For many travelers, shore excursions are the highlights of going on a cruise. These land tours give you a sense of the ports you stop at; they can be as relaxing as a stroll through historic towns in Italy while accompanied by a local expert, or as active as climbing to the top of a waterfall in Alaska. There are, of course, a lot of options between those two extremes. From cooking classes to shopping excursions to museum outings, there are plenty of choices when it comes to spending a day in port.
The question is: Should you book your excursion with the cruise line or plan it yourself? Here are some factors to consider:
Have you been to this destination before?
If you’ve been to this port before, you may already have the lay of the land and have probably already seen the major sightseeing spots. If that’s the case, ask yourself two questions.
First: Is the destination easy to navigate on your own? Does it good public transportation, or is the town walk-able?) Tokyo, for example, has plenty of taxis and a fantastic public transportation network that’s easy to navigate without knowing Japanese. On the other hand, it can be tough to find a taxi in Bora Bora when you need it. It’s best to pre-arrange your transportation needs so you don’t find yourself stranded on a beach while your ship is sailing on to its next port of call.The harder it is to get around the port, the more sense it makes to book a ship-sponsored excursion so you don’t waste valuable time trying to get from point A to point B.
Second: Does the cruise line offer any off-the-beaten path excursions that might interest you? Cruise lines know some of their guests are repeat visitors and they want to be sure to offer plenty of land trips that will appeal to everyone, so there might be an unusual offering that’s worth your time. Otherwise, consult your guidebook or your trusty travel app and determine what you’d like to accomplish on your own.
Do you mind the hard sell from locals?
Some ports—especially in the Caribbean and Mexico—are easy and inexpensive to explore on your own or with the help of a local guide. At many ports, taxi drivers andtour guides line up near the dock or tender station to offer their services. In some cultures, the hard sell is the norm which you may not feel like dealing with. In those instances, firmly decline their services and continue on your way—they’ll eventually give up. Alternatively, pre-book a cruise-sponsored trip or arrange for a private guide before leaving home.
Is it safe?
Before leaving home, do your due diligence and research the places you’ll be visiting. Are there any State Department warnings or alerts? Be sure to understand the situation on the ground before deciding if you want to walk around on your own. If you do, take normal precautions (keep money and jewelry out of sight, don’t walk down desolate streets, etc.) and stay safe.
Are you visiting a remote location and do you speak the language?
The remoteness of the region you’re cruising will play a big role in how you handle your time ashore. If you’re visiting the ports of West Africa, traveling around Papua New Guinea, or cruising the Amazon, you’re probably better off sticking to cruise-planned shore adventures since going it alone could be difficult at best and dangerous at worst.
Language is another thing to consider. While people in many parts of the world understand some English, there are still some destinations where a language barrier certainly exists. If the locals don’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs, it will be more difficult to navigate the port and see the sights. If you do book your own private guide, be sure he or she speaks English on a level that you’re comfortable with.
Are you looking for a VIP experience?
Cruise lines spend a lot of time networking in the regions their ships sail to in order to make contacts and discover new and interesting tour options. Oftentimes a cruise line can negotiate for special queue-skipping access to the most popular museum installations or arrange for private performances at world-renown theaters. For example, Seabourn offers a magical evening concert at Ephesus exclusively for its guests. Take a look at the offerings in each port and determine if you could arrange for something more special or unique. If you can, go for it! If not, stick with the ship’s offerings.
Are you traveling alone?
Solo travelers should consider signing up for a cruise-sponsored shore excursion at the beginning of the trip. It’s a fantastic way to meet fellow passengers and enjoy the sights with like-minded people.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and other websites and magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.