When you cruise, part of the fun is where the ship takes you and what you can see ashore.  On a recent trip, in a single port we were in for only eight hours, there were no less than 24 choices of excursion activities!  Multiple that by the number of ports you’re visiting, and you’ve got a lot of decisions to make.

But how do you choose?  And who do you buy the excursion from?  Or can you build it yourself?  Here’s our take on the subject.

1) Sites speak first.

What is must-see for you?  When we cruised the southern end of South America, all things penguin (los penguinos) were a must for me, because I love the critters.  Seeing them in their native habitat was a chance of a lifetime.  I also love petroglyphs, but finding a tour that features those (granted, not on most people’s list of things of interest) is a bit more difficult.

A two-hour industrial ferry ride, this shore excursion visited a one-of-a-kind island

If you’ve never been to a port before, we advise taking a tour that allows you to touch on the top eight-ten sights in that area.  Often this is a walking tour of the old city or a bus tour of city districts with some time at major sites.  Anything that hits the famous highlights is good to consider for a first touch.

Don’t forget each city’s version of Hop-On Hop-Off buses (more about them here).  You pay a flat fee and get off at whatever stops interest you, then catch the next bus when you’re done.  A tip – if a city doesn’t have this available, it might be a clue that there really aren’t many great sights you MUST visit.

2) Activity levels are important.

Tours and excursions usually list the activity level, aka, amount of walking or stairs or uneven pavement.  Cobblestones are common in the old parts of European cities.  Just about any UNESCO site will translate to leaving the heels at home too. 

When a tour says it isn’t strenuous, though, plans can change.  We’ve been on the Pisa Death March (an extended roundabout jaunt when the bus is on one side of high-speed train tracks with crossing arms down – forbidden to cross – and we’re on the other.)  In Puerto Vallarta, Mexico’s Revolution Day parade meant our bus couldn’t go through town, and we walked much more than scheduled.

Know too that sometimes tour operators err on the side of caution.  The write-up for a kayak paddle in St. John’s emphasized that you MUST BE FIT.  I worried I wasn’t healthy enough.  Ha!  I needn’t have worried!

3) Can’t miss or replay?

We all suffer from Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) from time to time.  On a cruise, this translates into sampling all possible flavors of everything and trying to cram in every activity and fretting over the choices in ports.  This last FOMO is certainly a concern if you think you’ll never-ever be back to this place again.

If you think you’ll return, consider the overview shore trip first.  This gives you a taste for things in that city, plus you can talk with your fellow passengers and find out what they liked about their activity.  Another tip – don’t overlook your crew as a great source for advice.  They often pass this same way multiple times during their contract and when they get a day off, they check out the ports like you do.

Empty streets are rare on a shore excursion, so enjoy them when you have them!

4) Ship vs. shore.

This is big issue and somewhat controversial.  I say this because cruise lines want you to use their shore excursion packages.  The more they can book with a company, the better their pricing negotiations power.  On the other hand, some people like to use a shore-based company because they believe they’ll get a better deal, or because they can customize something on the tour. 

If you go the shore-based route, assure yourself you have a refund available if something goes sideways.  In a recent Cabo San Lucas stop, the sun shined but the seas were rough from remnants of a tropical storm.  It was too choppy to tender in, which meant anyone who had a shore-based trip prepaid and nonrefundable was now out el dinero.  Hopefully they covered that excursion under their trip insurance policy (you are getting trip insurance, right?)

5) DIY is an option.

If you feel comfortable about the port’s safety and have a working knowledge of the language, you might be able to build your own shore excursion.  You can often learn public transit schedules, hire a cab for the day, or even rent a car.  This option does require doing much more homework yourself on what you plan to do.

The downside of this is you rely on what you plus your travel companions know.  Insider info may be scarce.  And you might miss your ship.  Two passengers got lost in Gibraltar – a country two miles by three miles with a big rock as a guidepost.  Luckily, the captain was feeling generous that day.

6) Learn before you go.

I can’t stress this enough – do a little homework before you select what you’re going to do.  If your heart is set on visiting the special 13th century church and that’s the reason you select THIS tour, you’ll be sadly disappointed when you learn it’s closed for renovation.  A little sleuthing goes a long way in tempering expectations.

Nerd alert – you can find good history resources on all major ports around the world, and they all have something important to share with you.  We recommend specific titles for people traveling the Panama Canal and others for various places in Europe, for example.  If you like a deeper dive, plan for some colorful reading to help you fill the gaps tour guides don’t have time to explain.  You’ll appreciate your surroundings and adventure that much more as a result.

How do you select your shore excursions?  Which ones are memorable from your experiences and which do you hope you do in the future?

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