When you book a cruise, your time spent off the ship is just as important as your time spent on it.
I hear many first-time cruisers booking a cruise because of the amazing itinerary but then have no idea what they will do when they get there. These shore excursion tips for your next cruise are to help keep that from happening.
If you want to make the most out of your cruise, make your time at shore count. With so many activities and tours to choose from it can be a little overwhelming, but the time spent planning your excursion will pay off when you look back at the timeless memories made.
There are 10 rules I try to follow every time I plan my shore excursions, and I hope they can be a help to you.
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Booking through the cruise line or on your own
There’s one thing to note before we dig in. You can book your excursions through the cruise line or on your own. There are pros and cons to each, but I will boil it down to the basics. If you book your excursion through the cruise line you won’t have to worry about being left behind at the port if things are running late. The same can’t be said if you book your own excursion, but you can also save a few dollars and even find “unlisted” excursions if you book your own.
Booking through the ship will give you some peace of mind as these tours are fairly well vetted, and you can work directly with the cruise line for making changes, so if this is important to you that’s something to remember.
FYI: If you book an excursion through our partners at Shore Excursions Group they offer a guarantee to get you back to the ship and have 24/7 support with over 300 ports of call.
Regardless of how you decide to book your activities and tours at shore, here are some guidelines to follow.
1. Know your limitations
Don’t let the excitement of a shore excursion’s description make you forget about your own limitations. When planning your shore excursion activities, consider how much time and money you want to spend as well as any physical limitations that may affect your ability to participate in certain activities.
The view from the top of the mountain may look stunning in pictures, but if the tour requires some rigorous hiking to get there you may need to find a different excursion if any health-related issues could complicate this.
Make sure you look into any age requirements before making a reservation too; many tour companies have minimum age restrictions for certain tours if you’re bringing a family with young children.
2. Know what each port offers
If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship that was pulling away from port as you listened to a fellow-passenger describe an amazing excursion that you didn’t even know about, you will want to note this point. Save yourself some regret and do a ton of research about each stop on the cruise itinerary ahead of time.
Even if it involves doing research on tours you have no interest in, at least you will know what the port has to offer and can plan accordingly.
You can visit our cruise ports page for some information about some of the most popular places on cruise itineraries or visit some cruise forums. There are many list articles or “things to do” articles that will break down some of the more common things travelers do in these port cities around the world.
As an informed traveler you will know exactly what attractions are “must-see” and can even have a back-up plan in case your scheduled excursion gets canceled. More on this later.
3. Read reviews with a critical eye
It’s always a good idea to see what other cruise travelers have to say about a certain tour or excursion. You can get useful information about what to really expect and if that particular activity is good for families, children, the elderly, etc.
But read them with a bit of wisdom as not all of them may be as genuine as they seem. And some may have complaints that aren’t typically the case for every traveler.
Still, you want to read as many reviews on an excursion of interest to know if it’s right for you. You can find such reviews in places such as Trip Advisor, Google, and Cruise Critic. You can even ask in our Facebook group about particular cruise ports for some ideas.
4. Make sure you have time
This is especially true if you are booking an excursion on your own. In some ports of call there are excursions that require 1-2 hours of driving before even starting your tour, and if your ship is only in port for 6 or 7 hours it could be cutting it close.
If you think time will be an issue at all I would suggest you find another excursion. First, you don’t want to feel rushed as you enjoy your day at shore, and secondly you definitely don’t want to come close to missing the ship. No excursion is worth that hassle.
Booking through the cruise line itself will ensure this isn’t a problem, but it’s still your responsibility to get back to the ship on time, unless you want to end up on someone’s Tik Tok video as a “pier runner”.
5. Book as early as you can
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, some of the more popular shore excursions will sell out and fill up fast, so if you don’t book them earlier enough you may not be able to at all. You can try to get on a waiting list if someone drops out, but it’s always a good idea to book the shore excursions you know you wan to enjoy as soon as you can.
And secondly, booking in advance rather than waiting until you’re on the ship takes the stress out of the equation. You can take your time reading reviews, looking at pictures and videos, and make an informed decision about an activity in port without feeling pressured.
6. Get confirmation details from tour provider
After you have your excursion booked be sure to get all the necessary information from the tour operator. Things like the exact time and date, meet-up location, names, and contact information in case you need to reach out to them are important to get as soon as you can. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of cruisers missing their excursion due to a mix-up about the meeting time or place
7. Check-in with tour provider
And once you have the contact information for the shore excursion company make sure you reach out to them before your cruise. Don’t rely on them to reach out to you if there are any changes.
Proactively call or email the tour operator and make everything is still good to go and that your booking is actually on the books. You can also check-in with them to ask any questions you might have and to know what other items you may need to bring with you.
8. Check “ship time” vs “shore time”
After you get on your cruise ship remember that ship time isn’t always the same as shore time. And since your phone or watch may automatically change the time to adapt to shore time you might want to bring a watch that has a time set to the ship’s time.
Why do cruise ships sometimes have a different time than the ports they are visiting? This helps to ensure that all activities, events, and schedules on board remain consistent and organized, and passengers don’t get confused by changing time zones as they travel from port to port.
9. Bring necessary items
It all comes down to being prepared. Your shore excursion might have you out in the sun for 5 hours straight. Make sure you have the sun-screen, water, and appropriate clothing to be ready.
Also, know what documentation you might need to bring ashore. This depends on the port of call and is unnecessary for private island excursions. Most of the time you don’t need to being your passport, but each tour operator should tell you exactly what is needed in that particular country and area. Even if I don’t bring my passport I will sometimes have a copy of it somewhere in my bag.
Other things to bring may include comfortable footwear, a light jacket that can packed in your bag, snacks, and some cash. Cash is good to have on hand for tips at the end of the tour and also for some souvenir shopping.
And lastly, don’t forget to bring any medications that you might need, especially if you end up spending more time on shore than anticipated.
10. Have a back up plan
Your shore excursion might get canceled. This can happen even if you booked through the ship and there was not enough interest for that particular excursion. Or sometimes weather conditions may cause an activity to be canceled.
Always have a back-up plan just in case your day at shore isn’t as perfect as you had hoped. Also, this is why it’s important to look at the refund and cancellation policy of the excursion before you book. Any good tour operator or excursion company like Shore Excursions Group will have a refund and cancellation policy in place.