Picking the right ship is essential to having a great cruise. But, once you have found the ideal ship for your vacation, your work has just begun.
Next, you need to figure out what to do when you are OFF the ship.
One reason you have decided to take a cruise is to get away and explore some new destinations, or ports of call. If you have never cruised, then you may not be familiar with cruise shore excursions.
How to plan shore excursions can be a daunting and time consuming task even for travelers who have sailed before.
What Are you Going to Do When Your Ship is Docked?
Lucky for you, the Princess and I love nothing more than to research, plan, and review every aspect of our vacations including cruise shore excursions.
Armed with information and experience, we have put together this handbook on How To Plan Shore Excursions. Follow these easy tips and you will be on your way to a fun-filled vacation, whether you are on land or sea!
Handbook: How to Plan Shore Excursions
What is a Shore Excursion?
If you are new to cruising, you may not know the lingo.
The term “shore excursion” can refer to any number of different activities or tours that occur at each port of call. Cruise shore excursions occur off of the ship and are completed during the hours you are docked at the port.
Unless you are booked on a luxury cruise line, shore excursions are NOT covered in your cruise fare, meaning you will have to pay extra for experiencing these new destinations. Several options exist for low cost activities at most ports; however, we always recommend reserving a portion of your travel budget for cruise shore excursions.
We Always Plan Shore Excursions for When We are off the Ship!
Depending on the region you are cruising and the amount of time you are spending at a particular destination, the options for cruise shore excursions can range from relaxing on a beach for a few hours to spending the entire day viewing historic landmarks.
You will learn more about all the types of cruise shore excursions below!
How Long are Shore Excursions?
When planning shore excursions, you need to keep in mind how long your ship will be in port at each destination and how long you want to stay off the ship. Usually, you are at a port for anywhere from 8 to 10 hours (be sure to check your ship’s itinerary which will give you the arrival and departure times for each port of call).
Once you have those times available, you need to determine how long you want to be off the ship and how much of that time you want to allocate to a cruise shore excursion.
A Nighttime visit in San Juan on Quantum of the Seas
Most tours last between 3-5 hours, with some of them being offered at two different start times- early in the morning and late morning/early afternoon. Don’t be surprised though if some tours are scheduled to last the entire time you are at port. If that is the case, you really won’t have much time to explore the rest of the port.
After Shore Excursions We Tend to Explore the Surrounding Port Area
We tend to pick cruise shore excursions that last about half the time we are in port and choose to start our day with that excursion, so we have time to walk around the pier or purchase some souvenirs later in the afternoon. Although, if there is a cruise shore excursion that really stands out to us, we don’t let the length hinder us from booking.
How Much Do Shore Excursions Cost?
Prices for cruise shore excursions can range from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars per person depending on the type of tour and port of call. Private tours, arranged either directly with a tour operator or through a third party company, can even come close to $1,000 a person for exclusive access and VIP treatment.
City Tours Are Often The Most Economical Shore Excursions
Typically, a good rule of thumb we use when planning shore excursions is to allocate about $100, per person, per port of call for cruise shore excursions.
Again, this is an average, as some ports you may spend very little on a beach break whereas other ports you may splurge on an all-day adventure tour which can be pricey.
Cruise region can also have an impact on the prices of shore excursions. Alaska and the Mediterranean tend to have cruise shore excursions that are more expensive.
This Helicopter Glacier Tour Was an Expensive Shore Excursion but Worth Every Penny!
On our trip to Alaska in 2014, we had planned our cruise shore excursions well in advance, knowing some of the things we wanted to do cost well over a $100 a person. For that trip, we did four separate shore excursions at the four ports of call for a total of $650, a person.
According to data from Cruise Lines Industry Association, about 25% of cruisers’ total vacation costs are allocated to onboard and onshore spending.
You need to be comfortable with whatever amount you can afford to spend, but the last thing you want to do is spend all of your vacation funds on an expensive ship or first class flights to have nothing left to use once you are docked at a port.
What are the Different Types of Shore Excursions?
Deciding what type of shore excursion to do is our favorite part of planning shore excursions. You won’t know how to plan shore excursions if you are not familiar with the categories of tours offered through most tour companies and cruise lines.
