Planning a cruise?
One of my favorite things about a cruise are the ports. 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
- Tips for successful shore excursions
When to book through the cruise line
When time or distance is a concern – 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.
When convenience is worth the cost – Let’s be honest. It takes time and effort to plan your own shore excursion.
For some of us, it’s all part of the fun. For others, it’s S-T-R-E-S-S-F-U-L! If you fall into the second category, I won’t judge. Just read through the list of shore excursions and sign up for your favorites.
On our Eastern Caribbean cruise, we went on a whale watching excursion in Dominica on which we saw zero whales. It was disappointing. 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 – You’ll usually find plenty of activities within walking distance of the ship. Read up on what’s nearby before you go. You’ll likely also find interesting historical and cultural attractions, which are always high on my list. The Del Sol shops you’ll find near many cruise ports are lots of fun.
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 – If you want to spend your day at the beach or another point of interest nearby, this is usually the way to go. You can get out early and beat the official tour bus – usually for a lot 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. More often than not, they are happy to take U.S. currency.
When you’re keeping costs down – It nearly always costs less to plan your own shore excursion than to book through the cruise line. El Morro in Puerto Rico is a great example. Here’s another:
My husband and I took a taxi to Pigeon Point – Tobago’s most popular beach – as soon as we could get off the ship. We had our pick of places to lay our towels and enjoyed plenty of personal space early in the day. A couple of hours later, after the beach was already crowded, the official cruise excursion dropped off a bus load of passengers. We paid about $20 plus tip for our taxi to and from the beach. Carnival offers the same excursion for $36 per adult.
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. It was so fun!
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, elsewhere online or in a guide book before you go. Find out what’s near the port and what transportation is available. These can vary greatly between ports.
Be ready to disembark early – If you want to disembark as soon as the doors open, expect a line. Head for the exit well in advance if you have a tour guide to meet or just want to make the most of your limited time in port. The good news is that once the line gets moving, it moves quickly.
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.
Bring cash – Assume that you’ll need cash to pay for independent shore excursions, taxis, tips, roadside refreshments and souvenirs. Do not assume that you’ll pay Third World prices. Local businesses likely serve several cruise ships a week and they know what they can charge. Prices may be negotiable. 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 as you leave the ship.
- 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.
There you go. Have a question? Leave it in the comments or contact me at [email protected]
Planning a cruise?
We recommend Get Away Today Vacations for your cruise. They are a family-owned business with 25 years of experience and a commitment to customer service. Though we are usually DIY travelers, we use Get Away Today because they can do it better and for less than we can do it ourselves. Read more about our partnership with Get Away Today here.