Short answer: it depends. For a longer answer, read on.
When you arrive at a port of call on your cruise itinerary, you have two options for exploring your destination. The first is via a shore excursion which is planned and organised by the ship (I’m going to call these ‘ship’s shore excursions’) and the other option is to, well, just do it yourself and explore independently. To make things simple, I’m going to call everything that it not a ships shore excursion ‘independent travel’.
So what are the advantages of booking a ship’s shore excursion?
YOU WON’T MISS YOUR SHIP
Perhaps the most important advantage is that no matter how late your excursion gets back to the ship, (because of unforeseen delays for example) if you are on a ship’s shore excursion, the ship has to wait for you.
This is particularly important when visiting destinations that are prone to extensive traffic delays or last-minute public transport strikes and destinations which are quite a distance from the port itself (such as Rome from Civitavecchia, Florence from Livorno).
Exploring your port of call on a ship’s shore excursion can give you real peace of mind when you’re out exploring for the day and you can relax – which is what’s holiday is all about isn’t it?
YOU WON’T *WORRY* ABOUT MISSING YOUR SHIP
Linked to this is you don’t need to worry about what time you need to be back on ship as everything is taken of your hands and you can just sit back and relax and enjoy the sights.
YOU’LL SEE THE MAIN SIGHTS WITH A READY-MADE ITINERARY
If you have never visited a port before, then the ships shore excursion can be a really good way of seeing the all main sites within the time you have available in port – plus you won’t have to worry about what time you need to be heading back to the ship or worrying about getting lost – your itinerary is all planned out for you.
YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE GETTING
Your cruise operator will usually provide a summary of each shore excursion in a fairly standardised format to help you decide which shore excursion is best for you. This will usually indicate the amount of walking and level of activity involved, the type of terrain, any age restrictions or minimum levels of fitness required. This is particularly useful you are travelling with are children in pushchairs or for wheelchair users and passengers with any mobility restrictions.
YOU GET TRIED AND TESTED TOURS
The shore excursions organised by your cruise operator tend to be ones that have proved popular and successful in the past, based on passenger feedback and comments. So you can usually rely on the ship’s shore excursions to cover the most important and popular destinations.
THERE IS SOMETHING TO SUIT ALL TASTES
There tends to be a good variety of ship’s shore excursions available to appeal to all tastes; so, you’ll find anything from cultural insights to high adrenaline activities, wine tasting and food-oriented excursions to scenic routes which are a feast for the eyes. There’s lots to choose from.
CANCELLATION REFUNDS ARE DEALT WITH AUTOMATICALLY
If your ship does not call at a port, and you are booked on a ship’s shore excursion (which is cancelled as a result), then your cruise operator will refund you the full cost of your shore excursion automatically without hassle.
For example, ports like Monaco and St Peter Port (for Guernsey) tend to be a bit hit and miss. These tender ports have sea conditions which can change quite dramatically on the same day. Depending on the level of swell it might not always be safe to tender and you won’t be able to get off the ship to explore your port. So you might want to consider booking onto a ship’s shore excursion for these particular ports as opposed to organising independent travel; if your port is cancelled, you haven’t lost anything and don’t have to worry about claiming on your travel insurance (if you have taken out missed port cover) when you get back home.
YOU GET PRIORITY DISEMBARKATION
The ship’s shore excursions tend to have priority for getting off the ship (especially early morning excursions and those which require tenders to get to shore) so if you want to explore independently you may have to wait for the ships shore excursions to disembark first.
For some ports you will find your cruise operator offers an ‘on your own ‘ shore excursion option which is basically just a coach transfer to your destination where you have either a whole day or half a day to explore on your own before meeting at and agreed location to catch the coach back to the ship.
This option is particularly good for ports you may have visited before, offering you the flexibility to explore at your own pace and follow your own itinerary but with the peace of mind that you will get back onto the ship in time. Plus you get priority disembarkation. I’ve often done this in Florence and Rome for these exact reasons.
YOU GET A DISCOUNT (DEPENDING ON YOUR LOYALTY TIER)
Don’t forget that if you book a ship’s shore excursion, any loyalty discount you may have is applied to the cost of your excursion (for example on P&O this could be anything between 5-10% depending on your loyalty tier). So when you are comparing prices with other independent tour operators don’t forget to take this into account.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL YOU’RE ON BOARD TO BOOK
About 12 weeks before your cruise is set to depart, you might find shore excursions ready to book online via your cruise personaliser (on P&O cruises). So, you can scroll through and make your plans well in advance of boarding. This can often help with budgeting for your holiday as you will pay upfront before you leave instead of the cost of the excursions adding to your final on board bill at the end of your cruise.
AND THE DISADVANTAGES?
