Off the cruise ship

Handy hints and tips for cruisegoers on how to approach excursions ashore.
Cruise ship in Venice
Cruise ship in Venice. Photo: atm2003/Shutterstock

Escorted tours in ports of call cost extra, but they are often the best way to get a nutshell view of a destination and make the most efficient use of your limited time ashore.

While shore excursions used to be limited to rather cheesy city tours, today’s excursions are extraordinarily varied, from crocodile hunting in the Amazon to kayaking in Alaska, and from elephant riding in Thailand, to flying over Moscow in a MiG jet. Most offer good value, but it’s easy to spend more on shore excursions than on buying the cruise.

Related: Do you love sailing? Check our Sailing the Galapagos trip.

Shore excursions are offered by cruise lines in order to enhance a destination visit. Booking with a cruise line avoids the hassle of arranging your own excursions, and you’ll be covered by the cruise line’s insurance just in case things do go wrong. General city tours are designed to give you an overview and show you the highlights in a limited time period – typically about 3 hours. Other excursions provide a mind-boggling array of possibilities, including some that may be exclusive to a particular cruise line – even overland tours are part of the excursions avail- able on longer cruises.

Not all tours are by bus. Some may be by bicycle, boat, car, or mini-van. Some cruise lines also offer private, tailor-made excursions to suit you, a family, or small group. A private car, with a tour guide who speaks your language, for example, may be a good way for a family to get to know a foreign destination.

To get the most out of your shore visits, doing a little research – particularly if you are visiting foreign countries – will pay dividends. Once on board, attend the shore excursion lectures, or watch destination and shore excursion videos on the television in your cabin.

Which excursions are good?

If it’s your first cruise, try to attend the shore excursion briefing. Read the excursion literature and circle tours that appeal to you, then go to the shore excursion office and ask any other questions you may have before you book.

Shore excursions are designed for general interest. If you want to see something that isn’t described in the excursion literature, skip the excursion. Go on your own or with friends.

Related trip: Thailand Explorer

Brochure descriptions of shore excursions, often written by personnel who haven’t visited the ports of call, can be imprecise. All cruise lines should adopt the following definitions in their descriptive literature, lectures, and presentations: the term ‘visit’ should mean actually entering the place or building concerned; the term ‘see’ should mean viewing from the outside – as from a bus, for example.

City excursions are basically superficial. To get to know a city intimately, go alone or with a small group. Go by taxi or bus, or explore on foot.

If you don’t want to miss the major sightseeing attractions in each port, organized shore excursions provide a good solution. They also allow you to meet fellow passengers with similar interests.

In the Caribbean, many sightseeing tours cover the same ground, regardless of the cruise line you sail with. Choose one and then do something different in the next port. The same is true of the history and archaeology excursions in the Greek islands, where the same ancient gods will put in frequent appearances.

Shopping tips

Know in advance just what you are looking for, especially if your time is limited; when time is no problem, browsing can be fun.

When shopping time is included in an excursion, be wary of stores repeatedly recommended by tour guides; the guides may be receiving commissions from the merchants.

When shopping for local handicrafts, make sure they have indeed been made locally. It can happen that a so-called local product has in fact been made in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or another Far Eastern country. It pays to check.

Be wary of ‘bargain-priced’ name brands such as Gucci bags and Rolex or Omega watches – they are probably counterfeit. For watches, check the guarantee.