The cruise lines offer some great shore excursion options, but sometimes it makes sense to ditch the group and go off on your own — for example, when the line doesn’t offer exactly what you’re looking for, or when you want to spend more time in, say, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery rather than just seeing the highlights.
In addition, you get flexibility when you tour on your own — you can plan to leave the ship whenever you feel like it — and it’s almost always cheaper than booking a tour through the line. Here are five tips to consider before deciding if you should skip the ship’s shore excursions and book an independent tour:
Do your research.
While many ports in Europe and the Caribbean are ideal for independent exploring because attractions are close to the ship and locals are used to tourists, it’s a big challenge to venture off on your own in other places. If you’ve never been to the port before and don’t speak the local language, think twice about touring on your own in, say, China, Vietnam, and the Middle East, where communication could be a problem.
If you determine that you do want to book independently, figure out what you would like to see in port. Check the cruise line website to see what it offers. If several of the line’s tours include stops at a museum or historical sight, it’s probably worth researching. But the beauty of arranging your own tour is that you can customize it — combining two museums with a stop at a great restaurant you’d never get to on a bus trip, for example.
Book through a specialist.
Several companies — including Shore Excursions Group, Viator, ShoreTrips, CruisingExcursions.com, and MyExcursions.com — specialize in small group and private shore excursions similar to what the cruise lines offer. Their tours are usually cheaper than the cruise lines’ offerings: A good rule of thumb is that the larger the group, the cheaper the price. So if you’re traveling with an extended family or a bunch of friends, the discount can be very attractive. These companies can also arrange private, customized tours for a higher fee.
Hire guides directly.
Surf the websites of local tourism boards for lists of tour operators, and check out Cruiseline.com and Trip Advisor to see how travelers review the ones on your list. Some small companies and individual guides are mentioned frequently and come highly recommended, and using them might be cheaper than the larger shore excursion companies above because you may be able to negotiate a price.
Carry local currency.
Even if you prepay for an independent excursion by credit card, it’s a good idea to carry local currency for snacks, shopping, and museum and attraction entrance fees, as well as to tip your guide. (Exceptions include places like the Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, and Vietnam, where U.S. dollars are preferred.) Plan to exchange some currency at home, or hit the first ATM you see.
Memorize your ship’s departure time.
While the ship will wait for travelers on its official shore excursions, it won’t wait for passengers who book independently. Pay close attention to the exact time the ship is departing for the next port, make sure your watch is in sync with the ship’s clocks, and jot down the local port agent’s contact information listed on the ship’s daily planner.
If you’re not back in time and the ship has left without you, it will be up to you to figure out how to meet up with the ship at the next port, and you’ll also have to pay your own expenses.