Cruise Ship Shore Excursions on the Cheap

Do-It-Yourself Arrangements are Your Best Bet

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

Once your cabin aboard a cruise ship is booked, your inbox floods with email pitches for shore excursions. They urge you to book these trips immediately because they could "sell out." And while this might be true, booking your land trips directly through the cruise line could make your economical vacation take an expensive turn. Here's why: Cruise lines fill empty cabins by offering low rates to plug the vacancies, but these services are where they make their money. Shore excursions are one such revenue stream that budget travelers need to be mindful of.

But your trip doesn't need to be boat-bound. Onshore offerings and do-it-yourself adventures will help you make the most of your vacation, while still staying on budget.

Shore-side Adventure Packages

Most port towns are bustling with activity as soon as you step off the boat. Kiosks and personnel distributing flyers promote trips at a fraction of the price the cruise line is offering. Want to book a snorkeling or fishing trip? How about a wildlife hike? Simply peruse the docks and the surrounding area for a vendor offering this service on the cheap, make sure it fits your cruise ship's schedule, and enjoy. If your trip requires ground transportation, hail a taxi or an Uber. And make sure that there are no hidden fees before you book.

With a little extra on-shore footwork, finding your own tour operator can save you up to 100 dollars, or more, per couple.

Do note, however, that it's hard to compare the offering you book onshore with that of the cruise line's. They may have hidden perks, more comfortable vehicles, and may serve snacks and refreshments. However, for the adventurous traveler who doesn't need extra frills, booking trips directly, for the sake of savings, is the way to go.

Do-It-Yourself Shore Excursion Tips

One drawback to booking shore excursions yourself is the need to have lots of cash on hand. Many independent vendors require cash payment and many of the world's ports-of-call might require local currency. (Some may accept U.S. dollars, but you can't count on it.). Also, tipping the tour operator, guide, or driver is custom in many countries, especially when ground transportation is involved. Research the currency of the port you will be visiting, exchange enough cash through the onboard currency exchange, and then make sure there's an ATM at the port for backup if you need it.

Say, something should go array on your excursion and you can't get back to the boat before departure. Well, if you book your trip through the cruise line, you're guaranteed not to be left if the trip is delayed. But if you make your own arrangements, you run the risk of missing the boat should something go off schedule. To avoid this, book 1/2 day excursions and leave yourself plenty of time on the backend for delays. Or, schedule a trip that doesn't venture far from the port. If it's a snorkeling trip the next bay over, you can probably catch a cab ride back if a mishap arises.

Remember, however, that it's unlikely you'll find yourself in this scenario. Virtually every tour vendor in a given port is keenly aware of ship arrival and departure times. Their reputation and livelihood depend on getting passengers back on time.

Planning Great Shore Excursions

The do-it-yourself approach requires extensive itinerary planning well in advance of your arrival in port. After all, you can't shop for shore excursions until you familiarize yourself with the area's most important sights and activities. Use TripAdvisor.com to survey the top attractions and tours. And don't get caught up in good or bad reviews; rather, look for patterns in the recommendations. If you're bound for the Caribbean, pack the book Caribbean Ports of Call: A Guide for Today's Cruise Passengers by Kay Showker.

This guidebook breaks down each cruise line's annual itineraries and describes the shore excursions available at each port. Lonely Planet's guidebooks also offer good recommendations

To book online before you arrive, try ShoreTrips.com, a service that, similar to the cruise line, will make shore-side arrangements for you. Read the reviews on other trips booked through their site and fashion yours off of those. Viator.com guarantees the rates on their tours, plus they offer 24-hour, 7-days-a-week global support and free cancellations up to 24 hours before your excursion. But before you book through an online travel site, shop the cruise line rates, as well, to make sure you're actually saving money.

Careful planning adds value to your cruise investment. And with a little forethought and effort, you'll be exploring ports-of-call in the most efficient way available and by spending far less than your shipmates.