You are about to discover some key things to consider about cruise line excursions. And, importantly, 9 reasons not to do them!
Is it best to explore using the excursions offered on board, or would you rather strike out on your own? I thought it would be helpful to explore the arguments for and against taking the tours offered by the cruise lines. First of all, I want to talk about the main reasons for not doing a cruise line excursion:
Is it the best use of your day?
Is going on a cruise line excursion going to be the most efficient use of your day in port? You don’t get to choose what time the excursion that you’re interested in departs, so you might find it falls at, say 11 am, ruining the whole flow of the day and meaning that your whole day in port is focused around going on that excursion where you might otherwise have eight hours in port, so it’s not going to maximise your time.
What’s the process?
Another point to consider is the process used by the cruise line for getting people out on excursions. You’ll find – particularly on bigger ships – that it’s very inefficient. You can be sitting around and waiting an hour or so from the time you have to go, hand in your ticket and wait for the groups to get together before you’re even heading off on your excursion, so again, it’s a very unproductive use of your time. On smaller ships, you often just join a small group, disembark and off you go, so one of the things that puts me off joining excursions on bigger ships is just the whole process of joining the group and setting off on the excursion. And while you’re sitting around for an hour or so in the theatre or wherever, that’s time that you could be using to explore the port.
Is it a major port?
The third thing to ask yourself is how developed is the port? Particularly in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, the ports are modern, and experienced at dealing with tourists, so there’s the infrastructure in place to deal with people travelling independently and possibly looking for alternative excursions. If you are in one of those regions, and the ports are very popular cruise ports, don’t feel worried that you’re not going to find something to do at a reasonable price. I always look at the ports and ask myself, how established is this port? If this is a port that very infrequently sees cruise ships, you may have a different perspective, and a cruise line excursion may be more appealing.
What are the group sizes?
Another factor to consider is group size. On some of the bigger ships, particularly the value lines, you can find group sizes or 40, 50, or more people on an excursion because they fill up the whole bus. On some of the more premium lines or the smaller lines like Oceania, you might have 20 people or so. It’s worth asking yourself, how big is the group? And are you happy seeing the destination and going on the excursion with a big group of people, with all the things that this brings in terms of the time it takes moving people around, and just being with a big group.
What’s the pace likely to be?
Linked to the group size is the fifth question I ask myself: am I going to be happy on an excursion that’s going to be driven by the slowest person in the group? The way that excursions work is that whoever is the slowest, whether it’s slow in terms of just timekeeping, or whether it’s just in terms of their physical ability to get around, will set the pace. The tour will have to adapt to whoever’s the slowest person or the last back on the bus. Are you going to be happy with the pace you’re going to do that? You might find that it’s the sort of excursion where there’s not a lot going on, especially panorama sightseeing, and you might not mind that you’re going to be driven at that pace.
Will you have time to dwell?
Another consideration with a cruise line excursion is really based on what you’re going to be doing on the tour: am I happy that I’m not going to be able to stop and dwell and spend time on things I want to, because I’m going to be moved along. You’ll generally find that cruise line excursions try and pack as much in as possible. If you come across something like a site, or a painting, maybe, where you might want to take some pictures, or just sit and relax and admire it, you’re not going to be able to do that.
I often look at the excursions in the ports and ask, are there going to be things I want to stop and look at, because they’re going to interest me more and not the whole group? It’s important to think about what you’re going to be doing and whether you’re likely to want to spend more time, particularly if you’re taking photographs, than your fellow guests. Linked to that, of course, is the fact that you can’t speed up. If you’re travelling by yourself and there’s something that doesn’t interest you, you can just move on and just keep going, skip something if it’s not appealing, whereas with an excursion, you’re going to have to stay as long as the group is allocated to look at something.
Will you be rushed?
The seventh thing I ask is: just how much is included in the excursion? As I mentioned earlier, cruise line excursions tend to pack loads of things in because they want people to see as much as possible, and this can make them very rushed. It’s worth asking yourself whether you actually want to do as much as the excursion offers, or are there fewer things you’d prefer to see for longer?
Will it be cheaper to go it alone?
The eighth consideration, of course, is cost. Is it going to be cheaper to do it myself, or with an independent provider? There are lots of standalone companies who offer excursions that mirror the cruise line excursions. And it can often be cheaper – excursions can be a major on cost, costing $100 per person per day on average for, and the expense can quickly mount up. So the question to ask yourself is can you actually do it more efficiently by either doing it yourself or with an independent provider?
Could you miss the ship?
Most people will focus on the cruise line’s choice of excursions for two key reasons: one, because it’s simple and easy because they’re there; and secondly, a lot of people fret and worry about getting back to the ship on time. Of course, with the cruise line, they guarantee the ship will always wait for their own excursions, no matter how late they are. However, if you go off and explore by yourself, or with an independent provider, there’s always that risk that you get back too late. So how important is that in terms of timekeeping? This option is going to depend on how comfortable you are managing your own time and making sure you get back to the ship promptly.
…and reasons why you should
The simplicity of the excursion
There are two things that I use to guide me to decide if I am going to take a cruise line excursion. The first of those is complexity: are we going to a place where there are potentially a lot of language issues, or huge distances to travel, or where perhaps culturally it’s very difficult. If the excursion is very complicated because it involves helicopters and trains and getting to places or is just generally very complex, then I choose the cruise line excursion.
So, for example, when we were in Japan, I wanted to go to Kyoto from Osaka. It’s quite far away and also I knew that I would need a guide to show me around, so I went with the cruise line excursion. In Iceland, you travel huge distances, for example, on the Golden Circle seeing all the key sites, and although you can get independent people to help you, it’s an eight-hour tour, and I felt it was just safer to go with the cruise line because they were curated and they would have no issues getting back. Another example is when we were in Alaska, and we wanted to go dog sledding on a glacier. It was quite a complicated trip because you had to get to the helicopter base, go through all the check-in procedures with the helicopter, go to the helicopter, come back, and be picked up. It was quite a convoluted and quite expensive excursion so I was much more comfortable letting the cruise line handle all of that complexity.
As a rule, if the excursion looks very complex to me, or very time-intensive, then I would always go with the cruise line excursion.
Will the ship wait?
The second thing I do is again linked to that risk of missing the ship. If the ship is docking very far away from the place I want to explore, I’ll often go on a cruise line excursion even if it’s one where they simply take you from the ship to a destination. For example in Taiwan, we docked far away from Taipei. It was a simple excursion that took you from the ship to a central meeting point, left you there for a couple of hours to explore, then picked you up and took you back. It was much simpler to just join the tour.
How far is the port?
When visiting Rome, I will always take the excursion which goes from Civitavecchia port to the centre of the city, just because it’s so much easier and it reassures me. With any destinations where the ship is docking very far away from where I want to go, I’ll often just join an excursion: if possible, I take the one that just takes me there and then allows me to explore independently.
Those, then, are my thoughts on taking cruise line excursions. If you find this helpful, why not watch another of my many cruising tips for travellers videos right now?
Watch my Cruise Line Excursion Video