Take a cruise and you’re likely looking forward to the port of calls. To be honest, however, the amount of time spent in port is relatively little compared to what is spent on the ship. That means you want to be able to make the most of the time in port you do have.
Enter shore excursions. These are pre-planned tours that you can purchase before your day in port. With one convenient purchase, everything is planned for you, and you get the opportunity to have an experience you just can’t do back home. At the end of your cruise, your excursions very well could be what you remember most about your vacation.
Before you book — especially if you’re a first-time cruiser — there are some things you’ll want to know about these excursions that you may not be familiar with. The following tips can give you a better idea of how to make the most of your adventure.
Not Sure What to Book? Talk to the Professionals
Any cruise line you sail will have a shore excursion desk. This is where you can meet with staff to purchase tickets, but you can also ask them any questions you might have. The staff members here specialize in excursions, and have often done many of them personally. They can speak to exactly what to expect.
If you have questions about a specific excursion or simply want to talk to someone about your options and figure out which is best for you, then be sure to take advantage. You’ll find the open hours for the shore excursion desk in the daily planner for your cruise or just stop by when you pass it walking around the ship.
Book Early for the Most Options
Like anything popular, there can be sell-outs for some of the most interesting shore excursions. If there is something that you have your heart set on doing, then don’t wait to book. The last thing you want is to be excited about a tour and then see that all the spots are filled.
The good news is that if something is sold out early enough then the cruise line can sometimes work with the tour company to add more capacity. Even so, we wouldn’t count on it. Book as early as you can to ensure your spot.
Book Early for Discounts
Another reason to book early? Sometimes you can get a deal on the excursion as well. Cruise lines love to offer discounts on everything from excursions to drink packages if you book them before you get on the ship. The reason is that passengers who book ahead of time usually end up spending more overall on their cruise as the money spent weeks or months before the vacation is “forgotten” by the time they board.
Even so, it’s hard to pass up a deal when you see it. Discounts will vary, but many times it’s easy to save 10% just by booking before the cruise instead of onboard.
Keep an Eye on What’s Available up to the Last Minute
So say that you have your heart set on one excursion and it’s sold out. You might be out of luck, but we’d suggest based on personal experience to keep checking regularly if there is an opening… right up until the tour’s start time.
Cruise lines offer apps where you can explore and book excursions. If they are booked up, they will show as unavailable. We’ve noticed that sometimes you can check and spots will open up, whether due to cancellations or more capacity being added. In fact, on one trip we were able to snag an open spot on a previously sold-out excursion just 45 minutes before the start time.
Tip Your Tour Guide
Tips and gratuities are common in the tourism industry and that’s no different on a cruise. You’re expected to pay a daily gratuity charge on the ship, you’ll see an extra charge for any drinks you buy onboard or spa packages, and yes, you should also tip your tour guide on the excursion.
At the end of the tour as you’re arriving back at the ship, there will usually be a little “wrap up ” speech from the guide. They will thank you for coming, ask you to review them positively if you enjoyed the day, and also mention that tips are appreciated. In general we like to tip between $10-20, depending on how many people are in our group.
Factor in Price Per Hour
How do you know if you’re getting a good deal on an excursion? One way is to consider the price per hour on the trip. When exploring excursions, you’ll see the price but also the approximate time of the tour. That means you can see how much you’re paying per hour.
It’s not the end-all, be-all of what’s a deal. After all, a one hour jet-boat ride is likely to be more expensive than a three-hour trip to a beach. Still, if you want to get the most value, then figuring out how long of a tour you’ll get compared to what you’ll pay is a good metric. Just be sure you’re factoring in the uniqueness and any other extras (food, drinks, etc.) and don’t just pick solely based on this metric.
Limit to One Port to Save
If money were no object, then having a shore excursion booked for every port would be ideal. But the prices can quickly add up. Consider two people booking a $100 per person excursion in three different ports on the cruise. That’s $600 in tours. For some people, that’s no problem. For others, it’s a bit rich.
Our advice? We always suggest booking at least one excursion on a cruise as they are definite highlights of the trip. But more than that should be at your discretion. Don’t want to spend the money? Then it’s fine to do something else in port. Don’t mind the extra cost? Then by all means book more tours.
Consider Ages and Exertion Levels
Each shore excursion description will mention some things like age suggestions (or sometimes age requirements) and exertion levels.
If you have mobility issues or are traveling with small kids, you want to pay attention to these notices, which sometimes can be harder to find depending on where you look. The last thing you want to do is book an excursion that you’re excited about only to find that it’s something more than you — or someone you’re traveling with — can handle.
If you have any doubt, it’s a good idea to check with the shore excursion desk. They can give you an opinion on how strenuous or age appropriate specific tours will be.
Look For Things You Can’t Do in Other Ports
One of our favorite things about excursions is that they give you the ability to do things you just can’t do back home. While you can swim in cenotes in Mexico, you can’t do that in Missouri. Take advantage.
This includes things that you might do somewhere else on your cruise. For example, if you’re sailing to a cruise line’s private island where you can spend all day on the beach for free, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to book a beach-focused excursion the day before for a charge.
Factor in Transportation, Food, and Drink
All excursions will include your transportation to and from the cruise ship. Some — especially beach-focused trips in the Caribbean — will also include things like food and free drinks during the trip.
When you gauge the value of these tours, you definitely want to factor in these costs to compare the tour versus a day on your own. For instance, if you’re paying $70 for an excursion that includes a trip to the beach with food and drink, it could be that you’re paying only a fraction of that for the actual tour portion given the costs you’d have to pay anyway to eat and get back and forth.
You Can Switch or Refund Tours
If worries about changing your mind are keeping you from snagging a spot on a tour, don’t let that hinder you. Cruise lines are actually fairly lenient on switching or canceling excursions.
If you decide you change your mind on a particular tour, then just cancel it or you can talk to the excursion desk to switch things over to another excursion.
For example, Royal Caribbean says on its website that “excursions can be modified or canceled up to 48 hours prior to port arrival without penalty.” There is the same timeline for exchanging one excursion for another.
Carnival says “in the event of a cruise booking cancellation within the cut-off window, a full refund will automatically be posted to the form of payment used to pay for the order.”
Just don’t wait until the last minute to make changes.
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