Hassle-free is a word often associated with cruising. And while cruise lines make it easy for you by providing a number of shore excursion options to choose from, you should know that they're not your only options when it comes to exploring the port. Before jumping right into a decision for the fear of missing out, there are a few things you should ask yourself.
Start with this question as a foundation to ensure you do what you want to do and not what’s randomly offered. On any cruise vacation I always try to allocate at least one day for the beach. During your cruise, maybe you know you absolutely want to go shopping or taste the local food. Whatever it is, keep that in mind as we go through this list so you can do that at the best port.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Caribbean, Europe or even a private island in the Bahamas: every port is known for something. It can be anything from historical sites and natural wonders to duty-free shopping. Once you figure this out, you can plan your days out.
Let’s say that you’re cruising to Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Castaway Cay. You know you want to have a beach day, try the local food and experience one "must-do" thing. I would recommend saving your beach day for the private island of Castaway Cay, where your options of things to do will be minimal and the beach is amazing. Go to Stingray City in Grand Cayman as your must-do experience and venture off on your own in Cozumel in search of authentic food.
This is more of a concern if you’re cruising to Europe where you might be planning to go to Rome but your ship docks in Civitavecchia (which is about 90 minutes or so away from Rome). But in Tallinn, Lisbon and Venice, your ship docks within walking distance of the town. Knowing how long it takes you to get to the city from the port might be a deciding factor in whether you go with a ship-sponsored shore excursion or hop off the ship and explore on your own.
You’ll find that in Alaska and many ports in the Caribbean, your ship will get you close to town but the main attractions are outside of town. If you want to go shopping and it’s a shopping port then you’re in luck; but if you want to see a glacier or climb a waterfall, you’ll have to book a shore excursion.
There has been much debate on whether or not some ports are safe for tourists to go off exploring on their own. If the port is not safe or you don’t want to get off of the ship, you can always choose to stay on the ship. This is especially a great option if you’re on a ship with lots of things to do. You’ll find fewer people on board, hardly any lines, more than enough spots on the Lido deck and the spa usually runs specials on port days. But the downfall is that the specialty lunch restaurants are typically closed and you won’t find many planned activities on port days.
This is by far one of the most important things to consider on any cruise.
If you only have six hours in port, you might not want to do something that is going to require a significant amount of travel time that leaves you with just an hour of exploring.
And if you know you absolutely want to do something and are torn between booking a tour on your own or through the cruise line, consider the length of the tour. My rule of thumb is as follows: if the tour is an all day tour taking up almost the entire time I’ll be in port, I always book with the cruise line. That way, if we are running late to get back to the ship, I know the ship won’t leave without me. And I know this through personal experience.
Chances are good that you will save money on your cruise if you do your research and plan your own port activities rather than book with the cruise line. While cruise lines have been known to raise the prices of shore excursions, all of the research work is done for you and they guarantee the ship won’t leave without you if your excursion is running late. But with the cruise line, you can also expect a more controlled experience that is a bit sanitized. If you book an excursion on your own or choose to forgo a tour and explore independently, you can expect more of an authentic and local experience— but you’ll have to do your own research and planning.
Some of the smaller cruise lines have taken note to cruisers wanting a more of an authentic experience. For this purpose, they're created entire sailing experiences and excursions that emphasize a local vacation perspective. If you want to stick with the ship sponsored tours but still want an authentic excursion, consider booking a river cruise with Viking, Scenic or AMA Waterways or an ocean cruise with Azamara, Fathom or other smaller ships. If you’re looking for adventure, book an expedition cruise with Un-Cruise, Linbald or even a Silversea Expedition cruise.