Go independently on land and you can save a lot of money. Credit: Shutterstock.

Everything you need to know about shore excursions

Author: Dave Monk

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Check out Dave Monk's guide to shore excursions, designed to help you make the most of your time in port.

Cruising is about the journey as well as the destination. But when you arrive at a port, what should you do – stay on the ship, wander off by yourself, go on a cruise line excursion or use a private operator? Here we discuss your options, the risks and possible savings...

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Excursions range from leisurely tours of beauty spots... Credit: Thrillist.

When should I take a shore excursion?
Shore excursions help to make the most of your cruise by adding experiences, sights, knowledge and even new friendships. They can vary from a short speedboat ride to a whole day’s guided tour of a major city. They’re fun to plan and it’s wise to book ahead – especially for limited-numbers tours – but don’t overstretch yourself.

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It’s not every day you’ll want to spend hours on a coach; sometimes it’s nicer to go for a gentle meander round the local port, or even just stay on the ship (with most of your fellow cruisers ashore for the day, it feels as though you’ve got all those onboard amenities to yourself).

What do excursions cost?
Prices vary enormously, from a few pounds for a guided walk to £1,000 or more for a private chauffeured minibus and tour for the day. And the choice enormous – MSC Cruises, for example, is offering more than 1,390 different excursions this summer. On the whole, cruise line excursions will be more expensive – though easier to book – than tours you sort out yourself.

...to high-octane adventures in amazing locations Credit: IStock.

What about included tours?
Some lines, such as Viking, Riviera and Avalon, offer included excursions every day. Regent Seven Seas prides itself on being the only ocean cruise line to include unlimited shore excursions in the fare, with a choice of more than 2,000 trips across its whole range of itineraries. The line has recently launched two new concepts – Behind the Design, looking at architectural feats, and Eco-Connect, seeing how local groups and businesses help the environment.

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These tours are covered by your fare, although you can buy special experiences such as helicopter rides. With any cruise line, more inclusions means a higher fare, so look carefully at what’s on offer. If you’d be happy to give plenty of the trips a miss, you’re better off booking a cheaper cruise where excursions cost extra.

Cruise with luxury line Regent and all excursions are included in the fare. Credit: Cruise Trade News.

Should I book the cruise line’s own tours or go private?
If peace of mind is your priority, it pays to book a tour with the cruise line. The whole process is easier, you’ll be looked after from the moment you step ashore, and – crucially – you know you’ll be returned to the ship in good time before it leaves the port.

Rachel Poultney, UK sales director for Princess Cruises, says: ‘Booking an official tour with us takes away the stress of having to search for a reputable company independently. Guests can also be confident in the knowledge that the tour guides can easily communicate with the ship whenever necessary.’

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Cruise blogger Emma Le Teace adds: ‘Cruise line excursions are usually the easiest way to explore a port, and I would recommend them to first-time cruisers who are nervous about visiting a new location. The cruise line will usually pick guests up from the ship, and booking through them gives added protections.’

Iceland is a destination where a private tour could save you serious cash. Credit: Prauge Morning.

Are private tours cheaper?
Competition between shore-based tour operators keeps prices down, so a private excursion is usually cheaper than the equivalent trip organised by your cruise line.

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Savings can be significant, as Luke Kenniford and Gavin Phillips of the Cruise Monkeys blog explain: ‘In Iceland we did two full-day tours with private operators and saved ourselves well over £100 each, as they were nearly half the cost of the ‘official’ trips. They didn’t include lunch in the price but we had the advantage of a 16-seater minibus rather than a coach and we got to the stops before the crowds. A little research into private tours before you set sail can certainly pay off.’

Book well in advance for popular attractions such as Vienna's Lipizzaner Horses. Credit: Vienna Unwrapped.

How early should I book?
Many of the big-ticket excursions – such as the Louvre in Paris or the famous dancing horses in Vienna – sell out fast, so it’s a good idea to book as far in advance as you can. What’s more, early bookers often get a discount, with the option to change plans (subject to conditions) if more interesting tours are added nearer the departure date. It’s also worth checking whether your cruise line will give a discount if you book three or more excursions at the same time.

Are there other ways to book cruise excursions?
As well as searching for local excursion specialists, it’s also worth considering the major operators who specialise in independent cruise excursions and are well versed in picking you up and returning you to your ship.

