One of the best reasons to cruise is that you get to visit several different destinations in one trip.
Port days are one of my family’s favorite things about cruising. We get to learn about different cultures, sample new-to-us cuisines and experience unique activities that we’d never be able to do at home.
Planning what to do while you’re in port is one of the more time-consuming tasks of planning a cruise vacation. Do you book with the cruise line, do you find a local tour guide or make your own itinerary for your port of call days? Read more about how to plan the perfect shore excursion for your family below.
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What to Do Before Your Cruise
Because time in port is limited – ranging from a 4 to 10 or 11 hours (you’ll find some cruises stay in port for 2 days – this is rare but it does happen!) – it’s best to research the port before you board the ship.
Learn about the different transportation options and popular shore excursions offered through the cruise line and local tour companies. If time permits, read forums like Cruise Critic, DISboards, and TripAdvisor to see what other families recommend and have enjoyed.
You can also look through our detailed Port of Call Guides to get an idea of what to expect at each port during your cruise.
We try to cover as much as we can about the different type of excursions offered, how much time you need for each activity and what excursions are suitable for your family’s travel style.
We also include tips about getting around each destination easily with kids. For embarkation ports, we recommend family-friendly hotel options near the port if you’re interested in doing a pre or post cruise stay.
New port guides are constantly being added so if you don’t happen to see one for a specific port, drop us a line and we’ll start working on it!
It’s up to you whether you want to book excursions weeks or months in advance or leave it for the day you get to port.
We’ll discuss the pros and cons of booking through the cruise line versus with an independent tour company below. We do recommend, however, that you have a general idea of what you’d like to do prior to boarding the ship.
Having a game plan – even if it’s just notes jotted down on a piece of paper – is better than making decisions the morning you get to port. Time is very limited – that’s one of the downsides of cruising. Making last minute decisions cuts into the time you could’ve spent exploring, learning, eating or relaxing in port.
Why Book with the Cruise Line
They offer tours, itineraries, and activities that they know the majority of passengers will and have like(d). Cruise lines often have a “Best of” or “Highlights of” type tour for every port they visit – these are good options for those visiting the area for the first time.
Transportation is included so you don’t have to plan it yourself. This is especially helpful when you are traveling with young children. You don’t have to worry about car seats or booster seats for little ones.
Cruise lines partner with reliable and safe tour operators and guides. If you’re a family of adventure seekers and are looking for an excursion like zip lining or jumping into waterfalls, you can rest assured that cruise line shore excursion companies have been vetted for liability insurance and safety practices/procedures.
Most cruise lines will let you apply onboard credits to shore excursions. Shore excursions can range from a couple of dollars per person to hundreds of dollars per person. Multiply that by the amount of family members or ports of call you have and it gets pricey. Using onboard credits to pay for some of your tours may not save you a lot, but it will help reduce the costs.
Cruise ships will wait for all passengers on shore excursions booked through the cruise line before departing the port – even if your tour group is delayed or late. When you’re booking an all day tour or one that is far from port, having this type of reassurance means less time spent watching the clock and more time enjoying the moment.
Crew members also accompany tour groups on cruise line shore excursions. Cruise staff have done these tours many times so they’ll be able to offer you some of their best travel tips and know what to the proper procedures should anything go wrong during the tour.
You can book safely and securely online before your cruise or once you get on board. When planning your own excursion, you’ll either have to pay on the tour company’s site or when you get to port. You may be paying in local currency and be subject to exchange fees.
Drawbacks of Going with Cruise Line Excursions
The cost of booking an excursion with the cruise line is often higher than booking with an independent tour operator. Cruise lines have to pay their own staff as well as their tour partners that run the excursions.
Another drawback of booking an excursion through the cruise line is the lack of flexibility in their schedule and itineraries. Tour groups are often large and cruise line excursions will try to cover as many attractions and activities as possible.
Cruise line excursions give you less downtime between rigidly scheduled activities. If you want a more customized itinerary – like more time at a museum and less time at the beach – you probably won’t be able to do this on an excursion offered by the cruise line.
One of the biggest reasons why my family sometimes chooses to plan our own day in port instead of taking a cruise tour is avoiding the crowds. It’s not uncommon to have a group of 40 to 50 people on the same tour or excursion. And then add the groups on a similar tour from other cruise ships in port… there could be hundreds if not thousands of people in one place at a given time.
We chose to book with a local tour operator for a Stingray City and Star Fish Point tour in Grand Cayman and were so glad that we did. We had a group of 20 people on our boat while the cruise line groups had quadruple that! They had 10 to 30 seconds with the sting rays whereas the families on our tour had 5 minutes each with the stingrays. And by the time we got to Star Fish Point, we had it all to ourselves as the cruise line groups all went there first thing in the morning.
