Cruise excursions: How to get the most out of your trips to shore

Author: Sophie Chichester

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Cruise holidays come with a range of thrilling shore excursions during ports of call - so how can you make the most of them?

Cruise excursions are the perfect way to ensure that your holiday is much more than just a succession of sea days, shows and shopping trips, whether it's visiting a remote family-run Tuscan wine estate or snorkelling around the Great Barrier Reef.

With the growing popularity of immersive experiences, many major cruise companies are experimenting with exciting new options.

“We have definitely seen an increasing demand for shore excursions that allow passengers to get a deeper insight into a destination, so we now offer small-group itineraries that provide deeper, more authentic travel experiences,” said river cruise company Tauck's UK sales manager, Kathryn Coles.

Cruise line shore excursions can be expensive, however, so if you prefer to shop around you’ll be glad to know that an increasing number of independent companies also offer tours at very competitive prices.

Whether you choose to stick to your ship’s excursions or look elsewhere, with so many options it can be difficult to make the right choice. So read our report before you book – and then look forward to a true voyage of discovery.

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Cruise excursions: know before you go

Shore excursions are a big part of any cruise experience, so it’s worth researching what’s on offer well before you sail. That way you can be sure of choosing the tours that best match your interests and budget.

Most cruise lines will send you details of their excursions, including prices, in advance. If not, it’s easy to find the information on the relevant company’s website.

To make your choice, decide first what you’d like to see and do in a destination, then compare cruise line offerings with independent companies.

Select the tour that offers most of the things you’d like to do, but also check how much time you’ll get to spend in each location. Finally, don’t forget to factor in transport and admission fees when comparing tour prices.

Half-day or full-day?

A half-day highlights tour is perfect for getting you orientated in a new destination and giving a flavour of what it has to offer.

But for a true insight into the local lifestyle, you should be looking at full-day tours, or small-group guided trips. Some of these now offer a wonderfully immersive experience – try Norwegian Cruise Line’s day trip with wine-pairing lunch and grape-treading at Australia’s famous Hunter Valley winery, or ShoreTrips’ Ketchikan fishing tour where you’ll head out for the day to catch sea crab with the crew of a working boat.

Cruise holidays: To make your choice, decide first what you’d like to see and do in a destination. Credit: Shutterstock

Book excursions in advance

Never seen the Northern Lights? Always wanted to see the Hermitage Museum? Then book well in advance, because the most popular excursions get booked up months ahead of the cruise. Do remember, however, that if you change your mind once you’re aboard, you’ll usually be charged a cancellation fee.

If you decide to take your excursions with an independent company, it also makes sense to book before your cruise, simply because it can be difficult to use your phone or the internet once aboard ship.

Be sure to book with a reputable company that guarantees you’ll be back on the ship well before it sails, and keep a paper copy of your booking to avoid any confusion.

Going it alone?

If you’re feeling intrepid, exploring under your own steam is perfectly feasible in many cruise ports, but do make sure that you plot – and print – your route via Google maps, so it’s easy to find your ship if you get lost.

If you just want to see the main sights, many larger ports have hop-on, hop-off buses and cheap local trains, which are ideal. But never assume that public transport will be reliable.

Instead, research the local services in advance, especially in African and Asian destinations, and if you’re in any doubt, why not club together with other passengers to hire a taxi with your own private guide for the day?

Paris is always a good idea. Credit: Shutterstock

The all-inclusive cruise advantage

If you love to explore but don’t want the hassle of choosing which excursions to join, consider booking with lines such as Regent Seven Seas, Viking or Oceania, where shore excursions are part of the all-inclusive package.

Most river-cruise companies offer at least one excursion per port as part of their package: Viking offers free overview tours, for example – perfect for getting your bearings before heading out to explore on your own – while Crystal provides a range of different excursions, from art tours in Vienna to ‘voluntourism’ adventures in Asia, all at no extra cost once you’ve paid your fare.

Know your limits

When booking an excursion it’s vital to be realistic about your own fitness levels. You might be seduced by that kayak trip around the Alaskan glaciers, but if you aren’t fit enough to paddle for several hours, it could turn into a nightmare.

Likewise, hiking into Morocco’s Rif mountains may sound thrilling, but are you sure you want to be trekking in the broiling midday sun?

If you’re not sure how taxing a particular excursion will be, your travel agent or cruise line will be only too happy to clarify the situation and help you make an informed decision.

Cruise excursions: If you aren’t fit enough to paddle for several hours on an Alaska kayaking trip, it could turn into a nightmare. Credit: Shutterstock

Pay extra for exclusive tours

Although a cruise ship’s own excursions are often more expensive than trips offered by private operators, sometimes it’s worth paying a little extra for exclusive tours and experiences that can’t be found elsewhere.

For instance, the Viking River Cruises ‘Hermitage Behind Closed Doors’ excursion gives passengers an exclusive insider’s peek at one of the world’s greatest art collections, without having to jostle your way through the usual crowds.

Immerse yourself

With today’s travellers seeking to meet the locals and experience the authentic lifestyle of their chosen destination, the demand for immersive shore excursions has never been higher.

Always eager to innovate, luxury line Silversea boasts its S.A.L.T (Sea And Land Taste) programme, taking passengers out to meet chefs and mingle with communities as they learn more about local cultures via their cuisines.

Another trailblazer is Crystal, whose ‘You Care, We Care’ voluntourism programme offers unique opportunities for cruise passengers to get involved in a wide range of community-based conservation projects.

Three reasons to book cruise excursions with a cruise line

1. Peace of mind

Book your shore excursion with the cruise line and you’re guaranteed to get back to your ship before it sails.

2. Quality control

Cruise line excursions will have qualified guides and proper insurance – this is especially reassuring in countries where languages or local customs could be a barrier.

3. Ease of access

In certain countries – including Russia – unless you get a visa ahead of the cruise, you can only go ashore with one of the ship’s excursions.

Three reasons to go independent with cruise excursions

1. Better value

In destinations where you speak the local language – such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand – or cities like Rome or Athens where it’s easy to get around, it makes perfect sense to see what local excursion companies have to offer.

2. Smaller groups

On a cruise ship excursion, you might be travelling with a hundred fellow passengers – whereas reputable private companies like Tripashore guarantee there will be no more than 20 in each group.

3. More choice

If you like the idea of dining with locals or uncovering a city’s hidden gems, companies such as ToursBy Locals and ShoreTrips offer themed excursions led by experts who actually live in the destination you’re visiting.