A Newbie’s Guide To Cruise Ship Shore Excursions

April 15, 2015

Ruined temples, horse riding through the surf, zip wires over jungle canopies or just exploring a real local market.

All these shore excursions and more are available when you make the decision to embark on your first cruise holiday!

In fact, there are many that would argue shore excursions are almost the whole point of cruise; unpacking once and seeing multiple destinations all in one holiday (then there are those that would never get off the ship no matter what – but that’s another story!)


What is a shore excursion though?

In essence they’re nothing more than an organised sightseeing tour arranged by the ship to increase their guest’s enjoyment when in port (and their own profits obviously but’s let’s focus on you for now!).

That being said however there’s still a lot to consider when it comes to shore excursions; the first (and biggest) question being do you need to book an excursion at all or would you be ok just doing your own thing in port?

After deciding that (assuming you’re still interested in an organised shore excursion) you may want to put some thought into the type of shore excursion you book…

queue for the colusseum

Shore Excursions Broken Down

How active do you want to be? Cruise lines are helpful folk and they want your holiday to be as relaxed as it can possibly be. To help with that they’ll label up each shore excursion in their guides by how active or strenuous it might be.

That means when you’re perusing what’s available you might see a little label indicating a particular shore excursion is active/strenuous or moderate or maybe even sedentary.

Try not to be too put off by these labels though, you won’t be white water rafting or running through abandoned temples with giant boulder booby traps chasing you, Indiana Jones style. Active simply means they’ll probably be a lot of walking involved.

Disclaimer: If you do book a white water rafting excursion please note there may be some white water rafting involved.

Do you go for the full or half day tour? This one should be fairly obvious from the title but as it says, many cruise lines offer both full and half day tours when you’re in port. What you might not realise however is that there will normally be a transfer bus running to and from the ship all day. This means you could do a morning tour with the cruise line then wander around on your own for a few hours before heading back to the ship on a later transfer.

You get the best of both worlds then!

Ten for the price of one! – Something else you need to consider with your shore excursions is how deeply you want to immerse yourself in the culture you’ll be visiting. Some excursions are little more than whistle stop tours (ten for the price of one – see what we did there?); stopping just long enough somewhere for you to take a picture and buy a souvenir before you’re whipped off to the next part of the tour. Many excursions in Egypt or Morocco can be like this with flying visits to bazaars and other local places of interest.

The other side to this is the really in-depth tours spending all day at just one attraction, like the ruins at Pompeii. You’ll learn a lot about the place you visit but may not get a feel for the wider culture.

Morrocan tour


Should you go it alone?

We touched earlier on whether you should book an organised shore excursion or light out on your own. Ultimately that decision has to be yours but there are several tips you can follow that should make it an easier choice….

Where are you? Some destinations just cry out for you to book a ships shore excursion whilst others practically beg to be explored on your own. How to tell the difference though?

If you’re heading off to a place you’ve been before and know well then it makes sense to do your own thing.

If your cruise takes you to a particularly small town then it makes sense to do your own thing (many towns in the Caribbean are like this with the beaches, BBQ’s, shops and bars all within close walking distance of the port).

However in some ports a ships tour becomes much more important.

Examples of these might be ports in third world countries where English might not be widely spoken or where customs might differ widely to what you’re used to. Having a guide handy at a time like this can come in very useful!

Another instance of when a ships excursion is useful is if you want to do something specific which might be difficult to get tickets for like the F1 in Monaco. The cruise lines have a lot of buying power so can normally source tickets that you might not be able to.

Lastly you might want to consider the distance of the port to the places you’re visiting. Most people don’t realise but not all cruise stops are located near a port. Take Rome or Paris for example – both of them are over an hour from where your ship will dock – a long way by taxi or public transport! Booking the ships organised tours in these instances can give you a lot of peace of mind knowing you won’t turn back up at the dock just in time to wave the ship goodbye.

Eiffel tower queue


Book ‘em early and plan ahead!

It probably doesn’t need saying but popular shore excursions, like most things in life, will sell out quickly. After all there’s only limited places per tour.

If your heart is set on a particular excursion then make sure you book it early. We don’t mean it should be the first thing you do when you get on-board either. All cruise lines allow you to pre-book shore excursions now before your cruise. Go through the options, decide which ones you fancy and make sure you snap them up quick before someone else does. There’s nothing worse than sitting at dinner listening to someone rave about the shore excursion you wanted to do!

That takes care of booking early but the other thing you need to try and do (assuming you’re not the kind of person who just liked to go with the flow and ‘wing’ it anyway) is do some research on the ports you’ll be going to.  It’s no good just turning up in Livorno and hoping inspiration hits like lightning. You need to know whether you want to head to Florence to take in some Renaissance art or Pisa to see their famous tower. Check your itinerary and make sure you know what you want to do in each port before you cruise and you should be fine.

Leaning tower of pisa


A Third Choice

If you like the peace of mind in booking an organised shore excursion but don’t fancy paying the cruise lines prices then there is a third option you could look at.

There are many private excursion companies that organise trips around cruise ship timetables that are worth investigating. You can book a trip with them before you go and they’ll be waiting for you in your chosen port as you disembark, whip you off to your chosen destination and still have you back in plenty of time before the ship leaves!

Why choose this option then?


Quite often these companies will offer the exact same excursion as the cruise line but for a fraction of the cost! You can see one such company here but there are plenty more online that you could look at.

Caribbean shore excursions


Top Tip: If you still don’t like the idea of an organised tour but don’t fancy just wandering around aimlessly on your own then you might want to look at a taxi.

At the entrance to each port there’ll always be plenty of taxi drivers. If you have a haggle with them (and we do advise you haggle) you can normally hire them as a guide for the day to show you around and the best bit is they’ll know all the best spots that only a local would. Just make sure you use a licensed taxi!

Rickshaw driver - shore excursions


Have you been on a cruise before? Do you always book your excursions through the cruise line or do you prefer to arrange things yourself?

Let other cruisers know all your top tips in the comments below…