Not sure how to choose shore excursions for ports you’ve never visited? The options sometimes seem endless — and dazzling. While some things, like the quality of your individual tour guide, are left to chance, there are plenty of steps you can take to ensure you have the best experience possible. Check out our advice on what to think about before you sign up for excursions for your next cruise, as well as what to do on the day of each tour:
1. Read the description carefully.
Dunn's River Falls is a staple of cruises to Jamaica, but don't expect to get there without some walking. - Photo by SIME / eStockPhoto
It always surprises me when other passengers start glaring at the tour guide once they realize that an excursion involves a lot of fast-paced walking through, say, the cobblestone streets of a European city — particularly because the cruise lines are excellent about noting this on the shore excursion descriptions. Make a point to read all of the literature about a tour and look up the related codes that describe the activity level — before you plunk down your money — so you know exactly what you’re getting.
2. Know what you can (and can’t) do on your own.
Being a part of cruise tour group makes it easier to access places like the Uffizi gallery. - Photo by SIME / eStockPhoto
On a recent cruise that called in Livorno, Italy, I considered exploring Florence on my own — until I realized I would never get into the Uffizi Gallery or the Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David resides. Once I determined that I didn’t want to miss out on either of those sights, the decision to book a shore excursion was easy.
3. Look at the whole vacation.
Adventuring every day sounds fun until you're too exhausted to enjoy your nights. - Photo by Disney Cruise Line
Sign up for action-packed shore excursions for every day of your cruise, and you’ll return home more tired than when you left. Before you spend any money on nonrefundable excursions, figure out your entire schedule so you can pace yourself.
4. Ask questions before it’s too late.
You can snorkel at many Caribbean ports, but ask around to see which one on your itinerary has the best aquatic life. - Photo by Royal Caribbean
When a ship spends an extended period of time in one region, the shore excursion desk becomes very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each tour offered. Take advantage of that knowledge by asking key questions — before the deadline to change your tickets has passed.
5. Don’t assume that price equals quality.
Alaska plane tours are always beautiful, but there are less expensive ways of exploring the wilderness. - Photo by Andrea Izzotti
I’ve had amazing tours that were inexpensive, and poor ones that were hundreds of dollars per person. Sometimes, it’s the distance you travel or number of sights you visit that determines the cost, not the special access or small size of the group, or knowledge level of the tour guide. Be sure to compare shore excursions based on what you get, without assuming that the most expensive one must be the best.
6. Travel lightly.
Bringing too much on your tour limits how much you can carry back to the ship, a big mistake for wine tours. - Photo by Silversea Cruises
It seems like the passengers who didn’t realize that the “Walking tour of Rome” would involve, you know, extensive walking, are the same passengers who carry too much and then get bitter about schlepping their bags around. Even if the guide says it’s “safe,” you really don’t want to leave your belongings on the bus during the day, so take a small backpack or tote for your stuff — and then make a point not to overfill it. This is not, for example, the time to bring your tripod.
7. Dress for comfort.
A zip line tour is not the time for fashion. - Photo by Royal Caribbean
Yes, those elegant spaghetti strap sandals with the high heels would look fabulous on the streets of Monte Carlo, but you may regret them on mile two of your city tour. Definitely consider the terrain and the amount of walking you’ll be doing when you pick out your outfit and footwear.
8. Don’t be in a hurry.
Dodge the crowds with patience. - Photo by byvalet
Here’s a good suggestion from a fellow cruiser: Many large ships send out several buses on each tour. If you hang back and get in the last group, you will usually find that it’s smaller.
9. Spread out.
Taking the last bus has its perks. - Photo by Concept Photo
My husband and I sit next to each other on shore excursion buses — and, since I am squarely type A, we’re always in one of the first groups to depart, and therefore, the bus is full. But if you follow the previous tip and get yourself in the last group to depart, you can nab separate seats and feel pretty certain that there will be room to watch the sights go by without feeling squished, or even having to share a window.