Shore Excursions – What to Expect?

Posted September 26th, 2011

Taking a sunset pleasure cruise in St. Lucia, wine tasting in Provence, visiting the penguin colonies in the Falkland Islands, exploring ancient Roman ruins, hiking on glaciers or visiting mosques, exotic bazaars and fabled palaces….

Shore excursion experiences, like the above, are as much a part of the cruise experience as the night time entertainment and midnight buffet. Really, half the fun of taking a cruise is getting to explore new and exciting places you have never been before, so shore excursions are a vital part of any cruise holiday!

To enhance your visit in each port of call, cruise lines all offer organised shore excursions – for an additional fee. These can be booked onboard at the ships’ excursion desk, or even from your cabin, or online before you depart. But, these cruise line organised tours aren’t your only option when it comes to exploring ports, and you are limited really only by your imagination (and your research skills) if you want to do something different.

But, if you are new to cruising you may not know exactly what to expect from organised shore excursions and whether these are right for you, or if you want to try something different to the crowd and explore on your own…. So, to help you out, we put together a few handy tips and guidelines so that you can make the best decision for you!

What to expect:

Cruise lines offer a mind-boggling array of shore excursions, with everything from basic snorkelling trips to overnight tours to see the Great Pyramid’s in Egypt. So to help you get to the bottom of it all, and find the perfect tours for you, we have broken them down into different tour categories:

Active vs. Sightseeing Tours:

Shore excursions offer all different levels of activity and interest, so you can always find something to suit your tastes as well as your physical ability. However, what’s on offer does vary greatly depending on what is available in each destination. Active tours range from all kinds of watersports, to zip-lining, hiking, biking or dog-sledding. There are also activity-based tours, which can include a day at the beach or spa, a pleasure cruise on a sailboat, wine or food tastings, or cultural performances. Then you get your sightseeing tours, which are generally bus tours that visit the main attractions of the port city or nearby destinations.

Full vs. Half-Day Tours:

Shore excursions all vary in length, depending on what activities are involved or how far away the sites might be. Some will take up all of your time in port, while others may just take a few hours out of an all-day visit, leaving you with some free time. To see the most you possibly can in one trip, or to travel to a destination some way away from the port, consider taking a full day tour. A half day tour may only focus on one specific itinerary, but you will have some free time to explore some other interests or sites on your own before or after.

Guided vs. Free Time:

Not all shore excursions are led by umbrella-wielding tour guides. A lot are, but others may simply bring you to a destination and then leave you to explore on your own until it is time to meet the bus to go back to the ship. Other tours may feature just some guided components, followed by some free time. So have a look at this and consider what option works best for you.

Highlights vs. In-Depth:

Some shore excursions pack loads of activities into one trip, making for a really long, full-on day, but also making the most of your time in port. Others may focus on only one destination or activity. Which one you choose totally depends on what you want to do or see…

Concierge or Boutique:

One of the newest trends on cruise lines is to offer tours that are limited to around 25 guests. These “boutique” excursions can range from anything such as cooking classes at a famous French cooking school, or a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Many lines now also offer car and driver packages so that you can customise your own tour, or they have concierges who arrange shore excursions exclusively for your travel party. These are obviously more exclusive experiences and you should consider the costs before committing yourself if you are budget-conscious.

To book or not to book?

One of the most frequently asked questions we get from first time cruisers is whether they should book shore excursions with the cruise line, with independent tour operators, or not at all. Unfortunately we can’t give you a solid answer for this, as it all depends on your budget and your travel preferences. But, we did think that this is a highly valid question, so we have set aside a separate blog post to explore it further. Check in next week to see the pros and cons of all the options!

Planning in advance:

The secret to a wonderful day in port is to plan ahead!

Whether you book with your cruise line, a private tour operator or decide just to spend the day exploring by yourself, doing some homework will enable you to make the most out of your limited time ashore.

These are some of our suggestions:

  • Look up the cruise line’s list of shore excursions once you have booked. Some lines have this information on their website, but you will be sent a booklet with your cruise documents. Have a look at the tour details and their prices, and see if anything catches your eye.
  • Do some research on each port – what are the main attractions you want to see, are there activities you want to do, are there local tour operators that offer the same tours as the cruise ship but cheaper?
  • Browse guide books on your destinations, or read guide books aimed at cruising to get some helpful tips
  • Contact the local tourism bureau for each destination – their websites offer a wealth of information, and you can find out where the bureau is so you can pick up some maps and booklets when you get there (or they may send you some)
  • Come up with Plan B – have something else up your sleeve, in case your tour gets cancelled or is sold out

How to get the most out of your shore excursion:

Combined with some pre-planning, these little tips will help you get the most out of your shore excursions:

  • Read the detail about the shore excursion very carefully so that you understand exactly how your time will be spent – will it be worth the money if ¾ of your trip is on the bus and you only get an hour at the destination?
  • Be sure to pick tours that you can handle physically. Some tours involve long days and lots of walking in hot, humid climates. If the tour information doesn’t answer this question for you, get in touch with the cruise line.
  • Talk to the cruise ship staff – they frequent these ports all the time, so they are a wealth of information on the best places to go shopping, the best local beaches and the best places to eat. Ask them where they go!
  • You final bill could explode if you buy a shore excursion in every port, but sometimes the only way to see the region is via a planned excursion (such as Alaska), so budget according to your itinerary.
  • Hiring a private taxi is often less expensive than the ship excursions, depending on how many people you have in your group. But, make sure you negotiate a flat rate before you leave.
  • If you want to rent a car in port, we recommend you reserve it the day before to make sure the lot isn’t sold out and you get the best rates.

There are so many different kinds of shore excursions, and so many different ways of taking part in them, that we wouldn’t be able to cover them all in one place, but hopefully these general tips will help you when you book your next cruise. And, don’t forget to check in next week for part 2: Shore Excursions – To Book or Not to Book?

Until then, happy cruising from the Cruiseabout team!

 

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