Will you be going on a cruise line shore excursion or planning something independent? How you explore each port makes the difference between having a great vacation and wishing you’d done things differently.
Here are ways to help you decide whether it’s best to book with the cruise line or venture off on your own.
Booking with the cruise line might be best if …
- You’re a first-time traveler to the region.
- You’re nervous about the timetables and the short amount of time you have in port.
- You’re cruising to an undeveloped area or an area with high crime.
- You don’t have much time before the cruise to heavily research every option.
- You're cruising to a port like St. Petersburg, Russia where you would need to get a visa ahead of time to explore on your own.
If one of these statements is true, you should consider a shore excursion with the cruise ship. If two or more are true, you should definitely go on a shore excursion offered by the ship.
Also, if you’re cruising on a small or luxury ship you should stick with the ship’s excursions. They tend to partner with niche experts and put a lot of thought into their experiential programming, giving you the best experience the destination has to offer.
Exploring on your own or with a private tour operator might be best if …
- You’re an off-the-beaten path kind of person and you bristle at the idea of going with even the smallest crowd.
- You feel incredibly familiar with the destination.
- You’re looking for something specialized — maybe a behind-the-scenes museum tour or a unique SCUBA dive — and you need an operator that focuses on this experience.
- You’re traveling with a large group; you may want to set up a small group tour with a private tour operator instead of buying 10 tickets on the cruise’s official tour and then having to share your experience with a bunch of strangers.
- You aren’t interested in any of the cruise line’s offerings (unlikely, since they really run the gamut, but it happens).
- You are behind on planning and all the great excursions offered by the ship are already sold out.
Ships will always encourage you to go on their excursions — partly because they know and trust the operators; they work with them on logistics so they know passengers will get back on time. And let’s be honest, the cruise lines make money when you use their providers.
One can assume that cruise lines generally work with the best of the high-volume tour companies. However, plenty of independent tour operators offer great products in their niches. And there are some ports where you can explore on your own and don’t need to join a tour at all.
Now, let’s look at this region by region:
About 50 percent of travelers to Alaska arrive by cruise ship. Therefore, you’ll find plenty of shore excursions offered through the cruise lines and independent tour operators that are specifically designed with the cruise traveler in mind. The excursions tend to be specialized, such as glacier trekking, high-speed boat tours, train rides through the mountains and whale-watching tours. Cruise lines offer the basics while private tour operators can provide more of a personalized experience.
Because of the nature of Alaskan attractions (remote, active, extreme conditions, small groups only) and the high demand that cruise ships bring, it’s highly recommended that you research the ports and make your reservations ahead of time. However, if you decide you just want to wander around town or hike one of the nearby trails, most of the main ports are situated downtown, and the streets around them are pretty walkable.
The Bahamas are a tricky place for independent exploration. The two main port cities, Freeport and Nassau, offer the best experiences at specific touristy locations, with local experts to facilitate. At this destination, it’s wise to choose guides who have been vetted by a major company and are accountable to that company.
All the other ports in the Bahamas are owned by cruise lines, and you’ll only visit them with one of the cruise lines. At the private islands, the cruise lines offer minimal excursion options, such as snorkeling or trips to a nearby nature center. Most cruisers skip the excursions and use the time at the private islands to relax on the beach, play volleyball with fellow cruisers or even rent watercrafts. Each island is unique in its own way. For instance, on Princess Cay you can snorkel right off of the pier to the far right of the island, so bring your own snorkeling gear. And you can run The Castaway Cay 5K on Disney’s private island at no additional cost.
Bermuda is a safe and fairly compact destination that gets a lot of overnight stays, but it’s not a cheap place to visit. Therefore, a lot of people opt for self-guided sightseeing when possible. In Kings Wharf port, it’s easy to figure out a bar-hopping or shopping itinerary that doesn’t require a tour guide. People also take taxis to popular Bermuda beaches such as Horseshoe Bay Beach and attractions like Gibbs Hill Lighthouse. The popular snorkel and catamaran boat tours, book direct with guests and also partner with cruise ships, so you can go either way.
The Caribbean is often the first-time cruiser’s destination of choice, and it also sees a high percentage of repeat cruisers. Most cruise ship excursions will take you straight to the touristy attractions that every cruiser should experience as least once. If you’ve already explored the iconic sights, venture off on your own or with a private tour operator to find the undiscovered charms of the islands. Special experiences and more individually tailored tours are on every island, but you should research ahead of time and get recommendations from other travelers and through the insider guides on the Onboard.com website. If you plan to stay in town and shop or take a quick ride to a popular beach, you can take a taxi or private driver.
The Eastern Caribbean offers a mix of big, busy ports in popular cities like San Juan, Puerto Rico, and tiny ports on laid-back islands like St. Croix. Even in the major ports, people often opt for independent tours because they’re offering much the same as the ship excursions, just at a lower price. And it’s quite easy to vet tour operators online for such well-trafficked destinations. In small ports of the USVIs and BVIs, many people choose to stay in town or just hit a beach, and using a taxi service suits their needs.
Most Western Caribbean cruises hit large ports, but not all of them are set up for easy explorations on your own. Those best to explore on your own are: Key West, which is part of the United States and quite fun to explore on foot; Roatan (Honduras), which is a small and very tourist-friendly island no matter how you approach it; Grand Cayman, where a taxi can easily get you to Seven Mile beach; and Cozumel or Costa Maya, where you can beach hop, explore the port towns and taste delicious Mexican food.
