Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions

Mar 13, 2022

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Cruise lines offer shore excursions for your convenience. Instead of spending hours reading up on a port, crafting the perfect eight-hour activity schedule or researching local tour guides, you can simply choose from a list of curated tour options. Easy peasy … except you can still screw it up.

If you want the perfect day in port, and not a mediocre or disappointing one, you need to be savvy about your tour planning. Avoid rookie mistakes and never do these 10 things when booking shore excursions for your next cruise.

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Skip the destination research

Cruise line shore excursions try to cover the most popular sights and attractions in a destination, but your ship might not offer a tour to every interesting spot in or near the port. If you don’t do your own destination research and only make your tour decisions based on what the cruise line is offering, you might miss out on an activity you’d enjoy more.

Take the time to do some independent research on each port on your itinerary before deciding how to spend your limited, precious time ashore. Perhaps you’d prefer a local hike you can do on your own, a religious site that’s especially meaningful to you or an attraction or tour that relates to a specific hobby or interest of yours.

Related: Tips and tricks to make your first cruise go smoothly

Ignore the reviews

Can you tell the difference between an overcrowded tourist trap and a fabulous site from the shore excursion description? I can’t and neither can anyone else; the marketing copy is designed to sell the tour.

Read what other travelers have to say about a specific tour or attraction before plunking down your money and signing up for that tour. You don’t even need to seek out a third-party site. Some cruise lines have shore excursion reviews right on their websites.

Gloss over the fine print

Cruise lines provide a lot of details about a shore excursion, from how long it lasts to how much physical activity is involved and how you’ll be exploring. Yet so many cruisers don’t bother to read the full description or the fine print. Skip this step and you won’t realize that the bus tour passes by, rather than offers time inside, a famous cathedral or museum, or that there’s no free time or food included.

Make sure you know what an excursion entails, including how much physical activity and agility is involved. (Photo by Sebastian Condrea/Getty Images)

On a tour in Cagliari, in Sardinia, sold as a long morning of walking on cobblestoned streets, one elderly passenger, struggling and out of breath, turned to me and said, “I had no idea this tour would involve so much walking!” I had to bite my tongue. Who would have guessed that about a tour called “Exploring Cagliari On Foot?”

If you want to know exactly what tour you’re booking, take the time to read the complete description.

Related: 11 extra charges on cruise ships that will drive you nuts

Neglect the independent option

Cruise line tours are convenient, but they’re not always the most customizable or economical option. If you’re traveling as a family or with a group of friends, you may do better by hiring your own guide for the day. Not only could it be less expensive than five or six shore excursion tickets, but you’ll also be able to create a tour based on your interests.

Even couples traveling alone might find more affordable group tours offered by independent operators or tour options not offered by the cruise line. Online message boards and Facebook groups can be an option for finding other travelers on your cruise ship interested in joining you in a private tour.

Book your tours too late

Not all shore excursions are large group bus tours with multiple departures. Boat trips and cycling tours might have caps on the number of participants, and some tour times are more popular than others. In some ports, cruise lines may arrange a special experience – such as Cognac-blending or pasta-making – that is meant for a small group.

If you have your heart set on a particular tour, don’t assume it will have space available if you wait to book until you board your cruise ship. Look over the shore excursion options in advance and be ready to book online as soon as they open – or risk losing out on the opportunity to have that cool once-in-a-lifetime experience, such as salmon fishing in Alaska or Wagyu sampling in Japan.

Related: What can you do if your cruise cancels port calls?

Ignore your personal limitations

Easily carsick? Hawaii’s winding Road to Hana is not for you. Not physically fit? Skip the hiking and biking tours, no matter how fun they sound. Usually the first to get seasick? A catamaran ride – anywhere – is the wrong choice.

The Road to Hana on Maui may not be the best choice if winding roads make you carsick. (Photo by Royce Bair/Getty Images)

Don’t let the romance of a tour description convince you to overlook your physical limitations. Overdo it and you’ll just waste a vacation day feeling miserable – or, worse, end up with an injury. No beautiful waterfall or ancient ruin is worth that.

Assume you need an organized tour

Don’t feel compelled to take a tour just because one is offered. Plenty of ports don’t require a shore excursion. Some – like St. Tropez or Mykonos – are truly lovely places to wander, get lost in the shop-lined streets and end up at an alfresco restaurant for a long, wine-soaked lunch.

Just be sure to read up on the area around the dock so that you know whether you’ll be pulling right up to the center of the action or if sightseeing on your own requires a shuttle or a cab. Grab a tourist map or use a map app on your phone, so you don’t get lost.

Related: 16 things you shouldn’t leave a cruise ship without trying once

Go-go-go all day, every day

In a misguided attempt to maximize their vacation time, some cruise travelers make a point to book all-day tours on every port day, exhausting themselves with endless sightseeing or active endeavors in the hot Caribbean sun. Especially on port-intensive itineraries, this can lead to excursion burnout.

Your best vacation is made up of activities that make you happy. When you’re in the sun-drenched Caribbean, it’s perfectly OK to skip the waterfall hike or the visit to a rum distillery and simply book a resort pass to spend the day on a cushy lounge chair by a quiet pool, frozen drink in hand.

Rum distilleries can be a fun outing — but you might want to take some quiet time for yourself, too. (Photo by stocknshares/Getty Images)

Cancel at the last minute

Most cruise lines allow you to cancel your shore excursion plans with a certain amount of notice. You can take advantage of that flexibility by booking tours early to reserve a spot, and canceling if you find a more interesting private tour or decide that you’d rather have a day to wander on your own.

If you don’t want to forfeit the price of the tour, however, you need to cancel in advance, usually one or two days before that port of call. If you call up the shore excursion desk that morning to say that you’re not feeling well and want to skip out, you’ll still get charged on your final cruise bill.

Related: 15 ways the cruising newbies waste money on their first cruise

Make decisions that are penny wise and pound foolish

You came all this way on a cruise to see the local sights, so don’t let the cost of exploring limit that experience. Staying on the ship – or wandering the sometimes-sad area right by a port – is no way to get good value from your cruise vacation.

Budget wisely for in-port exploration when you plan your sailing, so you can experience the attractions and activities that sold you on the destination in the first place. If you have to, skip that massage or cocktail – things you can easily get back home – in order to afford that tour. After all, who knows when you’ll be back in that part of the world again?

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Featured photo by Fuse/Getty Images.

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