Whether it’s your first visit to a new port or maybe your third or fourth, chances are you’ll want to leave the ship to see and explore your destination.
What to Know to Book Your Own Shore Excursions
There could be a zillion reasons why people choose to not buy a cruise ship shore excursion. But I think the main reasons are: they’re too expensive, too slow, too fast, too crowded, too herded or even “too” not what you’d like to do.
That’s where private shore excursion tour operators come in and it’s up to you to figure out the tour that best suits your needs. Chances are their shore excursions cost less, have fewer people and have a selection of tours not offered by the cruise ship.
From food tours to jeep tours, here’s are my tips for reserving your own shore excursions.
1. Check out what your ship has to offer
Research what is offered for your cruise ship shore excursions. This is a good way to begin your research. If something strikes your interest, jot down a brief description along with the price and length of the tour, including departure time. Personally, I rarely pick any shore excursion that departs before 9am. Many times, private shore tours have two depart times, maybe at 8am and 11:30am or thereabouts.
Armed with your new information, it’s time to begin your search.
2. Look for a well-known private tour operator
When it comes to the major private shore excursion tour operators, four names come to mind: Shore Excursions Group, Shore Trips, Viator and Cruising Excursions. I’ve tried the first three and have no complaints. Even in Alaska, there’s Alaska Shore Excursions
3. Local tour companies are good, too.
There are also smaller, local companies like Walks of Italy, which also operates in New York. Another example is Vallarta Adventures in Puerto Vallarta. Every port and city has dozens of small local tour companies. Read reviews, do your research when possible. Check out their social media presence.
Read more: Grand Turk – What to do on your own
I enjoy food tours and hands-on cooking classes. What I do a month or so before my cruise is to simply google, for example, “food tours in Cozumel”. For a recent cruise to Cozumel, I contacted a woman who runs food walking tours in downtown Cozumel.
I found Cozumel Food Tours by Emily right from Google. I’ve done food tours in New York, and Key West, too. Again, read reviews and choose wisely. Sometimes you have to take a taxi to reach the assigned meeting point, so it’s important to look at a map and get an idea as to the distance and location of the tour from the port.
4. Know when you must be back onboard
I always take a photo of the all aboard time as I’m leaving the ship. There’s always an All Aboard sign as you exit the gangway. No more guessing as to what time the ship will leave. After your cruise, the photo will also help you to remember where you were and what day.
5. Check the tour company for their return time guarantee
Read the fine print. Shore Excursions Group, for example, guarantees that you’ll not miss your ship’s departure. If you were to do so, they will pay all of your expenses, including hotels, meals and transportation to the next port of call, plus an additional $500 per person for the inconvenience.
6. Read reviews on cruise and travel-related websites
Once you’ve narrowed down your tour choices, check forums on Cruise Critic, CruiseLine or Trip Advisor and dig around for reviews. Be sure to read several reviews both pro and con so you can make an informed decision. Remember, more people write reviews to complain than commend. Read between the lines and you’ll get a clearer picture.
Word of mouth is also another way to local a small, local tour operator. If you know anyone who’s visited any of your ports, even for a hotel stay, ask what they did there. Restaurant recommendations as well as niche attractions can help you decide.
7. Plan your day to do more
I mentioned in the beginning of this article that I don’t like to do early morning excursions, but maybe you do. In that case, you could find a shorter tour that’s offered early morning.
As your motor coach, minivan or taxi leaves the pier, look around and make a note of things you might want to see later. You can get a feel for the port area and plan to go back ashore after you’ve returned to the ship around noon. Maybe there’s a cafe or souvenir shop nearby within walking distance. Make it a two-part shore excursion day.
8. Cruising solo and booking your own shore excursions
While I’m pretty comfortable booking my own shore excursions not through the cruise line, you may not be the same. I do look for tour companies with good reputations and reviews. I also know that I will probably be the odd-numbered passenger on the tour.
This usually proves to be an advantage and I meet a lot of new people. Other times, I’m stuck in a family group of eight and I’m the ninth wheel. But that’s okay too. When that happens, it gives me time to talk with the tour leader and get some inside info that others in their own group don’t learn.
Either way, don’t let being a solo cruiser put a damper on your shore excursion options.
For many people, sticking with the selection of shore excursions offered by the cruise line is preferred. If you’d rather save money, explore in a small group and visit places not sought out by the cruise line, reserving a shore excursion from a tour operator or local tour company could be the way to go.
Read next: Why you might want to book a cruise ship shore excursion
I’m the editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com, a solo traveler cruising the world on waves and wheels, collecting recipes along the way. I hope my articles and photos entertain, advise and inspire you to travel the world without flying. Take a breath…stop for a local meal and a glass of wine along the way.
Sherry Laskin says
Thank you for your question and taking the time to read my article. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any particular site where you can do that…expect maybe TripAdvisor? That’s a great idea to share the cost and break it down. Good luck and happy travels!
Mark S Melnick says
We went to Italy several years ago and booked some shore excursions – there was a website where you can post your excursion and ask people to join your group so as to bring the cost down. I lost the website address and was wondering if you can help me with that?
Sherry Laskin says
Thank you for taking the time to leave your comment. I hope you are able to resolve your and your client’s issues. Sorry to hear about your experience.
Zaida Bourque says
If you need PRIVATE shore excursions avoid this operator (Shore Excursions Group) at all costs. This operator will not return phone calls, agents are ill trained in the destinations they book, emails are not returned. Filing complaints with management yield no results. Agents REFUSE to transfer to owners or higher up supervisors to solve problems. I have been trying to reach out to upper management about bad service issues for 7 months with no results. Which has resulted in a loss of business for me as clients booked elsewhere.
Sherry Laskin says
That’s a great idea! Thank you for your suggestion. I wouldn’t have thought to do that, so thanks again!
Chris Behrens says
Hi Sherry! I’d add Facebook to your list of how to find a good excursion. Nearly every sailing has a FB group for that particular cruise date. You’ll find others who will be onboard at the same time you are (I met several friends on FB BEFORE the cruise and then had an awesome time later in person). Some organize meet & greets, slot pulls, and at some point someone always asks “What’s everybody doing when we get to ______?” and the replies are quite informative. An interactive “voice of experience” that you can ask questions and get replies to has swayed my choice of outing several times.
Sherry Kennedy says
Thank you for asking. Yes, please do share this post on your blog, but please don’t edit or change anything. Attribution is necessary (which I’m sure you’d do anyway!) and a link back to CruiseMaven.com is appreciated. Please send a note when it’s published on your site…I’d love to see it!
I’d really love to share this blog post on my blog if you would be willing. Let me know