Shore excursions on your cruise can be your largest expense beside your cruise fare. However, getting off the ship in each port and taking an excursion can really enhance your cruise and give you unforgettable memories. Excursions such as swimming with dolphins, taking a catamaran snorkeling, visiting a national park in Alaska, horseback riding in the ocean, tours to experience the local culture, or a relaxing day at a beach resort can get expensive quickly.
While a few will stay on the ship in each port, most passengers enjoy visiting each port. Let’s look at the three ways to book shore excursions so you can choose which one is best for you and your finances, without compromising quality and experience.
The most popular way to book shore excursions on your cruise is directly through the cruise line. The cruise line will offer the most options and they are billed directly to your stateroom or purchased in advance online. Most of the new ships allow you the ease of booking directly on your stateroom TV; it doesn’t get any easier than that.
Pros of booking directly through the cruise line:
- Widest selection of tours.
- Your ship will wait for you if your tour is late getting back, guaranteed.
- A shore excursion desk is located on the ship so you can have any questions answered before or after booking.
Cons of booking directly through the cruise line:
- Prices are marked up so you will pay a higher price.
- Tours can often be extremely full and in large groups.
- Some excursions require a minimum amount of passengers or they will be canceled.
- They are not customizable like the smaller private tours.
The second way of booking excursions is through a private company. Go to Viator, TripAdvisor, CruisingExcurions.com or other online sites and check out excursions and their reviews by previous patrons. They offer excursions in over 200 ports around the globe and at much better prices than the cruise lines. The groups are smaller and they pride themselves in offering higher quality excursions than all the major lines. They also have 24/7 support and guarantee you that will you return to the ship on time. If your tour is late getting back (to date, they never had a customer miss the ship), most tour companies will pay for all lodging, meals, and transportation to your next port so you can rejoin the ship, along with $500 cash to each person in the group. Usually you can get the same excursion that the cruise line offers for as much as 50% off.
Pros of booking with a private company:
- Lower prices than the cruise lines.
- Higher quality excursions than the cruise lines.
- Smaller, more personable tours.
- Money back guarantee.
- 24/7 support.
- Guaranteed return to the ship.
Rules to follow if you book with a private company —
1. Research. The process starts way before you board the cruise ship. Head to the websites mentioned above like Trip Advisor, Viator, and Cruise Critic and the bookstore or even your local public library to find out about the destinations and tour companies.
2. Third party companies. Use companies with a worry-free guarantee, allowing you to be covered if you miss the ship because of a flat tire or a strike. Book with a reputable company and always ask the questions “but what if I don’t get back to the ship on time?”. Find out if they will cover expenses for you to reach the next port; if you are not satisfied with their answer, don’t book with them.
3. Call companies directly instead of booking online. If you have a phone number for an international booking company, call them directly. Talking to someone will make you feel much more confident than an email correspondence as well.
4. Get cancellation policies. Be sure you get the cancellation policy with the company you book with. During hurricane season, ships tend to change ports up or sometimes skip a port all together. You want to be sure that you’re protected if the port of call is cancelled.
5. Book the tour early in the day. Take the earliest tour you can to give yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship. For instance, you can usually get to Rome for 10 euro round trip, find the earliest train schedule possible and consider heading back earlier. You’ll beat the crowds and still give yourself some extra time.
6. Print paperwork. When everything is said and done, make sure you print the paperwork out.
7. Stay on ships’ time. Always, always stay on ships time. The ships are great about staying on the local port time; however, your cell phones and watches may not be. Make sure you keep track of time and know what the time zone is.
8. Use common sense and have fun!
I’m the first one to tell you that I prefer booking a shore excursion on my own versus a ship’s excursion — it’s much more economical and they usually have smaller groups and are somewhat flexible to the participants’ wishes. In Cozumel you can go to the El Cid resort (Preview) for $15, with all the amenities of a ship’s pricey shore excursion offered.
There should be as much research in booking your shore excursions as booking your cruise.
Cons of booking with a private company:
- Fewer excursions offered than the cruise lines.
The third and final way to book shore excursions on your cruise is to book one in port after you get off the ship. This is the cheapest way to book excursions and perfect for those that like to make decisions spur of the moment. When you get off the ship, there will be many vendors and tour operators with signs offering everything from jet skis, snorkeling, diving, beach days, swimming with dolphins, to island tours.
Pros to booking excursions in port:
- Lowest prices on excursions, don’t be afraid to barter on prices.
- Freedom to wait until the last minute to decide (considering the weather, your children’s current mood, etc.
Cons on booking excursions in port:
- No guarantee getting back to the ship on time. If your tour is late, you are straight out of luck. However, this does not happen often. They do everything in their power to get you back with plenty of time to spare.
- Not all tour operators are licensed by the local government.
- The excursion you wanted to do may not be offered by a local or may not be offered at a time that allows you to be returned prior to your ship’s departure.
Which way is best for you? Everyone is different so that all depends on what you are looking for. If you are looking for a good price and the highest quality excursions, then a private company would probably be best for you. If you like to decide at the last minute and are looking for the best possible deal, then booking your excursions in port would probably suit you best.
However, many love the security and ease of going through the cruise line, even though the prices are highest. Whichever you choose, enjoy your time in port as you experience and learn about the local culture.
Photo of Barbados by Mimi Auchter
We at Getaway Dreams Come True Travel are knowledgeable about many tours offered and can assist you in determining which method of booking would suit you. To schedule your personalized lifetime memories Vacation Planning Session, please call 724.752.2655.
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