve several cruise ships a week and they know what they can charge. Prices may be negotiable. Close to port, you can usually use U.S. dollars.
Leave plenty of time to get back on the ship
We like to be within a short walk of the ship at least an hour before we need to embark.
Save shopping for the end
Get out and do your activities first and browse the shops and stalls near the ship later. It's a fun way to fill extra time and you won't have to carry around your purchases all day.
Bring a day pack
Use a small day pack or tote to carry your supplies for the day. These may include:
- Beach towel – The cruise ship will loan you towels.
- Magazine or paperback book – I prefer to take disposable books and magazines to the beach. No worries if they get wet, sandy or stolen.
- Snacks – Throw some small nut, cookie or cracker packs in your suitcase before you leave home. Or bring some Ziploc bags to save Room Service snacks.
- Reusable water bottle – Fill it before you leave the ship. You'll pay tourist prices for clean bottled water off the ship. If you want a great insulated bottle that will keep your water cold all day, I really, truly LOVE my EcoVessel.
- Identification, cash, phone – Keep your passport, ship ID, cash, credit cards and anything else that you can't afford to lose on your body at all times. We have never felt unsafe, but take reasonable precautions to discourage thieves.
Don't leave anything valuable in your day pack
I would hate to lose my passport, phone, cash, camera or Kindle! On beach days when we might all want to swim or snorkel at the same time, I leave my good camera and e-reader on the ship and pack everything else in a wearable waterproof pouch.
Review the details before you leave home
Excursions often have specific requirements like special shoes, special clothing, or a printed ticket. Review the details and requirements for your cruise a few days before your trip and make sure you know what to expect and that you have everything you need.
Planning a cruise?
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Shore excursions are the BEST part of the cruise! Use these tips to help you find the very best shore excursion for your ports and your family. A great excursion for the right price will set you up to make special family memories that will last a lifetime.
Some great tips here. Though I have to say, the independent peeps who are authorized to run excursions often go through a rigorous process, too. Cruise ships tend to go with big tour companies, but the little guys are just as qualified and know the risks should something go amiss.
I agree with you Jody. I think it depends on how much research you are willing to do on your own to ensure that your excursion provider is safe, reputable and insured. When you pay extra for the official excursion, you get the assurance that the cruise line has done that work for you. You may actually have a better experience with the smaller company.
I like planning my own, but agree about the stress of worrying about getting back to the ship on time. Plan VERY carefully and allow a big buffer!
Great tips here! We haven’t cruised in a long time but I know I’d be interested in exploring on our own.
Great information! We are going on our first family cruise next year and I think I will be pre-booking all our family excursions. I’m okay with paying a little more for the official excursion when the safety and comfort of my kids is involved. It’s crazy how much my traveling ways have changed now that I have kids!
Strategy is key. Great tips!
Colleen Lanin (@TravelMamas)
I do love reading through the shore excursion descriptions and picking my favorite from there but we have also saved a lot of money by booking on our own!
Vijay Bansal (@ivijaybansal)
Thanks Allison and Katie for sharing great tips. Keep sharing!
I really appreciate your blog