Shore Excursions – book with cruise line or independently?

What type of cruise traveller are you? Your answer will help you decide about cruise shore excursions.

Are you all about the experience of the ship itself, and have you chosen your cruise almost entirely based on a specific cruise ship, regardless of the route?

Or do you choose your cruise vacation with complete focus on the itinerary? That is, the ports you will be visiting are on your bucket list and you really don’t mind which cruise ship or cruise company gets you there?

Perhaps you just want to get away and need to be pampered and spoilt for a week. A cruise ship is the perfect place to do this. Therefore have chosen a cruise because you can get to the origin port easily and the price is affordable.

The best cruise shore excursions for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure

The truth is, we want each of these scenarios rolled into one fantastic cruise vacation. And that is why finding the perfect cruise for you and your family can be tricky sometimes. We get it. You want the best of not just both worlds, but all worlds.

And so you should. Cruises are expensive. And whilst they offer good value for money when compared to booking a hotel resort with separate excursions, rental car, and other forms of transportation to get a similar experience, the decision to spend your hard earned vacation money should take time and planning.

Bucket list destinations in one and the same vacation

Once you have chosen and booked your dream cruise, and before you start on your cruise packing list, we recommend that you do a little research on the destinations you will be visiting.

Unless you are someone who cruises often and has visited the ports on your itinerary several times before, then you will most likely want to disembark the ship at each port. It’s great to enjoy the facilities onboard a wonderful cruise ship on a sea day, but when you hit land you really need to explore.

Each port is an opportunity to experience the culture, language, history and cuisine of that region. And not least you will probably want to see spectacular landscapes, pick up some unique souvenirs and meet the locals.

Unless you want to go from poolside onboard the cruise ship, to laying on a blanket on the beach, then you’ll have to decide just how to spend your day on land. For one day is often all you have as it is seldom your itinerary allows for an overnight port stop.

How do you plan and book your cruise shore excursions?

So how do you want to spend you time on your cruise shore excursions? There are countless ways to plan and book your day out. Let’s look closer at your three options to help you decide which way is the best way for you.

1) Become Your Own Travel Planner

You can become your own travel planner and research each destination carefully yourself. Indeed you may do this each time you go on vacation.

Find out transport options, choose what you want to see, plan where you’ll eat, and purchase entrance tickets yourself. There are numerous possibilities on the internet that allow you to book everything online before you leave home. You will also find links directly to booking sites in our articles where we recommend activities, excursions and sightseeing.

And it’s easy to use the resources of local tourist bureaus to find out what not to miss and how to get around. You can also use our destination guides on this site that offer detailed itineries for the most popular ports so you start your vacation even before you climb onboard your cruise ship.

Advantages of arranging your own cruise shore excursions and doing it all yourself:

  • You remain in complete control of your shore excursion bookings.
  • Easy and direct contact with the suppliers you use with your questions, changes or when you need help.
  • You can and should research and compare prices. You can most often save a lot of money doing this yourself.
  • Flexible time frame where you and your family get to do it your way, in your own time. And you can makes changes to your day as you go along, for example in bad whether you can take in a museum instead of the hike you planned.
  • You can tailor-make the experience exactly the way you want to. No following the herd for you.

Disadvantages of arranging your own cruise shore excursions:

  • If you are late getting back to the port, your ship may leave without you. The cruise line is under no obligation to wait for you if you are not on one of their own excursions.
  • You need to be aware that ship time may be different to shore time. Check that you are working to the same time zone as your ship when making your arrangements.
  • Shops or sites may be closed (if you visit on a Sunday or public holiday) and you may not gain entrance to something if you are not booked as part of a pre-arranged group.
  • If you are relying on public transport there could be delays or cancellations. Always have a back-up plan and the name and number of a local taxi company.
  • If things go wrong make sure you have internet access and purchase an international calling plan from your mobile phone provider before you leave home. When in port you may need to be able to call for assistance or to make new plans.
  • If you dock in a tender port than you will not be given priority disembarkation if you are not booked onto a cruise line excursion. This may mean a long wait to get onto the tender boat and to shore. Try and cut down on your wait time by finding out a few days before from cruise line staff how to get your tender boat ticket. You will be allocated space on a tender boat at a particular time. Sometimes you have to wait until the same day to get a ticket. Be up early and at guest relations as soon as they open to get off early.

2) Independent cruise excursions booked with an external supplier

Instead of planning your own shore excursion, you can book an excursion with a trusted external supplier. That is, an excursion company that are not connected to the cruise line. Such as Viator.

