Shore Excursions on a Cheap Cruise

Do-It-Yourself Arrangements Often Save Money

Spain, Canary Islands, Tenerife, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Cruise ships moored in harbor
••• Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Shore Excursions through Cruise Lines Come at Premium Prices

Once your cabin is booked, cruise lines will begin filling your inbox with email pitches for shore excursions. You'll be urged to book these trips immediately, because they're filling up quickly and you could be left out in the cold.

It is true that the most popular excursions can sell out prior to departure. But if you book those trips through the cruise line, your cheap cruise could take an expensive turn.

Here's why: cruise lines have a lot of empty cabins to fill. They will offer low rates to plug the vacancies, and then sell other services to build new revenue streams. Shore excursions are one of those profit centers for which budget travelers need to be mindful. With the huge inventory of cruise cabins these days, it is essential to up-sell every guest on expensive add-ons. Shore excursion profits often top the list.

A Few Savings Examples from a Caribbean Cruise Trip

A shore excursion in the U.S. Virgin Islands from St. Thomas to the lovely, unspoiled island of St. John costs about $80 USD/person on most lines at the time of a cruise to the eastern Caribbean several years ago. It is an involved excursion that requires ground transportation, a boat ride and fees to use the spectacular St. John beaches for a few hours.

But I was able to take that trip for under $50/person at the time simply by arranging my own taxi rides and paying for a boat ride between the two islands.

Trust me when I tell you none of this was the least bit difficult. With three people in my party, I saved $90 with this do-it-yourself approach to cruise shore excursions.

In Dominica, the cruise line sold float trips on the Layou River for $69/person. After landing in Roseau, I found a small office a few blocks from the dock.

It was the company headquarters for same vendor that provided the cruise line's trip. They booked my trip for $50/person. Chalk up another $57 in savings.

In St. Lucia, you'll always remember the thrill of sailing south from Castries along the west coast and seeing the Pitons come into view. These two volcanic formations rise straight up nearly a half-mile above the sea.

If you want to add a visit to St. Lucia's "drive-in" volcano in nearby Soufriere and some great snorkeling, at Anse Chastanet, the cruise line was charging $89/person for the seven-hour excursion.

My cost was $55/person. I simply took a walk around the port area in Castries and found a company offering the very trip I wanted to take at a greatly reduced price. Again, not much effort was involved.

You can see that great savings are possible. At the time of the cruise, these three trips cost me a total of $455 for three people. I'm sure I could have paid even less than that amount.

But similar trips offered on the cruise line's website and at the ship counter would have totaled $714, a savings of $259! Your results will vary, but it's likely you'll save significant money from the cruise line prices.

Warnings about Do-It-Yourself Shore Excursions 

Keep in mind there is no way to make a direct comparison between the excursions I arranged and those offered by the cruise line.

Perhaps there were perks I didn't receive on my own. Maybe the vehicles were more comfortable on the cruise line's trips. I'll never know.

But I do know I'm willing to sacrifice a few small perks (if they were even offered) for the sake of savings.

Another obvious point: some people don't want to be bothered finding the tour operator's office or talking with touts about trips available near a port. They want all of these details completed for them. If that's you, be aware that you will pay dearly for the convenience on most cruise lines.

One drawback to this approach is the need for lots of cash. Two of the three excursions I booked on my own required cash payment. The cruise ships allow you to charge these costs to your cabin. The places I visited accepted U.S. dollars, but excursions in many of the world's ports-of-call might require local currency.

Cruise lines might tell you that if your return is delayed on a shore excursion, the ship will not pull out of port without you if you booked through them. The message is that you run the risk of missing the boat if you book your own arrangements.

While missing the boat and having to make your own way to the next port could run into a lot of money, it is unlikely you'll find yourself in such a scenario. After all, virtually every tour vendor in a port is keenly aware of when ships depart. Their reputations and livelihoods depend on getting passengers back on time.

Planning for Great Shore Excursions

The do-it-yourself approach will also require extensive itinerary planning well in advance of arrival in port. After all, you can't shop for shore excursions until you know the most important sights or activities.

You can use TripAdvisor.com to survey the top attractions and the tours drawing good reviews. Don't get too caught up in good or bad reviews, but look for patterns in the recommendations. If bound for the Caribbean, consult Caribbean Ports of Call: A Guide for Today's Cruise Passengers by Kay Showker. There are other guidebooks that break down each cruise line's annual itineraries and describe the shore excursions available.

Online, ShoreTrips.com is a service offering to make arrangements for you and provide reviews of trips other cruise passengers have completed.

Viator claims it will guarantee the lowest shore excursion prices if you book through their site.

Planning will bring value to the investment in a cruise. This mode of transportation can be among the most economical available to a budget traveler. But you must be on guard against the overpriced extras cruise lines offer to pad their profits. Explore ports-of-call in the most efficient ways available.