Booking a cruise comes with a moment of excitement. You’ve done it! You waded through all the options and prices and websites. You are going on a cruise. Now what? Almost as soon as your fingertips leave the keys, you start to think about all the fun things you will do. Up until now, you most likely have been concentrating on the ship. You’ve been dreaming of lounging poolside and dining in specialty restaurants.
But have you thought about the shore excursions?
Cruises normally incorporate more of the total waking hours in port than cruising, so choosing how to spend your time in each port could be the most important part of your cruise planning. Before you begin, spend some time researching the ports themselves. A quick Internet search may turn up information about the destination that you were unaware of, which may factor into your plans. Look for sites hosted by the area’s board of tourism or chamber of commerce, which often have a wealth of information. These sites may help you uncover museums, gardens, wineries or less-advertised attractions.
Also check CruiseTimetables.com, which lets you search by ship or by port. Most ports have detailed information on the site, including links to Google Maps directly to the port where the ship will be docking, allowing you to get an idea of what is within walking distance from the pier, and more importantly, what is not.
I also never plan my shore activities without a quick search for the port on Cruise Critic. Thousands of cruise ports around the world have detailed descriptions written by Cruise Critic’s editors and expert contributors. The information there may even include transportation details and where to find an ATM near the cruise terminal.
When we say “shore excursions” we aren’t talking only about the activities you can arrange through your ship. There are three basic ways to go about planning your time in port. Let’s look at each one.
Ship’s shore excursions
This is the easiest way to explore a port you know nothing about. Tours have been arranged by specialists that know the port well and everything is planned for you, including the transportation. On some mid-priced, most luxury cruises, as well as on river cruises, the choices are further broken into included excursions and those that cost extra. Be sure you know which you are signing up for to avoid any surprises on your account at the end of the cruise.
Perhaps the best part of utilizing shore excursions booked through your ship is that even though you can have everything in place long before you leave home, you don’t have to. There is always an opportunity to purchase tours once you get onboard. This can come in handy when you simply don’t have time to do the advance research or booking.
The reason many people give for booking through their cruise line is the guarantee of not being left behind by the ship. Even if your tour is late returning to the ship due to unforeseen circumstances, the ship will not leave without those passengers booked on a ship’s excursion.
Independently booked tours
In most destinations around the globe, there are tour companies willing to help you book the activities you want to participate in during your cruise. These companies often offer tours similar to those available through your ship but at a slightly lower price. They may also have tours that are not offered at all by your ship, essentially expanding the options available to you in any given port.
Also in this category are private guides. These may be offered through the same companies as group tours, and through websites and apps that specialize in connecting travelers with private guides. Having a private guide can also be as simple as hiring a taxi driver to show you the sights upon arrival. Keep in mind, however, that they may get kickbacks from various restaurants, bars and merchants for delivering passengers, which might skew your tour experience slightly.
For those that aren’t into touring, or who have specific activities in mind for a port, a shore excursion may simply involve planning a walk-off day in port. Gary and I scuba dive, so many of our shore excursions involve an advance booking of dives through a local dive shop and consulting them about transportation arrangements from the pier. We have had shops that picked us up at the ship, others that simply provided an address and walking or taxi instructions.
Other activities that work well for walk-offs on most ships are golf, fishing, shopping, museums, zoos, gardens, and sightseeing. The key to most of these is to verify (using GoogleMaps) your distance from the activity you have in mind. You don’t want to schedule a round of golf only to find out that the course you booked is too far from the pier to even get there and back by taxi.
Some cruises lend themselves better to walk-off fun than others. River cruises are ideal, as most ships will dock in or very near the city. Small ships like those of Windstar Cruises are also ideal for exploring close to the port, beach sitting and even bicycling right from the pier.
Where in the world are the best spots for some of your favorite shore excursions?
We’ve done the homework for you! Here are the top spots for golfing, fishing, ATVing and visiting botanical gardens.