Excursions offered by such companies are put together using trusted local guides and local companies to maximize the time allowed in seeing the best a destination has to offer. Often with a very knowledgable guide, you will have an unforgettable experience with very little planning needed on your part. You just need to decide on which excursion you want to join.

This may be an opportunity to do a sport or take part in an activity that never would be possible back home where you live. For example an art tour, swimming with dolphins, snorkeling coral reefs, zip-lining over rain forests hiking to a glacier or canoeing in crystal clear lake waters.

Advantages of booking an independent cruise excursion with an external supplier:

  • Very often these tours will be similar to the tours a cruise line offers but at a much lower price.
  • You can offer choose a small group tour if you prefer where it is easier to tailor-make the itinerary to suit you or your group.
  • If you are unfamiliar with the port destination then these tours will cover all the top sight-seeing areas in that destination. You will most likely be on a smaller bus than if you were with the cruise line and in a smaller group you will logistically move faster and cover more in one day.
  • An external supplier will likely to able to recommend eateries and restaurants for you and give you your own time to wonder off yourselves and shop with a designated pickup point.
  • A local guide will ensure you do not miss out on hearing the history and stories behind what you are seeing and experiencing.
  • If you are doing a sport activity, such as snorkeling or diving, then equipment will be provided for you.

Disadvantages of booking an independent cruise excursion with an external supplier:

  • You may not get off the cruise ship very quickly if you are in a tender port. Cruise customers who have booked direct with the cruise line have priority. Book your tender ticket as early as possible and allow for delays when arranging your pick up time by your tour provider.
  • Check the cancellation and rebooking policy of the external supplier. For example what you would happen to your booked tour if your cruise ship was unable to dock due to bad weather. Not all external suppliers are able to offer a refund.
  • Whilst many suppliers offer a guarantee to get you back to the ship in time for departure, if any did happen to delay this the cruise line will not wait for you and you will need to get transport to the next port to enable you to board the ship again.
  • External suppliers in turn work with local tour guides and local companies to offer your their excursions. You may not be dealy directly with the people who will actually be your host for the day, rather an intermediary. Be sure to have their contact details with you if anything does not go to plan.
  • It could be that external suppliers are not allowed into the actual cruise terminal area and they have to pick you up at the port entrance. Find our from your supplier where you meet and how far away from the cruise ship it is.

3) Excursions arranged by your cruise line

Shore excursions offered by your cruise line offer the options of staying in the port city, enjoy a beachside resort or heading further afield into the surrounding landscape. Often the buses are full and there are many of them. You will be one of the crowd. On the plus side there is safety in numbers.

Big cruise companies get destination experts to put together the shore excursions on offer. There are a great variety to choose from such as swimming with dolphins, 4-wheel driving in the desert, zip-lining over the rain forest canopy, or snorkeling in the tropics. They can also offer cookery classes, wine tasting and balloon rides. The choice is endless.

Advantages of booking a cruise line shore excursion with the cruise line:

  • You are given priority disembarkation from the cruise ship when you are booked on a cruise line tour. And your tour bus will be waiting right at the terminal for you.
  • You will get back to ship on time, and even if you don’t they will wait for you!
  • It’s a great way to meet other cruise guests from the same cruise.
  • Often the tours are a good quality, offer comfortable transportation and a knowledegable guide.
  • You have a sense of security and protection booking with the cruise line.
  • You do not need to do any planning or research about your port destination if you don’t want to – just choose the excursion which sounds most exciting to you and book it! The cruise line takes care of the rest and you get more instructions on where to meet on the day of your excursion when you are onboard.

Disadvantages of booking a cruise line shore excursion with the cruise line:

  • Very often the cruise line excursions are more expensive than excursions booked with an external supplier.
  • If you have not booked your excursion before you leave home and rely on making a booking on board, places may sell out as these cruise line excursions are very popular and there are a limited number of places retained for sale onboard.
  • There will be many buses and many guests doing the same excursion. It could get crowded.
  • You will be following the crowd and may have time restrictions visiting certain sights.
  • The tours may be shorter as the cruise line will not risk being late back onboard. more crowded
  • You never know who the actual guide or tour company is taking care of you as everything is booked with the cruise line. Very often they work with local third party providers.

Meet the Author

Mattias has nearly 2 decades of travel industry expertise, working with cruise lines, tour operators, airlines, IT providers, hospitality suppliers and everything else in between that makes the travel industry tick. more..