11 cruise ship excursions to avoid
You’ve got eight to 10 hours in port, and you might never return to that destination. How do you make sure you don’t blow your chance at an amazing vacation day by choosing the wrong cruise ship shore excursion?
It’s a daunting task for sure, but some close reading and a little bit of thought can steer you away from making bad tour choices. Here are some general tips to follow:
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Tip #1: Be honest with yourself about the personalities and abilities of your travel party, and what they actually will be happy doing.
Tip #2: Don’t feel obligated to take a ship-sponsored tour. Independent options are often better.
Tip #3: Read the following list of types of cruise ship shore excursions that aren’t worth your time, money and the risk of mid-tour meltdowns.
Panoramic sightseeing tours
“Panoramic” is cruise speak for “you will view key attractions exclusively from inside a bus.” You might want to see that historic cathedral interior or step outside to enjoy the scenic overlook, but if you prefer to spend more time on the ground than inside a coach, avoid any tour with “panoramic sightseeing” or “island tour” or “[destination] by coach” in the title.
Most shore excursion descriptions will tell you how much time you’ll spend at each attraction, so look for those clues to make sure you’re actually experiencing the sites you want to see.
Note that you should ignore this advice if you have mobility challenges; these sightseeing tours are a great way to see the top sights without worrying about navigating cobblestone streets or stairs.
Tourist trains and trams
Unless you’re cruising with Thomas the Tank Engine-obsessed toddlers, please maintain your dignity and avoid the tourist trains and trams that chug around cruise destinations. I’m not talking about actual scenic railways, but the cutesy painted mini locomotives pulling open-air carriages through the streets of places like the Royal Dockyard in Bermuda, Belize City and Piraeus, Greece.
Frankly, it’s embarrassing and tags you as a clueless American tourist. Hop-on, hop-off coach tours are much preferred if you want easy transportation between key tourist attractions.
Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions
All-day marathon tours
By all accounts, Skagway, Alaska’s White Pass Rail into Canada is breathtaking, but I’ve never done it … because it’s an eight-hour tour spent mainly sitting on your butt in a train. I’ve done the marathon tour from Livorno to Florence in Italy, and I can assure you that I fall asleep exhausted on the coach ride back every time.
Marathon all-day tours may be the only way to cram everything you want to see into your one day in port. However, the breakneck pace may not be worth the sore feet, missed ship dinner and information overload. Worse, sometimes these long tours involve more driving than sightseeing.
For example, Royal Caribbean’s “Grand Tour of Florence and Pisa” features two hours of independent exploration in Florence and an hour in Pisa — but the tour takes 10 hours. At least three of those hours will be in transit, with more time spent waiting for tardy tourists and walking from bus parking to the actual attractions.
You might be better off focusing your time on one area, then planning to return for a land visit at a more relaxed pace another year.
Related: 5 great cruise vacations that combine a cruise with a train trip
Short tours with a long transit
In a similar vein, and with a nod to the Cake song, any tour that spends more time in transit than at the actual tour destination may not be the best use of your time. If you’re going to schlep out somewhere on a day trip, you want it to be worth your while. Otherwise, you might get more value from staying closer to port and spending more time sightseeing, shopping and dining on your own.
Do you take tours of museums when you’re home? No. You simply go to the museum, perhaps pick up an audio guide and wander through on your own. So why would you take a tour to a museum on a cruise?
Unless you need a tour for transportation, skip the overpriced shore excursion and head to that museum of interest on your own. You can spend as much or as little time in the rooms that interest you, can skip around large groups crowding a particular artwork or display, and don’t have to reduce yourself to meekly following behind a sign-toting guide. You can usually find English-language audio tours if you need more information or can’t read the display signs.
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Do you want to go to the beach? Hail a cab and go to the beach. The locals know that cruisers want to go to the beach, and you’ll find shuttles, trams and vans all waiting to take you to the beach and back. You don’t need a tour to get there.
Similarly, if you want to spend the day at a local resort, using its beach, pool and facilities, you can often find cheaper options if you book through the property directly rather than via your ship’s shore excursion desk. Just check to see if transportation is included and factor in the price of a taxi if it’s not.
Related: Best Caribbean cruise shore excursions
The same mindset applies to shopping tours. If you want to go shopping, all you need to do is walk off the cruise ship. If there aren’t a bevy of souvenir and jewelry shops right at the port, you’ll be able to find plenty in town. It’s rare that a shopping tour is going to take you to special or local secret galleries where you can find amazing art or spectacular buys.
Are you a shopaholic or a connoisseur of a particular product? Your best bet is to do your research in advance, find the shops or galleries you wish to visit and take a taxi or hire a private guide to take you to the merchants you most want to see.
I’m a huge fan of catamaran sails — getting out on the water to feel the breeze in your hair and watch the scenery go by, maybe getting in some snorkeling or beach time. However, I avoid any shore tour labeled “party cruise” or “open bar” like the plague.
If you’re choosing a tour because you want to snorkel or see the sunset over the water, know that someone on the boat is bound to over-imbibe, become belligerent or end up barfing because they don’t know when to stop with the free rum punch.
Looking for a party? Have at it. Just be careful because those fruity drinks are stronger than they taste and the combination of heat, alcohol and sugar is the wrong combination for a crazy time without any consequences. Do you really want to miss the next port or ship nightlife because you’re hungover from your tour?
Related: How to get free or cheap drinks on a cruise
Glass bottom boat rides
I admit — I went on an amazing semi-submersible ride in Maui, where we actually saw incredible sea life. All of the other glass-bottom boat rides and “submarine” tours have been murky and unimpressive. Unless you’re claustrophobic, it can’t hurt to try, but the chances of you having an amazing underwater experience on one of these tours are low. If you’re not able to snorkel or scuba dive, you might prefer to try your luck with a land-based tour.
Tours involving maltreated animals
You might have a life goal to swim with dolphins or ride on an elephant, but please do not support any organization that does not treat their animals well. If you can’t verify that the animals are getting superb care, avoid shore excursions that have you interacting with captive wild animals.
Instead, choose tours that allow you to see animals in the wild, such as whale-watching tours in Hawaii, bear-viewing excursions in Alaska or hikes or boat rides through the jungle where you can spot birds or monkeys in the trees.
Any tour you’re not fit for
Haven’t gotten on a bike in years? Now is not the time to book that cycling tour through Valencia, Spain or go speeding 25 miles down the Haleakala volcano in Maui. Have mobility issues? A walking tour through a cobblestoned Old Town is not for you. Afraid of heights? For the love of God, do NOT zip line.
The person you wish you were (or the strapping youth you once were) will not be taking the tour — only you in your current level of health and fitness. Avoid any shore excursions the real you can’t handle, and you will be much happier with your time spent in port, rather than at the local hospital.
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