Shore excursions are a major part of taking a cruise. In reality, you have two different sides to the vacation. First, you have the time spent on the ship and at sea. Here, everything to do is laid out for you, including all the activities on the ship and the entertainment put on by the staff.
Then, you have your time spent in a port of call. This time is yours to enjoy away from the ship, exploring the port, taking in the local culture and doing things you can’t do back home.
Of course, it can be tough to know exactly what to do in a foreign port of call that you aren’t familiar with. That’s where shore excursions can help.
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What are shore excursions?
Put simply, shore excursions are tours sold to passengers visiting a port of call. They provide cruisers with the opportunity to take guided tours without worrying about having to set up things like transportation, figure out meeting times, or watching the clock to get back to the ship. Everything is taken care of for you; you simply have to show up at the specified time and enjoy the day.
Meanwhile, cruise lines provide a number of options in each port, so you can find something that will appeal to you. These can be as simple and easy as a walking tour of a city to as adventurous as deep-sea fishing, diving, or driving power boats. The choice of what to do is up to you.
Do I have to book a shore excursion?
Absolutely not. Shore excursions are completely optional. If you already have an activity in mind, you can do it. Or if you simply want to go out into port on your own or even stay on the ship, the day is yours. Shore excursions are simply there to provide you with options on how to spend your day.
Are shore excursions included in the cruise fare?
For most typical cruises, shore excursions are not included in your cruise fare. They are an extra cost.
That said, some cruise lines do offer specials, like NCL’s Free at Sea offer, that provide shore excursion credit that can be applied to the purchase. As well, other cruises might have onboard credit given to you when booking. Despite the name, this credit can be used for purchases of shore excursions off the ship, reducing the cost.
How do I book a tour?
If you’re interested in booking a day off the ship, then there are several ways that you can reserve your spot.
The best way is to go into your online account via the cruise line website and purchase the excursion before you even board. Some of the most popular excursions sell out ahead of time, so purchasing before getting on the ship will give you the most options available. In addition, there are often discounts for booking early, making this option even more appealing.
If you’d like to wait, you can also book once on the ship. This can mean booking via the cruise line’s app on your phone, or visiting the shore excursions desk on the ship.
What are some example excursions offered?
As mentioned, the excursions offered can run a wide range of things to do and activity levels. So no matter what you should be able to find something that appeals to you.
Say you are visiting Cozumel — one of the most popular cruise ports in the world. In that case, you might find the following options (with a lot more also available):
- Vehicle tour of the island with guide
- Jeep driving to Punta Sur park with snorkeling
- Beach day with tequila tasting
- Underwater tour via submarine
- Catamaran ride with snorkeling and lunch
For popular ports like Cozumel there can be literally dozens of options available. But each port of call will offer different options based on local sights. For example, cruises to Alaska often include things like train rides into the mountains, gold panning, glacier tours, and even helicopter rides.
What if I have questions about an excursion before booking?
Any major cruise ship you sail will have a help desk that’s dedicated solely to shore excursions. Here, you can go to see what’s offered, book your tickets, and talk with the staff about any questions you might have.
These staff members are dedicated to excursions and often have done many themselves. They can help you to find the right fit for what you want, answer specific questions about the experience, and then also book the excursions and print out tickets.
The shore excursion desks are open throughout the cruise, so you can stop by when it is convenient.
Can I book before boarding?
Absolutely, and as explained above, it’s the best way to book. Booking online ahead of time offers a couple of advantages.
First, online booking before the cruise typically offers up discounts or the lowest prices available (often around 10-20% off booking on the ship). So not only do you get the excursion taken care of early, but you also get a better price.
Perhaps more importantly, booking before boarding gives you the most choice. Wait until you board and you may find that some of the most popular options are already sold out. In fact, even if you book your excursions before you sail but close to your cruise date, you might find some items already sold out as people tend to book early.
Do I have to book my excursion through the cruise line?
No, you don’t have to book through the cruise line. If you want to set up your own excursion then you absolutely can do so. A number of websites offer shore excursions independent of the cruise lines or if you are familiar with a port, you can contact a tour provider directly. In fact, when you depart the ship in a port of call, you’ll see tour providers providing last-minute bookings in person to passengers on the pier.
