Scheduled excursions aren’t your only option – try booking privately

Looking for a cost-effective and fun way of exploring the ports on your cruise? Skip the scheduled excursions and book a private tour instead

Here's something that often slips under your radar. When stepping off your cruise ship in a new port, you don’t have to take the nominated excursion organised by your cruise provider.

You heard us – don't fancy the onshore excursion? You can book a private outing, and there are scores of companies that dedicate themselves to intimate tours designed to return you on time.

Granted, starting a day out in a new place with everything organised by your cruise line is deliciously lazy. You can simply get underway, without having to work out what there is to do, or how you will get to various sites of interest within a given port. Perhaps more importantly, you won’t have to worry about the possibility of missing your cruise ship afterwards, and becoming tarnished with the dreaded status of a pier runner.

If a tour that your cruise line has organised happens to run late, the ship will hold back while waiting for your return. The same cannot be said about your private tour, but that doesn't mean you should rule them out.

While cruise-scheduled excursions remain both an easy and safe option, making them ideal for busy individuals or inexperienced cruisers, these packages are not without their compromises. Scheduled excursions can be somewhat predictable, crowded and expensive – so it is often worthwhile to consider booking a private tour instead.

Concerned that you won't have enough time to see the sights? A private tour is the way to go. Credit: Shutterstock

Book a private shore tour and reap the benefits

If you simply don’t want to traverse the most obvious tourist hotspots in a new location, or you appreciate flexibility while exploring somewhere new, you may struggle to completely enjoy an excursion scheduled by your cruise line. This is particularly true when a cruise-scheduled tour proves much more expensive than other options that would otherwise have been available to you.

While a private tour may not always be the best option – particularly remote locations can be a challenge – if you are visiting a bustling city or a port frequented by cruise ships on a near daily basis, you should be able to find a highly-rated private tour with relative ease (such as these for Edinburgh, for example). Most private tour providers can be found online or via your travel agent. Some can even be accessed via the nominated port guide where your cruise ship docks.

By booking a private excursion, you significantly widen your options when it comes to activities onshore, and also how you can do it. Private tours will particularly appeal to those who do not wish to be part of a large group, while also having to stick to a pre-determined and somewhat confining timetable. For those with health conditions, such as autism, large groups can also provide stress – making a private venture far more appealing.

Absorb the culture of each destination by going with a local tour guide. Credit: Shutterstock

Where possible, we always recommend researching and booking a private tour well ahead of your cruise. Bag yourself a good one and numerous benefits are then yours for the taking. These can include a personalised itinerary, being able to travel solo or in smaller groups, having access to private transport, seeing more than what is usually open to the public, and skipping elements of the tour or abiding for longer where desired.

Best of all, a private tour is often half the price of a cruise-scheduled excursion, so you may even save some money while enjoying an improved experience. What’s not to like?

From a logistical perspective, a private tour can prove an excellent solution if a particular location is difficult to access, or when being able to take a few extra breaks might provide a much more comfortable outing. This can prove invaluable for those with young children, older cruisers or those with special requirements.

Many private tours allow you to connect with the local community on a more intimate level, as you are often shown around by someone who lives locally, speaks the native language and can share their unique insights.

Best of all, when you return to your cruise ship after a glorious day out, you can revel in having a more unique experience on shore than many of your fellow passengers did. You will also leave with an expanded knowledge that comes from having a more intimate insight into the destination you have visited.

Brown bears are a classic Alaska snap. Make sure you find a tour provider who knows the game. Credit: Shutterstock

Private shore tour options – limited only by your imagination

If you’ve never dared book a private shore tour before, you may find yourself staggered by the wide range of appealing options out there.

From guided walks to having exclusive use of a novel method of transport, enjoying a wine tasting session, taking a class in how to make pasta, embarking on a themed taxi ride or getting to see more than the public while visiting a historical venue, private shore tours offer everything you have in mind. Be it somewhat cliché, the only limit is usually your imagination.

If you’re still not convinced, try searching for available activities offered by private tour operators in a town or city near you. You’ll likely find a wealth of options that you didn’t even know existed before!

What’s better, many private shore operators understand that one of the main reasons a cruiser will feel hesitant about booking with them is the possibility of missing their ship’s departure. Subsequently, many such tours guarantee to get you back in plenty of time and, should the unexpected arise and they don’t, they will then get you to your ship’s next port of call for free.

Things can become tricky if the ship in question – such as Cunard's QM2 – is off on a Transatlantic crossing, making a rendezvous practically impossible, so don't book an extended Broadway show if you don't have time.

Another possible concern you might have is that your ship may unexpectedly become unable to dock at a given port at which you have a private tour booked. You may worry that you would consequently lose out on that private tour given that you can no longer get to it. However, if you choose your private tour operator with care, many such companies recognise that this is always a possibility and will not charge if your ship cannot get you to your destination.

To find a tour that perfectly matches your requirements, it is best to commence your search with an open mind and then work on narrowing down your options as you go. Start with the fundamentals – where you are going, when you will be there, how much time you will have between docking and your ship leaving, your budget and any special requirements that need catered for. You can hand these details to a travel agent or use them while browsing online.

If opting to search online, among the top private shore tour providers are Cruising Excursions, Shore Excursions Group, Viator and Tours by Locals. All of these websites allow you to search by destination and date, sometimes in line with your specific cruise too.

While it is easy to click and commit to an interesting looking tour, try to search with both patience and logic. Ensure to read the tour descriptions in full and consult customer reviews wherever possible.

You can also save a considerable amount of money if you compare the price of one private tour with another for there are often similarities in what is available yet notable differences between costs. It is also a great idea to read the terms and conditions of a given tour so that you know what to expect should something go wrong. Only book once you are fully satisfied.

Additionally, be ready to provide your private tour provider with detailed information on your cruise, timings and personal information (e.g., emergency contact details, any allergies you have or any mobility issues that you’ll need assistance with).

Ideally, have all of these compiled together before making any tour booking as it is disappointing to miss out on the last available space due to not having this information to hand.

A cruise is all about making memories, so take full advantage of private excursions. Credit: Shutterstock

If a particular tour strongly appeals but the cost is out of budget, consider signing up for notifications of special deals or last-minute offers. Another way to cut costs is to consider teaming up with other people on your cruise who may wish to partake in the same activity. Often a tour’s price is determined by a vehicle and the fuel it will use so the more people who board, the cheaper it will usually become for each person booked.

It is also wise to make your tour provider well aware of the hours that your ship will be in port, as well as how many participants will be joining a specific activity. If anything is unclear - for example, whether a tour is charged per person or per vehicle or what currency is required - aim to ascertain this in writing long before you turn up.

If you will have a nominated driver, ask how you will find them on the day as well as asking for a written copy of your route. If you are responsible for planning the route, be wary of trying to pack in too much as even a good driver will struggle should you not give them wiggle room to counteract heavy traffic or bad weather conditions.

By thoroughly researching private tour options as well as ensuring you and your chosen operator are clear on what will happen on the day, all you have to do is look forward to creating unique memories while having a better time ashore.

Most recent articles

About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

Starting out on Classic Car titles for Bauer's extensive portfolio, Gillian has since moved onto a successful freelance career covering all manner of heritage aspects as both writer and photographer. She is currently involved with the RNLI's bicentenary and was a proud part of the new Land Rover Defender's launch campaign.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.