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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.

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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?

Five cruise ships docked in a row in Nassau, Bahamas

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.

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, 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.

Related: Ship-sponsored vs. independent shore excursions on cruises: Which should you book?

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.

How much are shore excursions on a cruise?

Stingray swimming beneath the waters of Grand Cayman
Sting ray in Grand Cayman. PRINCESS CRUISES

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 $70 per person, a 5-hour scenic island drive costs $100, and a 4-hour, two-tank scuba dive costs $180. In Juneau, Alaska, a 3-hour tour to the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center costs $50 per person. A 3-hour gold panning activity and salmon bake costs $125, 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 $420.

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 discounted tours or shore excursion credit as booking promotions.

Related: 8 tips for booking the best cruise shore excursion for your money 

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 its selling out. Book your tours the minute they open for reservations. When my parents traveled on a luxury Regent Seven Seas cruise, they said that 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.

Related: Avoid these mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions

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 questions about the tours, and the charges will be added to your final cruise bill. However, you do run the risk that a popular tour might be sold out by the time you’re ready to book.

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, Royal Caribbean often advertises 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.

Related: Ultimate guide to tipping on cruise ships

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?

View of glacier-fed lake from inside a helicopter cockpit
Scenic view from helicopter cockpit. ALEX RATSON/GETTY IMAGES

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 expectations. 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.

Related: 11 cruise ship excursions to avoid

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.

Bottom line

Shore excursions are a great way to make the most of your time in port, but you might get the most value out of a mix of guided tours and independent exploration. Choose the best option based on your budget and interests, and remember to look at both ship-sponsored and independent tour and activity options. And if you feel like staying on board one day while your ship is docked in a port that doesn’t interest you, that’s okay, too.

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