Shore excursions: What new cruisers need to know

The fun of a cruise is equal parts what you do on board and what you do on shore. Cruise lines offer a full schedule of shore excursions to help you make the most of your time in port. However, the process of choosing and booking tours can be overwhelming for new cruisers. I’ve taken shore excursions around the world, both ship-run and independent, and spent many days in port wandering on my own. Allow me to take you through the basics of cruise shore excursions, so you can learn to have the most fun no matter what your budget is.

A shore excursion is a group tour or activity aimed at cruise travelers who can only spend a limited time in each port they’re visiting on their itinerary. A shore excursion could be a sightseeing bus tour, a guided visit to a museum or historic site, an athletic activity (like a hike, bike ride or snorkel outing), a day at the beach or a cooking or dance class. Shore excursions typically highlight the marquee attractions or culture of the destination you’re visiting. Sometimes an excursion will take you to sites within walking distance of your cruise; on other occasions, they might take you on a day trip to a nearby city.

Some shore excursions are targeted at families or can easily accommodate children. Some can accommodate passengers with mobility issues or other disabilities. Others may require a minimum level of fitness and are not suitable for everyone. Shore excursions may be sold by your cruise line and organized with a partner provider. They can also be purchased through independent operators or third-party tour sellers.

In most cases, you don’t need to book a shore excursion to explore a port of call. You can simply walk off the ship and stroll into town or catch a cab to take you wherever you want to go. However, in some destinations, a shore excursion, or independently operated guided tour, is highly encouraged. This could be in places where it’s difficult to navigate as a foreigner who can’t speak the language or understand street signs or where the tourism infrastructure is not yet fully developed.

Yes. I use many factors to decide whether to take a ship’s tour, book an independent excursion or explore on my own in port. However, if you’re a novice traveler, you might want to book ship tours exclusively because they’re the simplest, easiest and most convenient options. The benefits to a cruise line’s shore excursions are that they depart from and return to the ship; you don’t need to figure out where to meet a guide in a port you’ve never visited. Better still, should an unexpected problem (traffic, a medical emergency) occur during your outing, the ship will not leave port until all of its own tours have returned.

Independent tours, on the other hand, can be cheaper than cruise ship tours. I once saved hundreds of dollars organizing a group to go on an overnight, independently operated excursion to see Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza from Port Said, Egypt; the ship’s tours were incredibly marked up. Also, if you have a particular interest, the ship might not offer a tour for the activity or attraction you’re excited about.

Some third-party operators will customize a tour for you or your group, so you can spend more time at the places you most want to see. Sometimes these tour groups are also smaller than the large cruise ship tours — which can carry 30 to 60 people in a bus — so you will spend less time waiting for everyone.

Finally, some ports are simply wonderful to walk around, popping into shops and local restaurants or bars, going where you will. I’ve skipped tours in places like Key West, Florida; Tallinn, Estonia; Monaco; Nassau, Bahamas; Skagway, Alaska; Geiranger, Norway; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. A map and a guidebook got me where I wanted to go.

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