Should I book a shore excursion?

Whether you’re new to cruising, or a seasoned shipmate, it’s often difficult to know whether you should book a shore excursion or make your own way in a port of call. If you’ve just booked a cruise it’s likely the cruise line is currently trying to sell you at least one – so what are shore excursions, and what’re the pros and cons?

What is a shore excursion?

At each port of call on your cruise you’ll likely have two options. Either disembark the ship and explore on your own, or take a group excursion organised by your cruise ship.

There’s no right or wrong choice here, it’s up to you how you decide to spend your time in port – it is your vacation after all. There are however, a few important differences to note, which we’ll get into below.

Shore Excursions

Rome is beautiful, but around an hour away from the port of Civitavecchia. (click to open)

Reasons to consider booking a shore excursion:

  1. You’ve never been to the area before, or you need inspiration on what to do. You might choose a cruise simply because it visits one specific port, you might choose it because of the ship, or because it’s a special occasion. That means you might not be knowledgable about what you can visit in each port of call. In this situation a shore excursion makes perfect sense – let the experts lead the way.
  2. The place/attraction/activity you want to visit isn’t close to where the ship has docked. Some of the places cruise ships dock aren’t always conveniently located for what it is you want to visit. Take Rome for example, the port of Civitavecchia is about 45 minutes to 1 hour away from the port. In this situation it’s just easier to let the ship’s arranged transport get you there and back without worry.
  3. Shore excursions can offer unique bundled activities. To make the most of your day in port many of the ship’s shore excursions will bundle multiple activities/sights into one trip. For example, in Naples you could take a tour of the cities secret wine tunnels, and then go on for lunch at a traditional pizzeria, followed by a private wine tasting session – all as one easy to book package.
  4. Onboard credits and packages. It’s becoming more and more common for cruise lines to bundle shore excursion credits and packages with your cruise booking. That means you might have a certain number of free shore excursions to use, or onboard credits to use towards shore excursions. That means you could enjoy new experiences for next to nothing.
  5. You’re guaranteed to get back onboard before the ship leaves port. Ship organised shore excursions guarantee that the ship won’t leave before your group is back onboard. That isn’t the case if you go off on your own.

Reasons you might not want to book a shore excursion:

  1. Cost. Shore excursions can be pricey – starting from around $30 up to as much as $200 per person depending on what you choose to do. If you opt for a shore excursion every day of a 7 day cruise the bill can quickly add up.
  2. You’ve visited the port before. For those who travel a lot it’s not unusual to have visited a port/city several times before. In these situations it’s nice to sometimes just stay onboard whilst the ship is quiet, or just get off the ship and stretch your legs in the port without venturing far.
  3. You know exactly what you want to do. Visiting a port for a specific reason? There’s a friend you want to catch up with, or a particular attraction you want to visit? It can be quicker and cheaper to do it yourself – especially if the ship has docked in a convenient location.
  4. You prefer to explore on your own. Some people don’t enjoy groups, and that’s totally fine. Exploring on your own is a great way to spend your time in port.

Exploring on your own

The Curaçao distillery was easy to reach in a $10 taxi and was a fun afternoon by ourselves. (click to open)

Reasons to consider exploring on your own:

  1. You enjoy immersing yourself in a place and discovering it on your own terms. Not everyone enjoys a group tour, and that’s cool. Exploring on your own allows you to go at your own pace and spend as much, or as little time, as you wish ashore.
  2. Saving money. As mentioned before, shore excursions can be expensive. So it can make sense to head into port on your own – especially in ports you’ve visited before or feel comfortable in. Why pay for a $100 wine tasting session, when you can find yourself a beach bar and enjoy a bottle there at your own pace?
  3. The attraction or activity you want to do isn’t offered as a shore excursion. Ships will try to offer a wide range of excursions to suit all tastes, but they can’t please everyone. Is there something you really want to do, like visit a specific distillery or go off the beaten track? Then exploring on your own might be right for you.
  4. You’re on the cruise to relax onboard and the ports are just a bonus. Many people choose to cruise not because of the ports of call, but just to spend time being pampered on the ship. If this is you then save your money for a spa treatment and just head into the port for an hour to stretch your legs if you feel like it.

Reasons you might not want to explore alone:

  1. Local transport. Depending where your ship has docked, and where you want to go, you may need to consider how you get there. Is there a train nearby? A local bus service? Do you need to hire a car? If so how do you negotiate that, and where do you get your local currency from?
  2. Getting lost. It’s getting harder and harder to get lost these days with Google Maps in everybody’s pockets, but it can still happen. If you’re going ashore on your own be sure to get a paper map, either from the ship’s guest services or from the local port authority.
  3. Language barrier. Some folks love an excuse to battle with a new language, for others it causes anxiety. If you go alone be ready to bust out Google Translate should the need occur.
  4. Missing the ship. It’s every cruiser’s worst nightmare, you’ve got your day in port planned out meticulously but at the last minute your bus gets stuck in traffic and before you know it the ship has sailed without you. With plenty of planning and leaving large margins of error it can be avoided – but be aware that unlike with ship’s shore excursions the ship will sail without you if you’re not back in time. If you end up in that situation you will need to pay for your transport to meet the ship in its next port of call.

Other things to consider

COVID-19 Restrictions. With the coronavirus still hanging around some countries and regions have their own specific restrictions when it comes to disembarking a cruise ship. For example, in Italy, at the time of writing you may only disembark the cruise if it’s the last day of your cruise or if you’re on a ship organised shore excursion (this means no exploring on your own). Some activities may also not currently be available if they’re not able to support social distancing.

Ports where there’s no option to explore on your own. This should be fairly obvious but some places, like the Antarctic or some private islands, aren’t suitable for exploring on your own – and can only be accessed via ship organised excursions.

Watch out for sales and packages. As you get closer to your cruise, or even whilst you’re onboard, the cruise line may send you promotions for shore excursions that have been discounted – or offer you the chance to purchase a bundle package of shore excursions at a reduced price.

Whatever you choose – enjoy yourself

No matter what you decided to do be it a shore excursion, exploring on your own, or just staying onboard, be sure to enjoy your cruise vacation – you’ve earned it!

If you need advice on other aspects of cruising such as Speciality Dining or Beverage Packages be sure to check out my Frequently Asked Questions section.

If this was interesting to you consider sharing it using the buttons below. Is there a port you just love to explore on your own? Do you have a favourite memory of something you did on a shore excursion? Got a question I haven’t answered here? Feel free to leave a comment, or contact me on twitter at @CruisingWithTom, Facebook at @TomLoveCruising or Instagram at @TomLovesCruising

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