The Western Caribbean is also known for its snorkeling and diving sites. In most cases, the cruise lines won’t offer diving excursions, so you’ll have to do some planning on your own.
The Southern Caribbean is a multifaceted region, often sought out by repeat Caribbean cruisers who want a deeper level of island discovery. From exploring the volcanic Piton Mountains in St. Lucia to discovering the wild side of Aruba at Arikok National Park or wandering around a Caribbean seaside city with the atmosphere of old-world Spain that is Cartagena, Colombia.
Mass-market lines like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian offer experiential cruises to the Southern Caribbean, and specialist lines like Island Windjammers and SeaDream Yacht Club dive as deep as you like — figuratively and literally. This region really nurtures independent exploration for those who desire it, but the cruise lines also try to provide the very best experiences and guides for their cruisers, so it’s worth checking their offerings before you search farther afield.
Canada and New England:
Ports in Canada and New England vary from major metropolitan cities like Boston and Montreal, which are easy to explore on your own, to cities like Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Bar Harbor, Maine, where most of the attractions require a shore excursion or extreme creativity.
If it’s a major attraction you’re interested in exploring, we recommend going with the cruise line. Sure, you can plan your own tour of Boston’s Fenway Park or even a whale-watching tour, but your experience will still be a group experience and there isn’t much of a price difference whether you book it on your own or with the cruise line (in our experience). So, it can be better to let the cruise line handle the ship-to-location transfers, unless you want to skip the iconic activities and just wander around these wonderfully picturesque and historic towns and cities. In that case just self-guide with help from maps and apps.
At present, your only option is to explore Cuba with an approved guide from the cruise ship.The Cuban government only allows guided and government-approved official cruise ship excursions for United States travelers. Tours in Cuba focus more on learning about the people, the country, the food and the culture than typical Caribbean excursions.
If you like self-guided exploration, it’s pretty easy to go on an entire European cruise and never join an organized tour of any kind — ship excursion or independent. But once you join one, especially a good one, you’ll get so much historic information and so many gems of insight, you’ll immediately see the value.
For the major ports of Western Europe, an excursion with a large ship is often just the introduction to an iconic place. People who are drawn to it will come back and experience it in a different way. A lot of repeat cruisers book small-group VIP tours to the landmarks in Paris, Rome and Vienna. Others return for land-based vacations and use cruising as a way to get a taste of multiple countries in one vacation. The happy medium might just be the small-ship specialty cruises, which are working very hard to curate cultural immersion experiences that let passengers experience the best of a city in just a few hours.
If you just want to wander and take in the sense of place, most Western ports are great for that. However, you would need to keep track of time and location in ports where the cities like Paris and Rome are a one- to two-hour train ride away.
If this is your first time cruising to the Mediterranean we recommend going on at least one cruise-line tour, whether it’s an adventure tour that takes you hiking to Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii or a sightseeing tour that focuses on the highlights of a particular city. You can find unique shore excursions with the cruise lines that you might not be able to do on your own.
You may also want to consider a cruise-line excursion in ports like Florence or Rome, where it will take you about 90 minutes to get to these cities from the ports. Not that the cruise lines can make the time shorter, but they can ensure the ship waits for you in the event the tour runs late. With ports along the Italian and French rivieras and in Greece, you may be able to walk to the center of town right from the port, making it easy to explore on your own.
This is one of the most interesting cruise regions because it features a mix of stunning yet inhospitable natural beauty, and completely authentic but not perfectly packaged attractions. If you know exactly what you want to do, it’s probably smart to scout out an independent tour operator beforehand and go have your Viking adventure. But if you’re not exactly sure what you want to do, it’s best to choose one of the excursions offered by your cruise ship. You can wander cities alone, but you may find port areas far more industrial and less hospitable than you’d hoped.
One very important thing to keep in mind if you are cruising to St. Petersburg, Russia. If you want to explore on your own you will need to get a visa ahead of time but if you go on a cruise ship excursion (or an authorized travel agency in St. Petersburg) you do not need to get a visa. It might be easier to just go with the cruise line.
In beautiful Hawaii, you have options galore, and many cruisers prefer the independent tour operators because they offer a smaller, more customized and off-the-beaten-path experiences. Default to the ship excursions if it’s an activity like a luau or the Haleakala sunrise in Maui, where you’re going to wind up being part of a large group anyway.
If you just want to walk around and check out local culture, Lahaina is the best town for that.
Safety on this coast of Mexico has been a topic of discussion for more than a decade. And most expats and frequent travelers have always maintained that the major port cities (La Paz, Mazatlan and Acapulco, to name a few) of the Mexican Riviera feel safe and welcoming. These ports see thousands of self-guided tourists daily who get off the cruise ships with no organized group tour and walk to nearby restaurants to grab lunch or take taxis to major nearby attractions without problems.
But if there’s an ocean-based or specialized activity you’re interested in, such as Zodiac raft rides or snorkel boat cruises, we highly recommend that you book with the cruise line. And if you do wander on your own, be sure to stay within the main tourist areas.
Truly incredible nature and adventure excursions can be accessed from nearly any port on a Panama Canal itinerary. Some of the Mexico or Caribbean ports such as Ft. Lauderdale, Grand Cayman or Puerto Vallarta that lead up to the canal crossing will perhaps be familiar to cruisers and are some of the best ports to venture off on your own if you are interested in doing so. These ports have the infrastructure to support tourism with shopping, beaches and other sites close to the port.
In the Central American ports, though, remember that you’re crossing through dense jungle and quite foreign territory. Trust the cruise line partners to provide a good experience.