In the past when on a cruise, I used to be one of those passengers that either booked a shore excursion that the cruise line offered, or set off on a “self explore” walk about the port (or perhaps jumping on a hop-on hop-off bus tour around the area). This changed when I realised there was a viable third alternative. It happened when I really wanted to do a cycling tour in one of the Caribbean ports I was due to visit, and the cruise line option was sold out. I could have added my name to a waiting list, but then I heard a podcast about another solution that soloved my problem. I discovered that there are a number of independent tour companies that run extensive port shore excursion options in almost every cruise port. It opened my eyes to a way to not only get more options, but also to a way to save money!
This article covers my advice and tips on finding shore excursions for cruise passengers in their ports of call in a way that not only offers more alternatives, but will also save them money. Although I am focused on cruise passengers, most of the recommendations and providers also offer tours in most main travel destinations, not just those at or near cruise ports.
The natural tendency and habit when it come to cruise port and shore excursions is to simply look at, and book, excursions through your cruise line. If none appeal, or cruisers are looking to save money, they default to the “do your own” thing option which involves catching the courtesy bus or walking into the port and strolling about it.
But now there is a great third option that cruisers should seriously look at. This option is to use one of the independent operators that also offer organised tours in every port that cruise ships call on. They often have the same options, but will also have a greater range of options. They are almost always cheaper and use local operators, so you can ensure that you are supporting the local economy.
The main reasons cruise passengers book port excursions through their cruise line are:
1. The belief and expectation that the tours on offer are all that is available to them.
2. Convenient and easy. It is easy to book online through your online cruise personaliser or on-board.
3. Concern that if they do their own tour, or use someone else, and they are delayed they will miss the ship and risk their cruise.
I would, however, recommend that all cruise passengers review both their cruise line options and those offered by independent third party providers before making their final cruise shore excursion decisions and bookings.
The main advantages of looking at cruise shore excursions from providers other than your cruise lines are:
1. Getting the same tour, but for less money.
2. Getting the same tour but usually with less people on it than the cruise line equivalent.
3. Getting to do a tour that you really wanted to do via the cruise line, but has been sold out or only has a wait list so you may end up not doing it. This was the case, for example, for me with a cycling tour I wanted to do in St Maarten that was sold out via the cruise line but cost less and meant I could do it by booking through one of the independent suppliers.
4. Finding a tour that meets your specialist hobby or interest that is not catered for via the cruise line, like a golfing, sporting interest or hobby.
5. Most offer a guarantee to get you back to the ship in time for your departure, or they will fund and get you to the next stop to pick up the ship. Make sure this is something they guarantee, though my advice is to only book excursions with 3rd Parties that are morning departures and due back well before your ship departs as that will also reduce any stress you have on that topic.
6. Most will have reviews from people that have done the tours, along with photos, to assess. Cruise lines tend not to have reviews.
7. Most will depart from ship side, as the cruise line tours do too.
What are steps and the best sites to use when looking for cruise port excursions?
Step 1: Check how many ships will be in port when you are to help guide your excursion choice.
My first tip is to first check how many ships will be in port when you are there. This will tell you just how busy the port destination will be, and help you to decide what will be the best things to do. For example, I saw that in one port on Boxing Day in the Caribbean there was going to be 7 ships while we were also there. This means about 15,000 passengers in the port, and so we booked an all day excursion on a boat stopping at remote beaches with lunch BBQ to avoid crowded attractions.
The best site to do this is: cruisetimetables.com
Simply select your destination and date and it tells you which ships will be in port and what route they are on.
Step 2: Check what the excursions, the price and availability is via your cruise line.
Most cruise lines have an online cruise personaliser, where you can view and book excursions from up to 90 days before your cruise departs. It is a good idea to access it early on, as many popular tours will sell out. If you leave it too late you may end up being wait listed – and may miss out on a tour you really want to do. Decide if any of the cruise line excursions appeal, and note the price and timing.
Step 3: Check out the independent cruise shore excursion sites and options to compare.
There are a number of sites, although there are three that I use and recommend. They are well established and all let you simply input your cruise line, ship and departure date and they bring up your route with all your port stops along with the excursions. You can then compare excursions and prices and make your decision.
The best of these independent cruise shore excursions sites in my view are:
- Viator: http://shoreexcursions.viator.com
- Shoretrips: http://www.shoretrips.com
- Cruisingexcursions: http://www.cruisingexcursions.com
While I still end up using the cruise line option a great deal, as they are convenient and easy, the other alternative is an excellent way to check for a wider range of options and also prices. This can make a large difference on routes with many port stops.
What are your experiences and recommendations for choosing port excursions? Leave a comment and tip!