Every traveller loves cruising for a different reason – some can’t get enough of the amazing cuisine onboard (especially in the speciality restaurants), others love the incredible scenery that you really can only experience at sea, and some simply appreciate the ease of a cruise holiday, waking up in a different port each morning.
There is one aspect, however, that practically every seasoned traveller cites as a reason they love cruising – the fantastic diversity.
In this article we are going to give you some tips on booking your excursions.
A cruise holiday is often considered to be two holidays combined into one. At sea, travellers experience that luxurious, five-star, all-inclusive environment that can be experienced in resort destinations such as Cancun, Kenya, and Goa, while shore days allow for sightseeing at some of the world’s most famous landmarks, full immersion into different cultures, and a chance to learn more about the history of these scenic coastal towns, villages, and cities.
For the full and complete cruise experience, what you do on land is just as important as what you do at sea.
Regardless of whether you’re taking a cruise through the seas of Europe which see the ship docking into major cities such as Barcelona or Helsinki, or whether you’re taking a trip through the gorgeous blue Caribbean waters to remote island settings, you’ll find the choice of excursions to be quite overwhelming – you can guarantee you’ll never be bored on a cruise holiday.
Image: Park Guell Barcelona
Depending on your cruise region, you could find yourself taking a relaxing glass-bottomed boat ride, spotting all manner of colourful fish along the way, or you could find yourself scaling one of Alaska’s most rugged glaciers. You could find yourself on a luxurious air conditioned coach taking a tour through historic, narrow, winding streets, or you could find yourself zip-lining through a rainforest. A cruise holiday really is what you make it.
WHAT TYPES OF CRUISE EXCURSION ARE AVAILABLE?
Although the wide range of shore excursions available makes it difficult to sort them into definite categories, we can usually place an excursion into one of two sectors: active excursions and cultural excursions. There is, of course, a big crossover between the two, but here are some of the activities you can expect from each group:
ACTIVE CRUISE EXCURSIONS
The active shore excursions category usually includes activities that are more adventurous and daring, and while they may not offer much of an opportunity to get to know a destination, they do offer a chance to do something incredible, and tick some things off the bucket list.
In Alaska, you’ll find seaplane explorations in Juneau and ATV tours through the Icy Strait Mountains. In the Caribbean you can hop on a 4×4 as it navigates the rugged landscape of St Kitts’ rainforests, or you can zip line through St Lucia’s rainforest canopy, enjoying a breathtaking view of the sea and sand in the distance.
Image: St. Lucia, Caribbean
In Europe, you can take a polar flight across the Arctic Circle, and in the United States you can experience the excitement of the Big Apple from a helicopter flying high above the iconic skyscrapers. Active shore excursions can be truly pant-wetting, but they can also be some of the most memorable things you’ll ever do.
CULTURAL CRUISE EXCURSIONS
Cultural shore excursions can be anything that’s a little less adrenaline-fuelled than the more active excursions. This can include walking, coach, or segway tours around historic towns or villages, relaxing spa days, visits to beautiful beaches, or culinary tours that really awaken the senses.
Why not consider a tour of Bilbao’s best tapas bars, or visit the Sea Lions in Ketchikan Alaska for some fantastic photo opportunities? How about a round of golf at the world renowned Barbados Golf Club, or a calming dip in the natural spring waters at Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon? These excursions really offer a unique chance to see a destination from the eyes of a local, to immerse yourself in a vibrant, unfamiliar culture, and to really experience everything a port has to offer.
Image: Sea Lion in Ketchikan
HOW TO BOOK SHORE EXCURSIONS
As we know, cruise holidays are all about choice, and that’s certainly true when it comes to shore excursions, too. There are four different ways you can book your cruise excursions, with each method having it’s own advantages. Here are some booking options to consider:
BOOK THROUGH YOUR CRUISE LINE IN ADVANCE
This is by far one of the most popular options. Many cruise lines not only advertise their available excursions for each destination on their website, but also allow you to book online for total ease and convenience – the cost of the cruise excursion is simply added to your account.
The advantage of booking through your cruise line is that the cruise company will have strong relationships with some of the best tour providers in each port, so you can be sure that you’re getting an experience that’s really going to be worth the money. Additionally, if your tour group is delayed getting back to the ship at the end of the day, the Captain will wait to ensure everyone is back onboard before sail off, so you can enjoy your day without worry.
BOOK THROUGH YOUR CRUISE LINE ONBOARD
If you decide to book a shore excursion through your cruise line, you don’t need to do it in advance – you can also choose to book through the cruise excursion desk onboard (it’s usually located near the Pursers Desk, but check your deck guide for the exact location on your ship).
Image courtesy of MSC Cruises
Cruisers who aren’t sure of what type of cruising excursions they’d like to experience often wait until they’re onboard to book their activity because many ships will offer destination lectures in the onboard theatre, hosted by travel experts who can advise on what you can’t afford to miss out on at each port, making your decision much easier.