Rather than disadvantages these are just some things to think about before you book on a ships shore excursion;
THEY TEND TO COST MORE
Ships shore excursions tend to be slightly more expensive than an equivalent or identical shore excursion that you might find available through an independent tour operator or by doing it yourself. So if you’re on a budget and want to do a shore excursion at each port the costs can really rack up if you book all your shore excursions through your cruise operator.
Most tour operators will visit exactly the same places as a ships shore excursion and will often offer a more competitive price. Some will also offer a ‘delay guarantee’ so if you are delayed and you can’t make it back to the ship in time before it leaves port, your tour operator will guarantee to get you to your next port of call at their cost – but remember to check whether this is something they offer and also check the terms and conditions thoroughly before booking.
YOU NEED TO BE QUICK NOT TO MISS OUT
You’ll find that some of the more popular ships shore excursions tend to book up quite fast and sometimes sell-out months before your cruise starts (The Flam Railway or the return train to the Vatican City in particular) so if you’ve got a particular destination or specific excursion in mind which you don’t want to miss out on, then you need to book early rather than leaving it until you board your ship- especially if you are on a larger ship or if there are a few big cruise ships in port on the same day.
YOU WILL HAVE TO QUEUE AND SHARE THE VIEW
You’ll usually be on a shore excursion with up to another 49 passengers. The same 49 passengers who want same photo opportunity in exactly the same spot as you within the same 15-30 minutes you have for a particular photo stop. There will also be queues to get on and off the coach and the same goes for any refreshment or comfort stops on the way too. So bear this in mind. This may also happen if you book on some larger independent tours too so keep this in mind.
YOU WON’T BE THE ONLY SHIP VISITING THE MAIN SITES
If there are other ships in port on the same day, they will probably be operating similar shore excursions leaving at similar times, visiting the same stops at the same time as your ship’s shore excursion. As you are tied to similar itineraries, you might find that it gets quite busy at popular stops or destinations.
By visiting on your own you can sometimes head off to the busiest stops early before the masses descend. We did this recently in Bergen and managed to visit both the Mount Floyen Funicular AND the Magic Ice Bar before our ships organised shore excursions arrived at each.
YOU MIGHT NOT NEED A SHIP’S SHORE EXCURSION AT ALL
You might want to check out which destinations on your itinerary allow you to walk off the ship directly. These ports will be relatively easy to explore on your own. At such ports you’ll usually find hop on hop off buses (sometimes referred to as HOHOs) which pickup and drop-off at the cruise terminal and can be a really inexpensive way to see the highlights of your destination; most will also give you an indication of how long the whole route takes without stepping off the bus and most are accessible – you can check itineraries (and book in advance) on their website.
YOU PREFER EXPLORING LIKE A LOCAL
If you like time to explore on your own and away from the crowds and you enjoy discovering those smaller, secluded bars and cafes (where you’ll usually find the locals retreating to when the cruise ships are in port), then exploring independently might be a better and cheaper option than a ship’s shore excursion – especially if you are confident in your ability to find your way back to the ship in time.
YOU KNOW YOUR WAY AROUND
If you’ve been to a port or destination many times before you might already know your way around (you’re almost a local!) so the ships shore excursions on offer might have covered everything you’ve seen on your previous visits and perhaps don’t fancy visiting again. Opting to explore independently, venturing further afield or even staying on ship might be a better option in such cases.
YOU ARE TIED TO THE SHIP’S SHORE EXCURSION ITINERARY
Ships shore excursions are on a predefined and quite tight itinerary. So if early morning starts don’t fill you with glee or you don’t like feeling you’re on a school trip then a small group option might be worth it. I’ve seen this ‘small group’ option start to creep into the shore excursion offerings on the bigger ships but again, they tend to be more expensive than booking independently.
FLEXIBILITY AND CUSTOMISATION IS RARE OR NOT AN OPTION
Ships operate their shore excursions on a volume basis with little or no room to customise a tour. Smaller, independent tours by comparison tend to be more flexible in terms of the time spent at different attractions or destinations and your tour guide will be able to offer you much more flexibility and customisation during your excursion – in fact the better ones will do this as a matter of course.
So, if you like the option to tailor your shore excursions throughout the day then and independent arranged smaller tour might be a good alternative. While some P&O shore excursions now include a bespoke option, independent tour operators might still provide you with greater variety at a more competitive price so it’s worth shopping around and comparing prices.
WHAT I DO…
When I’m on a cruise, I tend to mix it up with a combination of ship’s shore excursions and independent travel. I usually make my decision based on a bit of ‘port research’ beforehand. The great thing is there is a lot of choice available whatever you opt for. I hope you’ve found this guide useful and happy exploring!