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Avoid These Cruise-Ship Shore Excursions at All Cost

Think twice before booking that beach break.

What’s appealing about cruise ships is “one-and-done” travel planning. You unpack your suitcase only once. With the exception of port calls, all meals are served onboard this floating hotel. The servers know your name and how you like your coffee. Cruise lines can even arrange your time in port through ship-organized shore excursions.

But wait–not so fast! Some of these shore excursions are canned, cheesy excursions that you may not like or should avoid entirely. You may be better off exploring the destination on your own or booking an activity through an independent company or tour guide instead.

Be wary of any shore excursion that promotes any of the following.

INSIDER TIPThe biggest benefit of booking a shore excursion through the cruise line is that the ship absolutely will not leave without you. If you choose a shore excursion not organized by the cruise, it’s imperative you are back to port on time. The captain doesn’t care that your super-cool tour guide just got a flat tire or someone else on your tour is still picking through straw bags to buy for all of her sisters.

Avoid ‘Panoramic Sightseeing’ Tours

Panoramic may sound romantic and stunning, but—surprise!—what this really means is you and about 50 other passengers will be staring out coach bus windows for the entire tour. Sometimes, these tours include a photo stop, but it’s five minutes at most. There is only one reason to do a tour like this: to ground yourself in the destination. If you have two days in a destination and want a quick summary of what to see and do during your free time, a panoramic sightseeing tour might make sense.

Avoid Trains

In some destinations, a long, leisurely train ride is epic. That includes Alaska—particularly from Anchorage to Fairbanks—and Italy along the Amalfi Coast. But in other parts of the world, you are definitely not interacting with locals in an expensive train car built for tourists. Likely, your seatmates will be the same people you’ve been sailing with since you embarked in Honolulu or Miami. Save a train ride for a city like San Francisco or Rome when it’s a true cultural immersion.

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Avoid Long Tours

Port time is precious—and short. Unless it’s a rare overnight stay, chances are the ship pulls in during the morning and departs by the time local restaurants start serving dinner. When mulling over shore excursions, keep in mind that a 10-hour tour means you’ll forego checking out local cafes or shopping for souvenirs unless that time is built in. It likely also means “panoramic sightseeing” and a destination that is really far away. Unless said destination is on your bucket list and truly worth it, choose to spend time in the local port and opt for a shorter shore excursion.

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Avoid Shopping Tours

Do you require a guide to take you down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or New York City’s SoHo? No! So don’t fall for the allure of a guided shopping tour. This is not an excursion to designer boutiques or “off-the-beaten-path” shops. You’re probably going to a craft market (which you can scout out on your own), plus jewelry and duty-free stores. Save the money you would pay for a shopping guide and spend it on items to buy at the shops instead. If you really want to scout out fun, unique stores, just ask the crew. They get on and off so often that they know exactly where to go, and chances are it isn’t a Tommy Hilfiger Sunglass Hut store.

Avoid Any Tour With More Than Three Stops

On the surface, a shore excursion that takes you to a rum distillery, beach, craft market, and museum sounds pretty sweet and a good use of limited time in a port. But few shore excursions are more than four hours. This means you are literally hopping from one place to the next and won’t be spending more than an hour at each stop. Imagine being told, “Hey, time to get back on the bus,” when you’ve only sipped two rums or still haven’t taken that second dip in the ocean yet.

Avoid Beach Breaks

When it’s winter in Wisconsin, and you’re picking out shore excursions for your February cruise in the Caribbean, “beach break” might cause your heart to flutter. But a beach break is cramming into buses with hundreds of other cruise-ship passengers and being shuttled to a beach where lounge chairs are lined up like sardines and the meal is served buffet-style and probably consists of grilled meat. Some ports show off their spiced-meat specialties but hot dogs and hamburgers are a popular fallback to suit the American diet. Especially if you have more than two people in your group, book a private taxi or car-share service instead, head to a recommended beach nearby, and order lunch at a restaurant locals love.

NAN104/iStock

Avoid Museum Tours

Unless led by a docent who works at the museum (and has knowledge of the artifacts and artwork) or is a cultural expert (who speaks the local language), just experience the museum on your own. Nearly all museums at cruise ship ports feature signage that’s also in English. The caveat of a guided museum tour is that you go at the group’s pace and not your own, which is no fun when there are 15-20 people in your group.

Avoid Discounted or Heavily Promoted Tours

If from day one on the cruise, a certain shore excursion features a price cut or the shore excursions desk can’t stop talking about it, then beware. Savvy cruise-ship passengers know how to read reviews, and seasoned travelers do their research before signing up for shore excursions. There might be a reason why this tour isn’t getting enough sign-ups. But before you rule it out, stop by the shore excursions desk once on board and ask questions. It could be this tour was added at the last minute or is truly niche and not catering to the typical cruise-ship passenger—but maybe you’ll love it.

Avoid Cooking Demonstrations

Foodies get stuck on the words “cooking” and “culinary” and immediately sign up for a cooking or culinary demonstration—especially if the price is under $75. But unless you want to watch a chef cook and not do the chopping, sautéing, and seasoning yourself, look for a cooking class instead. Paying to watch someone else make food is like tuning into the Food Network. It should be free!

10 Comments
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giorgioch July 8, 2024

there is no such thing as a train on the Amalfi Gulf. If your ship port is Civitavecchia, you can take a train (will take sometime), I met several people who did that and enjoyed the ride and the trip in Rome.

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GrannyFran July 7, 2024

I tend to do my own thing and prepare well ahead of time. Or join others on my ship with an independent tour. Some of the advice in this article may be useful for beginners but also perhaps an article on how to identify the best excursions would be a good followup. Alerting people to the fact that "panoramic" means you just see outside is useful. But how about positive advice too? How to find weasel words. I heard of someone who took an excursion to the Alhambra but couldn't go inside - no tickets and no time.  

Avatar for persimmondeb
persimmondeb July 7, 2024

Ignore this. There are places where you truly don't need an excursion, but there are plenty of instances where it's a good idea for any number of reasons. Sometimes they are kind of "canned" but they're still usually enjoyable. I've also definitely had experiences on excursions that we would NEVER have been able to replicate ourselves.

M
MonteMathews July 6, 2024

This is truly one of the most ridiculous of articles. You might as well suggest that cruisers simply stay on board ship to avoid the horrors of being with other people or enjoying any kind of group activity. Embarrasingly sad Fodors

R

This article was apparently written by someone who doesn't cruise and hasn't taken any of the tours.