Barcelona is a city bursting with colour. Credit: Shutterstock

10 ways to get the most out of your cruise excursions

Author: Deborah Stone

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We all love cruise excursions - but here are 10 smart ways to make them even better

You've booked your cruise and you're looking forward to seeing the sights.

But before you buy your ship’s excursions at every port, take a breath. Daily tours can add around £1,000 per person to your bill on a 10-day trip – a major consideration in these straitened times – and unless you’re sailing way off the beaten track, there are always alternatives.

Independent sightseeing won’t just save you money, however.

If you book your own tours, or simply go it alone, you’re also likely to have a more authentic experience as you jump on a bus with the locals and venture down streets you’d never see from a panoramic coach tour.

On the other hand, there are some things only a ship’s tour can give you.

The captain always waits for official excursions, so you’ll never face the horror of returning late to an empty cruise dock.

What’s more, if the ship’s itinerary changes en route to avoid bad weather, you won’t lose any money on your shore trips.

So there are important choices to be made before you step aboard – and here’s our expert guide to help you.

Reach Iceland's beautiful Gullfoss waterfall with Ambassador. Credit: Shutterstock

1. Study the excursions online before you book

A few weeks before departure, you’ll have access to ship’s excursion prices, and by then you’ll have researched which must-see attractions have long queues, and which are miles from the cruise terminal.

In both cases, ship’s excursions can be helpful. If you want to visit Barcelona’s extraordinary Sagrada Familia church, Princess Cruises has an excursion that jumps the queue.

And if you're set on seeing distant sights – such as Iceland’s Golden Circle of waterfalls, geysers and tectonic plate fissures – you’re going to need transport. Ambassador is one among many lines that will whisk you there on an official trip.

Experience daily onshore excursions with Riviera Travel. Credit: Riviera Travel

2. Book a cruise with excursions included

Expedition cruises, most river cruises and all-inclusive ocean lines such as Viking, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas include free daily excursions, while others offer packages.

Holland America Line’s ‘Have It All’ upgrade gives you excursions, drinks, Wi-Fi and speciality dining for £40 per person per day, while Oceania Cruises’ Simply More package is available on all sailings and gives free flights, drinks and Wi-Fi, plus free daily excursions.

Riviera Travel’s river cruises come with particularly good daily excursions that include entrance to palaces, castles and other attractions.

Discover Japan with Celebrity. Credit: Shutterstock

3. Pay extra for bucket-list excursions

If you want to nail down that once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s best to book with the ship rather than trying to get there by yourself.

Want to swim with sea turtles? Princess Cruises can organise that in Barbados. Or how about a helicopter flight to an Alaskan glacier? Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth can make it happen.

Cherry blossom in Japan? This beautiful but fleeting sight moves across the country like a wave, so let the cruise lines’ local knowledge take care of dates and locations. Celebrity Cruises’ round trips from Tokyo have overnight stops for trips to Kyoto’s cherry gardens.

Tuscany is arguably Italy's most idyllic region. Credit: Shutterstock

4. Try an interactive excursion

Don’t fancy museums or palaces? Maybe vineyard visits and cookery sessions are more to your taste.

Virgin Voyages offers both at an Instagrammable Tuscan farm on its ‘Irresistible Med’ itineraries. Alternatively, Regent has ‘Go Local’ Tours including fishing with locals
in Portofino on the Italian Riviera and learning to make tapas in Spain.

And Holland America Line’s Alaska cruises include craft beer tasting, while Silversea’s S.A.L.T. excursions are all about local cuisine.

Be sure to pack appropriately for a winter trip to the Arctic Circle. Credit: Shutterstock

5. Wear the right clothes

Footwear and waterproofs are particularly important for active excursions such as hiking (CroisiEurope has good options for walkers), but they’re equally key for winter Northern Lights cruises and even summer trips to cooler locations such as Norway and Alaska.

If you’re visiting religious sites, particularly in the Middle East, India or Turkey (Azamara has some excellent itineraries from Istanbul), women need clothes that cover their knees, shoulders and head, while men need long trousers.

Hiking up a mountain can certainly liven up your voyage - if you feel prepared for it. Credit: Shutterstock

6. Know your limits

Cruise lines always grade their excursions, usually with labels such as easy, moderate and strenuous. It sounds obvious, but ignore these at your peril.

You may love the idea of hiking up a mountain, jumping off a waterfall (Norwegian Cruise Line’s Damajagua River trip in Puerto Rico) or tackling old-town cobbles, but be realistic about your abilities, especially in hot conditions.

No one wants to find themselves in discomfort or holding up the group, so if you’re in any doubt it’s best to read customer reviews on your ship’s website or seek advice from the onboard excursion staff.

There’s always an easier option (in Puerto Rico, Princess offers a coach trip to El Yunque National Forest with time at La Coca Falls, so it’s up to you how active – and wet – you get).

Visit a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica with Regent's Eco-Connect tours. Credit: Shutterstock

7. Try something new

Cruise lines are increasingly looking for ways to benefit the environments they visit, and the latest sustainable excursions also promise richer and more authentic experiences for guests.

Regent Seven Seas’ ‘Eco- Connect’ tours allow guests to learn about conservation and interact with local communities, and in Costa Rica you can visit a sanctuary for orphaned sloths.

Holland America Line has ‘Cruise With Purpose’ excursions such as its Cozumel Active Reef Restoration trip with marine biologists in Mexico, while Oceania Cruises offers nearly 200 ‘Go Green’ tours, including a visit to Caribbean beekeepers on St Lucia.

It's a simple trip by rail from Livorno's port to the sights at Pisa. Credit: Shutterstock

8. Go it alone

The big-ticket attractions may lie inland, but often there’s a great day out to be enjoyed right near the cruise dock. In which case, you can definitely explore under your own steam.

Mediterranean ports are easy to research online – try our own selection of cruises – and many have free tourist apps for your phone.

If you do decide to explore further afield, public transport can still make independent travel a realistic proposition.

Livorno to Pisa by rail is easy, and there’s an excellent rail service between Villefranche, Nice and Monte Carlo (beware, though, of the notoriously unreliable train from Civitavecchia to Rome).

Independent agencies are ideal for small group strolls. Credit: Shutterstock

9. Book independently

If you want an organised tour but prefer small groups, try using an independent agency.

One of the best is Venture Ashore, which tailors excursions to your ship’s schedule with the security of Back-to-Ship and ‘Don’t Port, Don’t Pay’ guarantees.

The company offers a huge range of tours, from Alaska to New Zealand, and some are identical to cruise lines’ own tours so they’re worth a look if the official excursion you want is fully booked

Themed cruises are a great way to meet like-minded friends. Credit: Shutterstock

10. Match your trip to your interests

Aimed at specific hobbies, themed cruises are a great way to make like-minded friends, and they often feature star names as special guests.

Ambassador Cruise Line has a ‘Cricket Legends’ cruise to Hamburg for the Christmas markets, as well as a ‘Supercraft’ cruise around Britain with lino printing and stained glass-making activities on board.

If history is your thing, you’ll find river cruises particularly illuminating.

Many offer exclusive access to museums or palaces for evening entertainment, and on Viking’s Egyptian cruises you even get after- hours access to the Valley of the Kings.

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