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5 Best Shore Excursions for Your Next Cruise


Last Updated on November 12, 2022 by Nicole

You have booked your cruise, and now the cruise liner is sending you email reminders about booking your shore excursions with them. You look at the prices, count the number of people at your party, and almost faint. The fantastic cruise deal you couldn’t walk away from is starting to look less amazing. You don’t want to stay on board at these incredible ports. You are dying to explore and learn about the places where you are going. That’s one of the reasons why you decided to take this cruise.

a cruise ship for shore excursions
Photo courtesy of Katarzyna Ostrowska on Unsplash

What do you do? Bite the bullet and book your shore excursions through the cruise liner? Or find some other way to explore or fill your time at the port?

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Other Options

Although there are many reasons to take your first cruise, there are also many reasons never to take your first cruise ship holiday. For a discussion of those reasons, please see Cruise Holidays: Why You Should Avoid Them.

If you are still deciding whether to take a voyage on an ocean liner, please read 9 Best Reasons To Take Your First Cruise Ship.

For those planning their shore excursions in Cozumel and Costa May, Mexico, please see my review of two amazing shore excursions: 

Finally, if you haven’t already booked your cruise and are open to different destinations, please see:

What Is the True Purpose of a Shore Excursion?

Going on a cruise allows you to visit different countries and places you have never been to for days and weeks. However, staying on board for a long time may make your vacation uneventful.

Shore excursions will depend on the route of your cruise ship. Some stopovers include beautiful beaches, festive ports, and culture rich towns that will make your ocean liner experience memorable.

Best Shore Excursions

Before reaching the sail date, consider these five shore excursions to do by yourself and with your family. The options offer fun and budget friendly ideas for all shore excursioneer to enjoy.

a cruise ship in night view
Photo courtesy of Jamie Morrison on Unsplash

Stay On Board

Some people love to remain on board when they reach a port. They do so for two main reasons.

First, they like the relative peace and quiet of the cruise ship once most passengers leave. They also like to use all of the on-board amenities without the craziness of a fully packed cruise.

top view of two cruise ships showing amenities
Some cruise ship amenities (Photo courtesy of Brandon Nelson on Unsplash)

Second, they don’t feel like the hassle of getting on and off the cruise ship. Cruise ships are enormous with a lot of people on them. Depending on the port and the passport or visa requirements of the country that you are visiting, there might be a lot of lining up and waiting to get on or off the boat.

The cruise ships are pretty good at minimizing this, but if you are on a lengthy cruise, there just might be days that you decide you can’t bear to go through that.

Most of the time, I can’t wait to get off the cruise ship. However, I do understand both of these sentiments. I have returned early from shore excursions and enjoyed spending time on the ship with plenty of space to myself. I have also wanted to avoid the process of getting on and off the boat.

Take a Stroll At The Port

This option is really only relevant for Caribbean cruise lines. In many ports, the port is nice and inviting with lots of amenities. You don’t have to leave it to go shopping or find restaurants and bars.  In other ports, there is a good selection of shops and restaurants just outside the port.

Without too much effort, you can go for a casual walk, have a drink or a meal and entertain yourself for a bit. Of course, what you are going to get is a very touristy experience. The merchandise for sale will be overpriced and lack originality.

The restaurants in and around the port will also be expensive and cater to tourists. It will not likely offer authentic food from the area. However,  this is an option.

boats near shops and restaurants in Europe
Shops and restaurants near a European port (Photo courtesy of Chris Lawton on Unsplash).

In Europe, most ports are working ports. When you disembark, there is nothing pretty or inviting about them. Ships are being loaded or unloaded with cargo. It is much more difficult, if not impossible, to hang out at an European port and enjoy it.

a port in Barcelona
Barcelona, a working port

Plan Your Own Excursion

Another option is to arrive at a port and go off on your own. This seemed to happen more often on our European cruises, but of course, this can be done anywhere. In Europe, cruise ships normally (but not always) dock near the city that you want to explore. Public transportation is usually very easy to access from the port.

Some people make a plan on where they want to go, how they will do it, and how best to manage their time. Others might only wish to see one particular site and feel comfortable taking the day to find it and explore it.