Adventure Cruise Shore Excursions
These are the activities that get your heart pounding. A wide range of different activities fall into this category-from zip lining down the longest zip line over water, to parasailing around an island, to an off-road ATV adventure. Most ports of call offer something unique and adventurous for those thrill-seekers, like the Princess.
Cruisers Enjoying the Dragon’s Breath Zipline in Labadee, Haiti
Based on previous cruise shore excursion experiences, these tours tend to be pricey, anywhere in the $100-$300+, depending on what is included with the fare. We always try to reserve at least one cruise shore excursion in this category.
Sightseeing/Historical Cruise Shore Excursions
If you are heading to Rome on a Mediterranean cruise, then of course you will want to visit the Colosseum and other Roman Empire sites. Or, if you are stopping in Puerto Rico, it would be a letdown if you didn’t explore Old San Juan, one of the oldest European settlements in the Americas.
No matter where you stop, there are sure to be some noteworthy places to visit and historical sites to explore. Be sure to take your camera for these cruise shore excursions.
A Recent Tour of Nassau, Bahamas Included Historic Forts and Modern City Highlights
These tours vary in length and price, with some Caribbean city tours running around $50 and all day tours of popular European ports costing hundreds of dollars. These tours can be bus tours or walking tours, so be sure to chose carefully depending upon your physical abilities. If you will need a wheelchair or scooter, inquire prior to booking if the tour can accommodate such devices. Many cruise lines will offer “accessible” cruise shore excursion options.
For those who like to do their own thing or have a specific list of sites you must see, a little research on admission fees and transportation and you might be able to put together your own historical/sightseeing tour. In our experience, the costs for most of these tours, by the time you factor in taxi fares, are about the same as a pre-organized tour. And, you don’t have to worry about all of that planning if you just book a tour!
You Can Create Your Own Shore Excursion With a Self Guided Tour like We Did in Boston
Cultural Immersion Cruise Shore Excursions
If you are looking for something less touristy than a few stops at popular attractions for a photo-op, you can consider a cruise shore excursion that gets you a bit closer to the people and culture of the port of call.
I Spend So Much Time Eating on the Ship that I Rarely Eat at Ports of Call
Of all the cruise shore excursion categories, this is one that ranks lower on our list, but that should not stop you. If you want to gain a greater connection with a location, you can surely find a variety of authentic and enriching experiences.
Some premier and luxury cruise brands specialize in offering these types of cruise shore excursions, so these lines might be a better option for those travelers looking for more in-depth, cultural cruise shore excursions at the various ports of call.
Leisure Cruise Shore Excursions
Break out the bathing suits and the sun screen!
Sometimes A Shore Excursion is Just Enjoying the Sand and the Sun!
Our Handbook on How to Plan Shore Excursions would not be complete without featuring some of the more relaxing shore excursions. For many travelers, a day at the beach, or perhaps a cozy afternoon exploring a plantation with some tea, is the perfect way to unwind. We can’t blame you!
We almost always try to set aside one day for something a bit more low key, even if it is not officially a beach break. Depending on the port of call, you might be able to find a free or low cost beach or a day pass to a resort that can save you money.
Having a Few Beach Side Drinks in Labadee, Haiti
These tours don’t have to be just about the beach. Other options can include taking a leisurely stroll through the local city, taking a sail around the harbor, or maybe a sunset cruise.
Whatever you choose, having a cruise shore excursion that provides some respite is a great way to break up the vacation.
One of a Kind Cruise Shore Excursions
Lastly, there are those cruise shore excursions that are unique to the port of call and something you really can’t do anywhere else. Want to climb a waterfall in Jamaica? Maybe you have been dying to see “Hell” in Grand Cayman? Or perhaps ride a dogsled on a glacier in Alaska?
The Only Way to See the Florida Everglades is Via an Airboat
Some ports of call offer cruise shore excursions that might fall into one of the other categories above, but for us, we consider these one-of-a-kind experiences a category all of their own. They are so unique that they make certain locations worthy of the visit.
How do I Purchase Cruise Shore Excursions?
After picking out your cruise shore excursions, you are going to need to purchase them. You can use one of three simple ways to purchase cruise shore excursions. Each approach has its pros and cons.
