One of the funny things about cruising is that no matter how many ports of call on your trip, you are going to spend the vast majority of your time on the ship.
Consider that on a weeklong cruise, there might be three stops, where the ship is in port for 8-10 hours at a time. So of the 168 hours in a week, only about 30 of those hours (less than 20%) is spent in port.
No wonder cruise passengers want to make the most of their limited time in port. And the best way to do that? Book a shore excursion. No matter whether you want to have an adventure (swimming with dolphins or parasailing), have a cultural experience (visiting historic sites like Chichen Itza), or simply have a good time (beach tours with snorkeling, tequila tastings), there are excursions available across any number of activities and for any age or level of physical ability.
But while a cruise excursions can offer something for everyone, they can also cause some stress. How do I know I’m getting a deal? Which excursion should I do? Where should I book the trip?
While the cruise lines offer excursions through them, they aren’t your only choice in booking a tour. Below, we’ve outlined the pros and cons of each way of booking your cruise excursion.
Booking Excursions Through the Cruise Line
The moment you book your cruise, you’ll be invited to start booking your excursions for ports as well. Cruise lines offer trips that can be purchased through them, just like ordering a meal. To book you can do so either online or wait until you are on the ship.
The cruise lines offers a wide variety of things to do, with dozens of tours and activities in each port. When you find one you like and want to book, it’s simply charged to your onboard account.
Being able to book up until the last minute makes booking excursions through the cruise line extremely convenient, but there are other perks that make it even more attractive.
First, if you are worried about getting a good deal, some major cruise lines have worked to put your mind at ease. For example, Carnival offers a 110% “Best Price Guarantee”. If you book an excursion and find the same thing cheaper somewhere else, then the cruise line will refund you 110% of the price difference.
Furthermore, excursions booked through the cruise line also give you peace of mind. If you book through the cruise line, then the ship will wait until you return before it departs. To be fair, most excursions arrive well before the ship is scheduled to leave. But if you want to do an activity that doesn’t return until close to departure time — or you are simply the sort of person who worries about missing the ship — then this advantage is worth its weight in gold.
Booking Excursions Through a Third-Party Site
In addition to the cruise line, you can also book trips through third-party websites like Viator. These sites make it simple to find daytrips no matter where you are headed and can often have more options than what’s available through the cruise line.
As well, you might find slightly different excursions that are similar to what’s offered through the cruise line but with a few adjustments. For example, an excursion might include unlimited food and drink while the cruise line excursion does not.
In general prices are about the same as you will find through the cruise line. For instance, Carnival offers a trip to the Xcaret theme park when the ship docks in Cozumel for a price of $99.99. Viator offers park admission for $99.99 as well (but doesn’t include transportation). As well, if you book third party, there is no assurance the ship will wait to leave until you are back aboard.
Booking Excursions Directly With the Tour Operator
It might seem that when you book a tour with the cruise line that you are going on an excursion run by the company. In fact, those excursions are actually operated by third-party tour operators. These small companies work with the cruise line to offer their services to guests.
It only makes sense that if you were to book your tour directly, then you might be able to save some money.
In theory this sounds good, but reality makes it a bit tougher. You can definitely find tours and things to do online directly with the company, but in our experience booking these trips is not near as easy as booking through the cruise line. For one, many smaller operators may not have websites or details and information like we’ve come to expect. And if you don’t book before you get on the ship, it’s difficult to book given that Internet access is limited on a cruise.
We think one of the biggest issues is that if something goes wrong on your excursion (say the tour operator is a no-show), it could be difficult to get reimbursed when dealing with a smaller operator in a foreign country. You don’t’ have much recourse if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain.
All that said, where booking directly with an independent operator has an advantage is that not everything you can do is available through the cruise line. While the cruise line will have dozens of things to do, there are so many more things you can actually do. For instance, we booked a trip to Maya Chan in Costa Maya. We booked directly with the resort as the excursion wasn’t available through the cruise line. Our experience was phenomenal and wouldn’t have been available if only looking at what the cruise line offered.
For most people, we believe it makes the most sense to simply book an excursion through the cruise line. They offer a great amount of convenience and also the peace of mind that the ship will wait if your tour runs long.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that not every trip you can take while in port is available through the cruise line. There are any number of things to do that are only available independently. For these trips, just be sure that the operator realizes you are coming in on a cruise ship and have set deadlines to return to the ship.