While others want nothing more than to shop, walk or find a terrific restaurant in the centre of the city without anything truly organized or nailed down. Normally, these people have been to the area before and feel quite comfortable finding their way, or are seasoned travellers confident in their abilities.

two guys planning holding a tour brochure
Photo courtesy of Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

This option is not for everyone, but is quite achievable for those who are good with maps and have an adventurous spirit. To return to your cruise ship on time, you can go on a specific available shore excursion.

Water Excursions

Cozumel, Bermuda, and the Great Barrier Reef trips offer water activities that you can try for a short time. Cruise passengers can go for a surf, a kayak ride, or a water ski.

The Cozumel stopover in the Mexican Riviera Cruise is always ready to offer guests the most memorable water excursions. Some include reef snorkelling and even a submarine excursion for groups and families.

Culture Tours

Belize is a paradise for cultural excursions. When you go aboard the Carnival Cruise to Central America, you can participate in a spiritual ceremony or visit stunning plantations.

Another less crowded place to go on a cultural tour is by visiting museums by yourself or your family. There is always a few small and renowned museum to see in most places.

When you go on a New England cruise with the Royal Caribbean cruise line, you can take your kids to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Book Sponsored Shore Cruise Excursions

These are the ones organized by and offered through the cruise ship. The diverse range of activities appeals to many interests, from spending the day at an all-inclusive beach or water park to touring ancient or historical sites.

shore excursions
Photo courtesy of Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

There are many advantages to choosing to do the shore excursions your cruise ship offers.

  • Like a cruise ship experience, they take care of everything. They tell you the meeting time and place, with everything organized for you – transportation, guides, and timing. It is effortless.
  • The cruise ship normally schedules its shore excursions to have an early departure time or a more streamlined exit procedure to avoid disembarking with everyone else.
  • You do not have to be stressed about being late and the cruise ship leaving without you. If you book an excursion offered by the cruise and the excursion becomes delayed, the cruise ship will wait for you. However, cruise ships have strict schedules and will leave if you return late.
shore excursions
Photo courtesy of Spencer Watson on Unsplash
  • The cruise line assesses the shore excursion with a similar standard as your cruise ship experience. The guides are likely professional and good at what they do. Further, the transportation to and from the activity would have similar safety guidelines in North America.
  • The cruise ship knows the ports of call and the order in which it visits them. It also knows the age and demographics of its passengers. Consequently, a cruise liner typically provides a package of shore excursions that satisfies most passengers’ interests.
shore excursions
Photo courtesy of Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
  • Ship sponsored shore excursions are adaptable in the event of a late arrival to the port or bad weather. It is far more difficult to accomplish if you have booked independent shore excursions.

Why I Book Our Own Shore Excursions

I prefer to book our own shore excursions with outside tour operators. Why?

  • Typically, the cost of shore excursions the cruise ship offers is exponentially more than the amount charged by local independent tour operators. When you are a family of six, the price difference becomes significant.
  •  The cruise ship usually organizes shore excursions that maximize participation. Accordingly, dozens and dozens of people from the cruise can and normally do register for them. This does not make much difference if you head to a large beach for a few hours. You can all spread out and enjoy the peace and quiet. However, a large crowd could impact a smaller beach or other types of excursions, such as visiting historical or cultural sites.
shore excursions
Photo courtesy of Fancycrave on Unsplash
  • A small group or private tour allows participants the ability to ask questions. You can also adapt the itinerary to meet your and your family’s needs.
shore excursions
  • Cruises usually are jammed packed with people. I enjoy time away from the other passengers and the cruise ship experience.
shore excursions
A crowded cruise ship (Photo courtesy of Leonardo Yip on Unsplash)
  • I like to take excursions that allow me to see a new destination as genuinely as possible. I’d rather get away from the crowds and visit a remote beach or park or try to understand a local culture by visiting something off the beaten path than flock to standard tourist destinations. Generally, cruise ships offer excursions that appeal to as many passengers as possible. It is in their interests to ensure their excursions are sold out, not only for financial reasons but also to keep most passengers happy. Accordingly, I am not interested in most excursions offered by cruise ships. 
shore excursions
A beach off the beaten path (Photo courtesy of Joe Caione on Unsplash)

Most local tour operators catering to shore excursions organize them so that it is easy to meet your driver or guide at the port. It might seem overwhelming to receive instructions to walk through the port and exit at a certain place to find your car, driver or guide. However, the reality is most local tour operators have made it as simple as possible for their clients.