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Venture Ashore claims to be the largest provider of independent cruise excursions in the world, covering 111 countries and 500 ports with more than 5,000 tours. ‘We upload cruise itineraries well in advance so there is no need for rushed decisions,’ says their spokesperson. ‘This gives our customers time for research and comparisons and makes it easy to control the budget.’

Even better, the company guarantees to get customers back for the ship’s departure or transport them to the next port of call at no extra cost – but so far the latter has never been needed.

Excursions can include trips to remote tropical beaches. Credit: Freepik.

Another independent cruise excursion company is ToursByLocals (toursbylocals.com), which works with 4,400 guides to offer 30,000 tours in 191 countries. Locally resident guides such as teachers and storytellers can tailor small-group tours towards specific interests including photography, wildlife and hiking, and it’s even possible to arrange details of the itinerary in advance. If you think that’s starting to sound expensive, ToursByLocals claims that a group of four typically pays the same, or even less, per person than they would on a ship-organised outing.

The company’s ‘No One Left Behind’ promise to get passengers back to the ship in time – or pay for them to get
to the next port – has been used only twice in 150,000 shore excursions, so you know you’ll be in safe hands.

Should I go it alone?

There’s a lot of fun in just wandering around a port, finding a cab driver to take you to an uncrowded beach, using a hop-on hop-off bus or catching a train to the nearest city for a shopping spree.

-READ MORE: Inside the amazing UK destinations & excursions on Princess Cruises Seacations-

But before you do so, ensure that you know when you have to be back on board (usually half an hour before departure), be aware that ship’s time might be different from local time, and allow for any possible delays. Always carry a note of the port agent (normally found on your daily newsletter) and take your passport, too, if you want to be ultra-careful.

Your ship won't wait, so keep an eye on the time if you take a private tour. Credit: Cruise.co.uk.

Don’t cut it too fine, like cruise guest Rob England, of Portsmouth, who took a train from Emerald Princess in Livorno to Puccini’s villa at Torre del Lago with his wife Anne while on a voyage round the Med. He says: ‘After the tour, we returned to the station to find our planned train didn’t run on Saturdays. The next one was 20 minutes late, as was the connection in Pisa. We frantically hailed a taxi at Livorno station and were back at the ship at 6.29pm for a 6.30pm all-aboard!’

-READ MORE: Royal Caribbean to offer personalised shore excursions-

Remember, too, that the morning’s pleasant stroll from the ship into town seems a lot longer on the way back if you’re racing against the clock. But if you plan ahead, leave plenty of time and don’t get waylaid by that extra glass of sangria or ouzo, shore excursions can be lots of fun. Just don’t miss the boat!

Paid-for or complimentary excursions – the choice is yours!

Ocean cruises
Princess offers a seven-night ‘Inside Passage’ cruise on Discovery Princess, departing Seattle on May 7, 2023, from £679. Excursions include ‘Dog Sled Summer Camp’ in Juneau for $160 per person, ‘Coastal Wildlife Cruise’ in Ketchikan for $190 and ‘Glacier Discovery by Helicopter’ in Skagway for $370 (princess.com).

Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers a 16-night ‘Comfort Across the Canal’ cruise on Seven Seas Grandeur, departing Miami on December 21, 2023, from £7,959 including flights. Complimentary excursions include a guided shore dive in the Cayman Islands and a visit to a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica (rssc.com).

Shop at Christmas Markets with TUI River Cruises. Credit: iStock.

River cruises

Riviera Travel offers a seven -night ‘Seine, Paris and Normandy’ cruise on MS Jane Austen, departing Paris on October 18, 2022, from £2,619 including flights. Nine complimentary excursions include guided tours of Paris, Honfleur and Rouen; visits to Caudebec, Les Andelys and Vernon; and trips to Claude Monet’s house, the D-Day Normandy beaches and the Bayeux tapestry (rivieratravel.co.uk).

Viking offers a seven-night ‘Christmas on the Rhine’ cruise in November 2022, sailing between Amsterdam and Basel, from £2,595 including flights. This seasonal cruise includes complimentary guided tours of destinations such as Dordrecht in Holland, Strasbourg in France and Cologne, Speyer and Freiburg in Germany (viking.com).

CroisiEurope offers a five-night river cruise on paddlewheeler Loire Princess, departing from Nantes in September and October 2022, from £1,487. Optional excursions include a guided tour of Saint-Nazaire (£67 per person if booked in advance); a coach trip through the Muscadet region (£58 per person) and a helicopter ride above the Loire (£125). Excursions are also sold in discounted packages (croisieurope.co.uk).

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