That said, there are some advantages to booking through the cruise line. The biggest is that bookings through the cruise will have some sort of guarantee regarding returning to the ship. If you book through the cruise line and your excursion is delayed, the ship will wait on you before departing.
Truth is, however, that most shore excursions make their way back to the ship well before the ship departs.
What if trip I want to book is sold out? Am I out of luck?
Sometimes you might have your heart set on an excursion only to see that it is sold out. That can happen, especially if waiting until on the ship to book.
However, if you really want that specific trip, then don’t let it discourage you. We’ve noticed that sometimes new spots do open up. The easiest way to check is with the cruise line’s app once on the ship or you can login to your online account if searching before the cruise.
It’s not clear if these new spots are simply due to some people canceling or the tour operator opening up more spots. Either way, it’s worth checking back in often to see if more space is now available.
How much do shore excursions cost on a cruise?
Just like a meal at a restaurant, the price you pay for an excursion will vary wildly. Want a low-key walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours? You won’t won’t pay that much. Want an all-day Alaskan excursion that includes a helicopter ride to a glacier? The price is going to be significantly higher.
Shore excursions can match every budget. It really depends on what you want to spend. In general, the least expensive options will run about $50 per person in the Caribbean, going up to a few hundred dollars per person for some of the most involved adventures. We’d suggest about $100 per person is a good average on what you’ll spend for a Caribbean excursion.
In Alaska, prices are significantly higher. There, you can expect to essentially double the prices you see in the Caribbean. There are some less-expensive options available, but they are much fewer in number.
How late can I book an excursion?
There’s no specific deadline on booking a shore excursion on a cruise. As mentioned, you will see people selling spots on the pier as you exit the ship first thing in the morning. We’ve personally booked a spot through the shore excursion desk just 45 minutes before the tour departed.
If you can get the excursion paid for before it departs and make it to the meeting point on time, then you will be good to go.
Are shore excursions refundable? Can I switch tours?
Say you book a shore excursion ahead of time and then you get sick and have to cancel your cruise. Or say you book it and then change your mind and want to go on a different excursion. Is it possible to cancel and get a refund or switch to a different excursion?
In general, yes, you can change your mind and get your money back. For instance, if you have to cancel your cruise, you are generally refunded any extras that you paid like gratuities, drink packages, and shore excursions.
You can also just get a refund in general in many cases if you cancel before the deadline laid out by the cruise line. For example, Royal Caribbean says on its website that “excursions can be modified or cancelled 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.
Are kids free or discounted?
Sailing with kids? In some cases (though not all), they can do the same excursion as you but for a discount. However, you’ll still have to pay something for kids to join in… they aren’t free.
How much the discount is will depend on the specific excursion. Some offer no discount at all. Others can be upwards of 25% off for kids versus adults. You’ll just have to see what the rate is for your specific excursion, but just know that it is possible to get a lower charge.
Do I need to tip my tour guide?
For the most part your shore excursion fare will cover anything that you encounter during the day (it will specify if lunch is included or if you need to bring money for a meal), but there is one exception.
At the end of the tour you can expect the excursion guide to give a little “wrap up” speech that thanks you for coming, asks you to leave a review, and then says that any gratuity you would like to offer is appreciated.
We suggest a tip of about $10 per person in your group or about 10% of the excursion price. There’s no requirement to tip, but the guides certainly appreciate it.
Are shore excursions worth it?
There’s no doubt that shore excursions — especially when taking a family — can quickly add up. Even an “average” priced excursion means that you’re dropping hundreds of dollars for the experience with multiple people. So are they worth it?
Personally, we try to do at least one excursion every cruise. In our experience, shore excursions are without a doubt one of the highlights of the trip. They offer the chance to do something you simply can’t do back home — be it driving a motor boat through electric blue water in Cozumel or panning for gold in Alaska. Some of the most vivid memories of our cruises revolve around things we did on excursions in port.
In that way, we believe that shore excursions are definitely worth it. At the same time, however, there’s no arguing that the price can add up. We find that doing at least one (and sometimes two) can help create a balance between having a great time and overspending.
So if you’re thinking about that excursion, we feel it’s worth the money.