This is one of the ways they stay in business. Most local tour operators catering to shore excursions also understand the importance of returning their clients to the ship on time. I have never been on one that did not have a schedule and was not strictly followed.

Most local tour operators catering to shore excursions also understand the importance of returning their clients to the ship on time. I have never been on one that did not have a schedule and was not strictly followed.


When a cruise ship reaches a port, passengers have many options about how they want to use their time. What you choose to do is a very personal decision. There isn’t a right or wrong answer.

For me and my family, we prefer shore excursions that are with local tour operators that offer private or small group tours. We like shore excursions that are off the beaten track, and are less expensive than the cruise sponsored ones. That is what works best for our family.

However, this is not always possible or desirable. I have booked cruise sponsored shore excursions when I wanted to see or do something hours away from the port. I did not want to worry about traffic problems that could impact a timely return to the boat.

Once, we explored a European city on our own that was close to the port because there wasn’t a lot of time. We also didn’t want to see or experience any one thing on a tour. And as mentioned above, a couple of times we arrived back early to our cruise ship and enjoyed our time there without the crowds and noise. Each experience was enjoyable, rewarding and had its purpose.

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When you reach ports on your cruise, you have five choices about how you are going to spend your time. Will you take cruise sponsored shore excursions, book your own shore excursions, or something else? Which fits you, your spouse or your family the best? #travel #familytravel #cruising |caribbean, cruise ships, cruise sponsored, cruises, europe, local tour operator, port, shore excursions, tours|
When you reach ports on your cruise, you have five choices about how you are going to spend your time. Will you take cruise sponsored shore excursions, book your own shore excursions, or something else? Which fits you and your family the best? #travel #familytravel #cruising | caribbean, cruise ships, cruise sponsored, cruises, Europe, local tour operator, port, tours|
the authorNicole


  • Would love to go on a cruise, but I hate crowds. I guess we would do the self guided tour. #weekendwanderlust

    • I think you can guess by my blog that I’m not a big fan of big crowds too. I think that is one of the biggest negatives for me when it comes to thinking of cruises. But, cruises are great for other reasons and I have written an article highlighting why. However, one of the ways to deal with the crowds is to get off the cruise ship at ports and explore. Some of the ports and the cities nearby are really amazing and make a cruise worthwhile regardless of the crowds.

  • My husband loves, loves, loves cruises so we go on one every five years or so. We’ve done each of your suggestions for shore excursions and found that a mixture of booking an excursion through the cruise line for a few days and picking our own works the best for us. Sometimes picking our own is just taking a taxi to the beach even. But we feel like we don’t spend as much on every excursion and get a few quirky ones by booking our own and then do some “must do’s ” through the cruise line for other days. It’s just what works for us but it’s good to hear what others do, too.

    • I think we pretty much have a duplicate strategy. We prefer to do things on our own, whether it is truly exploring an area by ourselves, or finding tours that are independent of the cruise ship. But, sometimes the cruise ship has the best excursion for the amount of time in the port, or maybe there is a special on the excursions and the cost is more competitive. I think the important thing is that there are a few options that you have and you should be open minded about what you should do.

  • Reading your reasons for using independent operators for your cruise excursions I find myself wondering why you cruise at all. It sounds like the best part of cruising for you is getting away from the ship and crowds of other passengers. I am sure you love cruising but it does seem a bit weird.

    • Actually, I don’t love cruising. I kind of have a love/hate relationship with them. There certainly are advantages to them, especially when you have young children or you want to explore an area, but not sure how much time you would really want to allot to certain countries or cities. But certainly, the crowds are a big negative for me. So, yes, finding ways to enjoy a port or a city, and spend time away from the crowds exploring is a huge focus for me when we do reach ports on a cruise.

  • I usually either do ports on my own or book an excursion with an off ship provider. I find the on ship provided excursions to be high priced, crowded, and impersonal. The instances where I do book an excursion with a ship is when either time in the port is short (higher likelihood of not getting back to the ship in time) or limited availability due to the ship booking all available spots. Good examples of these are the ports of Juneau, Alaska (short port time and no easy way to make it to the next port) or Flam, Norway (Flambasa railway tours 100% available to cruise ships so no opportunity to book on your own). Also, certain venues give preferential seating to cruise passengers so while you may be able to book on your own, you may end up with inferior seating or positions.

