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, you can book a shore excursion on your own instead of through your cruise line. 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.

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.

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.

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.

No, it is not cheaper to book shore excursions on the ship. 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.

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 tipping 15% or more in those cases. And if you’re on a luxury cruise line where all shore excursions are included in the fare, it’s customary to tip drivers and guides who really made your day special.

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