We have used all three methods of booking cruise shore excursions and will continue to explore all avenues to find the right tour for our particular cruise.
Your Onboard Shore Excursions Desk is the LAST Place to Plan Shore Excursions
Booking Directly with the Cruise Line
The easiest way to arrange for cruise shore excursions is to book them directly with your cruise line. Once you have a deposit on a cruise, most lines allow you to book shore excursions for each port of call through the website’s online portal.
The websites we have used for the contemporary cruise lines (e.g., Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Carnival Cruises) are pretty user friendly. Tours are easy to find and are often categorized by type of excursion.
You Can Plan Shore Excursions with the Cruise Line Once You Have a Reservation
The ease and convenience of booking with the cruise line also means you can cancel the tour, usually up to 24 hours before the departure time, and receive a full refund.
Also, when you book with the cruise line, you are guaranteed to get back to the ship on time. If your tour is delayed for any reason, the ship will wait for you.
In general, the shore excursions offered through the cruise lines are pretty standard, offering a good but not great selection for most ports of call.
You do tend to pay a bit more when you book your cruise shore excursions through the cruise line, but paying that premium can often be justified given the simplicity of using one company to arrange everything for your trip. Plus, if there are any problems with any of the excursions, you can speak directly to a representative at the ship’s excursion desk at anytime.
Using a Third Party Cruise Shore Excursion Company
You are not bound to use the cruise line to book your cruise shore excursions. Several sites now exist that allow you to purchase shore excursions outside of the cruise lines.
We Booked a Small Group Tour of San Juan with a Third Party Shore Excursions Company
For instance, we have had a good experience with Shore Excursions Group. This company offers tours similar to what is found through the cruise lines at often discounted rates of up to 50%. Other third-party vendors include sites like Viator, which promise similar levels of service and price savings.
Most of these companies also offer package deals-bundling tours at several ports of call on your itinerary to save you even more money.
These third party operators also guarantee that they will get you back to the ship on time or pay for travel arrangements to get you to the next port of call in the very rare chance you do miss your embarkation time.
Third Party Shore Excursion Vendors Offer All Types of Tours Including Beach Breaks
In our experiences, the tours offered through these companies are smaller, with fewer travelers, allowing for more time at different stops and more personalized customer service during the tour.
Cancellation policies vary, but many reputable third party vendors will offer refunds if your cruise ship does not dock at a port of call for unforeseen reasons. On our recent Adventure of the Seas cruise, our itinerary was altered due to a hurricane causing us to miss three excursions booked with our third party vendor. Upon return home, we followed the company’s policy and received a full refund by mail within two weeks without any issues.
Booking Directly with A Local Tour Provider
For the more experienced cruiser, or someone looking to customize their vacation experience, you can book cruise shore excursions directly with the local tour companies themselves.
We Booked a Tour Directly with Bernard’s Tours while in St. Maarten
Given today’s travel market and the abundance of information available on review sites, you may stumble across an activity at a particular port of call that you cannot book through the cruise line or a highly recommended local tour provider.
Since you are now going to the source, you will not have any protection from the cruise company or the third party shore excursion company. Each tour operator has his/her own policies when it comes to cancellations, payment methods, and guarantees on getting you back to the ship on time.
Maho Beach in St. Maarten booked with a Local Tour Operator
Pricing can also vary, with some of these operators offering more unique experiences at lower costs. But, not all direct bookings will save you money, especially if the tour promises to get you unique access or offers small group tours with only a few other travelers.
If working directly with the tour company, it is very important that you get everything in writing including a detailed tour description, the correct dates, your ship’s arrival and departure times, the tour meeting place, and what transportation is included-you might need to get your own transportation back to the port at the end of the tour.
Enjoying our time in Aruba!
Now that you know how to plan shore excursions, you can make the most of your time at ports of call. By mixing and matching different types of shore excursions, at various lengths of time and price points and with various vendors, you can get the most customized experience during your visit.
What is your approach for planning shore excursions? How do you decide what to do at each port of call? Are there any shore excursion providers that you recommend? Drop us an anchor below to help your fellow cruisers plan and book the ideal shore excursions for their next cruise.