    • I totally agree with you. The one thing that I did not realize is that sometimes the local providers can not provide any tours to individual passengers because they are so booked up with the cruise sponsored tours. I have never experienced that. Hopefully, there would be other reputable tour companies to step in their place. Although, I’m guessing that Flam, Norway, being a small village, might not offer a lot of other options. Thanks for that information!

  • This is a fascinating post, partly because my daughter is literally on the plane flying to Venice for a 2-week cruise. She is very independent and has been looking at private tours in the different ports. I get seasick so easily that I plan to avoid cruises, but this is good info for my friends who love to cruise. And yes, I have one friend who sticks to the planned tours and doesn’t mind at all. I think that would drive me crazy! 🙂

    • I think cruises in Europe are a great idea, especially if you haven’t seen a lot of Europe and you don’t have a lot of time. I took my four kids on a 12 day cruise a few years ago and it was a really good experience for them. She will have a wonderful time. It sounds like she has already figured out what works for her once she reaches port. I found the European ports and the tour companies there to be very professional and easy to work with.

  • If it were me, I think my best option would be to explore on my own. I like having my own time and managing it. I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do and when.

  • When we first started cruising, we always booked through the cruise ship but not anymore. We always use outside tour companies we find through cruise critic websites or Viator which, as you pointed out, are less expensive. We’ve also explored on our own, negotiating with a taxi driver depending on what we know we want to see.

    • I think most people start out this way. We did for sure. We didn’t know really how to cruise so had to figure things out. But now, I much prefer making my own decisions about what to do in port.

  • I am an explore on my own type of person, whether it is hiking, kayaking or seeing a city. I appreciate that they have tours and organized excursions for people who aren’t comfortable with this. For me, it makes travel more affordable and enjoyable when you meet a local and they give you insight on what to do and see.

    • I totally agree. I love connecting with the locals and getting their insights. Some of my best travel memories are having great conversations about their city or country and then, having a unique experience.

  • I’ve never done a cruise before, but I think I’d be itching to get off the boat! I’m more of an explorer, so would want to see as much as I can while there. Good point about the port towns too, can’t be so inviting!

    • I think if people want to sun tan and relax, they will be happy to stay on board or just wander around the port (if possible). But for those of us who see arriving at a port as the opportunity of a lifetime, we can’t wait to get out and explore.

  • I’ve only ever cruised to the Caribbean so I’ve typically taken a taxi to a nearby beach and spent the day there. However, if I were to cruise to Europe I’d absolutely look for the best option either through the ship or on my own. Do you have any tour company sites that you like to use?

    • No, I don’t. In every port, there are always small tour companies that I tend to gravitate towards. However, I think that Viator offers lots of options in most cruise ports.

  • Though I’ve never really done a cruise of this scale and nature before, my grandma and grandpa take a lot of cruises, especially around the Caribbean. Like you they used tp prefer to make their own plans, though as they’ve got older (and as it’s just the two of them), I think they’re quite happy with paying a little extra and going on the liners organised ones. I’m definitely going to bear these tips in mind for if and when I do get to go on a cruise like this (I would love to one day, it looks so luxurious!) X

    • That is what is great about cruises. They work for different travel temperaments and different ages. I could totally see me going on the cruise excursions as I got older just to make my life easier.

  • I have only been on a cruise once and I truly believe that the best of all options available (which you’ve listed perfectly by the way) is to explore the city on your own. The cruise-ship shore excursions are often too expensive and the ones offered by third party operators are more reasonable however I find the maximum flexibility in just getting out of the port, taking a taxi or using public transportation to get to places by yourself. Having said that, you’ve to be very careful to get back to your cruise in time for the departure which means to an extent, you lose your peace of mind.

    • That’s exactly it! You “lost your peace of mind” when you explore on your own if you go too far away. But yes, for the traveller that wants to explore, it is hard not to hop in a cab and explore away!

  • My husband and I LOVE to cruise. That is our “Go-To” vacation. We have experienced booking shore excursions with the cruise line, booking with a local guide, and explored on our own. Each experience was amazing and totally worth it. From our experience, there is not one way better than the other. I guess it depends on the itinerary of the cruise line and what your vacation expectation are. No matter what, just enjoy your time off. Happy Cruising!!!

    • You are right. How you want to explore a city depends on the itinerary, the cruise line and your expectations. Everyone is different and is looking for different experiences. I guess that is one of the reasons why taking a cruise can fit so many different types of people.

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