Reasons to Choose an Independent Shore Excursions
Booking with an independent tour company allows you to tailor your day in port to your interests, travel style, and travel wish list. You’re in charge of when you leave the boat, the pace of your schedule and you don’t have to waste time visiting places you’re not interested in.
In Alaska, my husband really wanted to try his hand at salmon fishing so we found a local tour company and booked an excursion with them. This allowed him and one other person to spend an entire morning catching fish with an expert fisherman. The cruise line equivalent excursions had 8 to 10 passengers with one local fisherman/tour guide.
Going on an independent shore excursion also means smaller groups, more control over who is on the tour with you (you can book a private tour or semi-private tour), and more time to relax and recharge throughout the day.
My family prefers this way of exploring the ports. Having young children with us, we don’t feel as rushed or pressured to keep up with the rest of the group. It’s very rare that we want to wake up at 7 AM in the morning, eat breakfast and then board a tour bus at 8:30 or 9 AM – we’re on vacation after all! We want to relax!
Families booking an independent tour can often expect to pay less than the cruise line equivalent (if there is one). There’s less overhead fees and more money going into the local economy.
If you wait for the day you get to the port, you might be able to snag a last minute booking discount to save even more.
I would recommend doing this in popular cruise ports where there are many tour companies offering the same type of tour – St. Thomas and St. Maarten are two ports that come to mind.
Drawbacks of Booking an Independent Shore Excursion
Running the risk of not making it back to the ship on time is the biggest reason many cruise passengers book with the cruise line. While this is sometimes the case, if you spend time researching and reading reviews, you’ll be able to find an independent tour operator that is very familiar with cruise ship schedules and cruise tour groups.
Researching independent tour operators takes a lot of time. You’ll have to search for reviews, read them and then decide if the shore excursion is the right one for your family.
It is your responsibility to do the research and you have little recourse if you aren’t happy with an excursion you arrange yourself. Getting a refund could be difficult depending on why you disliked the tour.
Speaking of refunds, cancellation policies can vary. You’ll have to pay attention to when and why independent tour companies will issue a refund. Cruise line shore excursions can be canceled due to weather or not being able to port or anchor. In these cases, passengers will be refunded the full amount. Be sure to read the fine print or ask the tour operator what happens in situations like these.
4 Tips for Choosing the Right Shore Excursion for your Family
1. Research, Research, Research
Knowing what to expect is key to making the most of your time in port. Check out our Port Guides to learn more about the must-see places and activities for families. You can also read up on ports of call in forums like on Cruisecritic.com, guide books like DK Eyewitness Travel Guides and other travel blogs.
If you’re concerned about cruise crowds, you can check the daily port schedules on cruisetimetables.com. You can see how many other passengers will be in port with you and may influence the type of excursion you end up booking.
2. Check Cruise Line Offerings First
Cruise line shore excursions are convenient and the easiest to plan. You can view and book excursions starting as early as 90 days before your cruise departs.
Look through what’s available and make note of pricing and itinerary as you’ll use this to compare with if you’re going the independent shore excursion route.
If there’s an excursion that really interests you, consider booking online. You won’t be able to use any onboard credits though as you might be required to pay with your credit card. You can also wait until you’re onboard to book the excursion and apply any credits to it. But you may run the risk of getting waitlisted if it’s a popular cruise excursion.
3. Compare Independent Tour Options
If you’re booking with an independent company, look for one that has many positive reviews – on TripAdvisor and cruise related forums.
They’ll most likely have some kind of written guarantee on their website or booking confirmation that they will get you back to your ship well before departure time.
If they run multiple tours throughout the day, I’d recommend booking the one with the earliest departure just to be on the safe side.
Pay attention to their cancellation and refund policies as well.
4. When to Skip Excursions Entirely
If you are interested in exploring the area near the port, there’s no need to book an excursion or tour guide for the day. You can easily do it on your own – you’ll receive a map of the area the night before you get to the port. Cruise ports usually have many shops, restaurants, and sometimes historical or cultural attractions within walking distance of your ship. If your kids are worn out from back-to-back all day tours, this may be a good option
If you already know what you want to do and just need a way to get to all the attractions and activities, look for taxi drivers or tour guides near the port. More often than not, you’ll find taxis, tour buses and tour guides lined up at the port waiting for cruisers who are going the DIY route.
Cruise line shore excursions are good for first-time cruisers as well as those who don’t worry about the logistics of exploring a port of call with kids. These excursions are also good for destinations where there is a language or communication barrier.
Families wanting more control and say of what they’d like to do on port days should consider looking into independent shore excursions. This is what my family prefers to do – especially in the Caribbean and North American ports. There’s no shortage of tour companies in these areas and there’s plenty of reviews online so we don’t mind going the DIY route.
We will be heading on our first Mediterranean cruise this year and we most likely will be booking more cruise line shore excursions versus independent ones because of language barriers and severe food allergies. We’ll let you know how that goes once we return! Stay tuned….
Want more cruise tips? You can find them all here.