Shore excursions: What new cruisers need to know
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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.
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What is a cruise shore excursion?
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.
Do you have to buy shore excursions on a cruise?
In most cases, you don’t need to book a shore excursion in order 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.
This rule has a few exceptions. Certain destinations have complex visa requirements that make it tricky for cruisers to explore on their own. St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, requires a visa for any cruise passengers who step on shore but choose not to take an organized tour. If you want to explore on your own, you’ll need to go do the paperwork — and pay the fee — to get a visa before your trip.
Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean are not allowing unvaccinated guests – mainly children under age 12 – to go ashore in many ports unless they’re on a specific ship-sponsored shore excursion deemed a “bubble tour.” These are special tours with extra precautions taken to protect unvaccinated travelers from the local population, and vice versa.
Can I book a shore excursion on my own instead of through my cruise line?
Yes. I use many factors to decide whether to take a ship’s tour, an independent excursion or just explore on my own in port. However, if you’re a novice traveler, you might want to book ship tours exclusively because it’s the simplest, easiest and most convenient option.
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 before. Better still, should an unexpected problem occur (traffic, a medical emergency), 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 the Pyramids of Giza from Cairo; 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 the most time at the places you most want to see. Sometimes these tour groups also are 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.
How much are shore excursions on a cruise?
Cruise shore excursion prices vary widely depending on the cost of living in the cruise destination, what type of activity is involved and whether it’s a full- or half-day tour. Young children often pay a reduced rate for tours.
Looking at Princess Cruises’ shore excursions in Grand Cayman, a 2.5-hour stingray swim costs $60 per person, a 5-hour scenic island drive costs $80, and a 4-hour, two-tank scuba dive costs $170. In Juneau, Alaska, a 3.5-hour tour to the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center costs $50 per person. A 3-hour gold panning activity and salmon bake costs $100, while a 2.25-hour tour to take a helicopter ride to the top of the glacier, where you can walk around on the ice for half an hour, costs $360.
Some cruise lines, such as Viking and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, include the cost of basic shore excursions in their cruise fares. If you don’t care to do any specialty tours, you might be able to get all your port activities for free. Other lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, offer free or discounted tours as part of limited-time booking promotions.
What’s the best way to book shore excursions?
If you plan to book shore excursions through your cruise line, you have a couple of options of how to book them.
You can book your tours online in advance, or have your travel agent do it for you. This is the best route if there’s a ship’s tour you absolutely want to take and you don’t want to risk it selling out. Book your tours the minute they open for reservations. My parents are going on a luxury Regent Seven Seas cruise, and they said that even waiting until the next morning to book tours meant that some of their choices were sold out.
The downside to booking tours in advance is that some cruise lines require that you pay for the tours in full, rather than putting them on your final cruise bill. It means you’re out the money in advance and it can be difficult to use onboard credit to cover the cost of excursions booked online.
Alternatively, you can wait until you’re on the ship and book your excursion in person at the shore excursions desk. You’ll be able to ask the staff there any questions you have about the tours, and the charges will be added to your final cruise bill.
The same is true with independent tours. Most people organize these ahead of time through a tour operator or travel agent. However, in popular cruise ports, there are often representatives waiting at the port or at a tourist office who can book you on same-day tours if space is available.
Is it cheaper to book shore excursions on the ship?
No. Most cruise lines either charge the same prices for shore excursions booked online and on board or offer a discount for tours purchased in advance. For example, on an upcoming Royal Caribbean cruise, the line has been advertising up to 30% off select tours reserved ahead of the sailing.
Do I need to tip on shore excursions?
Whether you’re on a cruise line sponsored or independent shore excursion, a best practice is to tip your tour guides at the end of the tour. Exceptions are if tips are included in the price or if you’re visiting a country with a non-tipping culture, where offering cash would be awkward.
Tipping is a personal matter, and there are no hard and fast rules. I canvassed TPG’s cruise team and we agreed that we give roughly $5 to $10 per person for half-day tours and $10 to $20 per person for full-day excursions, adjusted for service and quality. Tip non-guide drivers roughly $2 per person in your party.
You’ll likely want to tip more for customized, private tours – consider 5 to 20% of the cost of the tour.
How do I get the most from my cruise shore excursion?
The key to getting the most from your cruise shore excursion is to know what you want and make sure the tour description matches your expectation. I find that the more I cruise, the less I take ship-sponsored shore excursions because they don’t offer exactly what I want.
For example, if you’re considering a bus tour, make sure you understand how much time will be spent sitting on the bus and how much time will be at the destination or attraction, whether you will be looking at or going inside key attractions and whether there’s free time to explore. If it’s an activity, like snorkeling or a helicopter tour, read up on how much time is spent in transit and prep and how much time you will spend actually doing the activity.
Be sure to note the fitness level required and don’t try to take on more than you’re able to do. If you struggle with mobility, check to see if there’s a lot of walking on uneven ground like cobblestones.
If the tour takes place over lunchtime, check to see if a meal is included or if you have time to pick up something to eat.
Personally, I find that organized tours are best when the excursion is an activity I can’t do on my own (such as kayaking, zip lining or a winery tour); when long distances are involved where I don’t want to bother with public transportation or renting a car on a one-day visit; or when the culture is foreign enough that independent exploration would be tricky. Sometimes you also need an expert guide, such as in Pompeii, to know what you’re seeing.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Featured photo by Sebastian Condrea/Getty Images.
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