Keep in mind, however, that some of the more popular cruise excursions may sell out early, so don’t wait too long if you’ve got your heart set on something.
BOOK THROUGH AN INDEPENDENT PROVIDER
Of course, you’re not restricted only to those cruise excursions offered by your cruise line, and you could opt to book your own shore excursion through a local independent provider. The advantage of this booking method is that you may find there is more choice available (especially if you’re looking to do something a little out of the ordinary), and you may be able to secure a better cost than the cruise line can offer.
There are downsides to take into account, however. If you’re delayed, the ship won’t always wait for independent tours to return (waiting is at the Captain’s discretion), and you could find that the tour, or the provider, isn’t particularly good – you may simply get dropped off in town and picked up later, rather than taken on a sightseeing tour, for example. Always do your research first, and ask past travellers for advice.
DO-IT-YOURSELF CRUISE EXCURSIONS
DIY excursions offer the most freedom and flexibility of all the options and, of course, you don’t have to share your tour with other passengers. You can take things at your own pace, change the plan whenever you see a point of interest, and take a lunch break whenever you wish.
If you do choose to do it yourself, it’s recommended that you do your research first, especially if you’re visiting a destination that requires a visa, an example being St Petersburg. For DIY tours, you’ll need to secure a visa independently before arrival into port (whereas group visas are included for organised tours).
It’s also worth checking to see if your cruise line offer shuttle services from the port into the town or city for ease and convenience – there may be a small cost, but it’s often better value than a local taxi.
Image: St. Petersburg, Russia
WHAT TO TAKE ON A SHORE EXCURSION
When you’re going ashore, you don’t want to be weighed down by all your worldly goods. Instead, it’s important to pack light so that you can thoroughly enjoy your day. There are, however, a few items that you should always take with you:
- Your cruise ID card – you’ll need this for getting on and off the ship.
- Your passport if you’ll need to pass through immigration (eg. Russia or the USA).
- A form of photo ID – you may need this for making credit card purchases.
- Credit/debit cards and a small amount of local currency – enough to buy souvenirs.
- Your daily cruise schedule – it will tell you what time you need to be back onboard.
- The number of the port authority for emergencies (usually on your cruise schedule).
- Any tickets or documentation for your shore excursion.
- A local guidebook or map if you’re touring independently.
- Bottled water, especially if it’s hot, or you’re travelling with children.
- Suncream if you’re visiting hot and sunny destinations.
- Medications you may need throughout the day.
Although you may think that your valuables are safer with you, it’s recommended that you don’t take expensive jewellery or large amounts of cash on shore excursions due to the risk of loss or theft. Most staterooms feature high tech safes which allow you to store your valuables securely while you’re on shore, and are well worth using.
THE DAY OF THE EXCURSION
The way that things are organised on the day of your excursion will vary based upon your cruise line, the type of excursion you’ve booked, and the time of the excursion, but in many cases you can expect to have tickets delivered to your stateroom in advance – keep these safe as you’ll be required to present these when you ‘check in’ for your tour.
The tickets may indicate the meeting place and time for your tour, or you may find this in your cruise programme delivered the night before. Some shore tours may require you to meet off the ship at a designated place in port. If your ship is tendered, be sure to inform staff that you have an excursion booked so that they can ensure you’re on a tender that gets you into port on time.
Others may require you to meet in one of the ships venues – this will almost always be the case in destinations that require a visa, as you’ll need to show proof at immigration that you’re a part of a tour group.
You may be given stickers to help tour guides identify your tour group, and your tour guide may hold an object – such as a flag or umbrella for example – to help you locate them easily should you find yourself getting separated from the group. In most destinations, you will often be given a certain amount of freedom and shouldn’t feel like you need to stay right next to your tour guide.
However, do be careful in destinations such as Mexico and some areas of the Caribbean, ensure you can see your tour guide at all times, and use common sense.
GIFTS AND SOUVENIRS
Many cruise excursions will offer a chance to visit some local shops (and you can even book dedicated shopping tours, too, if you want to shop ‘til you drop) where you can pick up souvenirs for yourself or gifts for your family and friends back home. However, always keep in mind the cruise line’s regulations on what’s taken onboard, and UK customs restrictions.
Some destinations offer great deals on alcohol, such as Gibraltar which is outside of the EU, but many cruise lines do not permit you to bring alcohol on board, and you may need to surrender any bottles, cans, or containers until the end of your cruise.
When taking goods back into the UK, while you can bring unlimited goods from the EU (many Mediterranean and some Baltic ports are within the EU), you are restricted in what you can bring back from non-EU countries. For alcohol, you are limited to one litre of spirits per person.
You may also be interested in this post: How to save money on your cruise holiday
How do you book your cruise excursions? Please leave your comments below.