One of the reasons we board a ship is to experience the world, whether that’s island hopping in the Caribbean, animal watching in Alaska or stepping into storybook-like towns across Europe. But is it better to do your in-port exploration on a ship-sponsored tour booked through the cruise line or independently, either by booking shore excursions on your own with a third-party company or guide or exploring the port without a tour?
There’s no right or wrong approach. When I think back to my two favorite tours, one was ship-sponsored (a plant-based cooking class with a Rastafarian in Jamaica through Princess Cruises) and the other independent (a walking and history tour with a lifelong resident in Havana booked online). On both, I got what I was looking for: a glimpse into local culture.
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Consider these pros and cons of both types of shore excursions as you’re sifting through the choices on a cruise line’s website. And remember, this isn’t an all-or-nothing game. You might choose a ship-sponsored tour in select ports or when traveling with certain people, but opt to go it on your own on other trips or in other destinations. It’s all good.
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Ship-sponsored tours: Pros
You will be back to the ship on time
Because everyone on the tour is a passenger on your ship, there is no way the ship will leave without your group back on board. Communications between the shore excursion guide and your ship are tight, and if the tour runs late due to traffic or another reason, the ship will wait for your bus to return.
If the ship’s itinerary changes or a port stop’s altered, you won’t miss the tour
On one visit to Grand Cayman, high winds forced the ship’s tender boats to shuttle passengers to a different pier than originally planned. Thankfully my plans were fluid — take a taxi to Seven Mile Beach — but had I booked an independent tour I might have missed the scheduled pick-up time due to the new arrival location. Guests who booked a ship’s tour were simply picked up at the new arrival point.
The same principle holds true for any itinerary changes that cause you to miss a port or arrive later than planned. Ship-sponsored tours either will adjust to accommodate you or you’ll get a refund. With independent tours, you’re at the mercy of that tour operator’s cancellation policies.
Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions
Changes to the tour can be made during sailing
A ship’s cruise shore excursions desk is for booking — and canceling — tours. If the weather looks bad for the day of your bicycling tour or you’ve had enough beach time and decided you want something different, you can usually cancel your tour within 48 hours for a refund. (Be sure to check the cruise line’s policies.) It’s trickier to change your mind when you have to call or email a third-party provider, and that company may have different cancellation policies. Bottom line: It’s easier to cancel tours on board.
Tours pack many experiences into one and can optimize a short stay in port
Ship-sponsored tours usually focus on more than one activity. There’s often a restaurant or boutique stop, as well as one or two other highlights. If you’re a person who likes to check off lots of boxes, this is ideal. I just booked a Ketchikan, Alaska shore excursion through Princess Cruises (“Best of Ketchikan: Totems, Wildlife Cruise & Alaska Appetizers”) that satisfies my love for fresh seafood, sailing and local art — all in the span of a few hours.
Tours are vetted by the cruise lines
Sure, you could pop off the ship and flag down a person holding a sign advertising a tour. But how will you have time to check review sites to make sure they’re legit? When booking through the ship you know the tour has been vetted and — more importantly — endorsed.
I would have been hesitant to hop into a small van and trek up a muddy mountain to a stranger’s house in Dominica to learn cooking skills if I hadn’t booked through Celebrity Cruises. Yet that tour was an amazing glimpse into local culture, made possible by a ship-sponsored tour.
Ship-sponsored tours: Cons
Ship-sponsored tours might be less physically active
Although hiking and kayaking outings have been added to ship-sponsored shore tour rosters in recent years, these active excursions cater to the average cruiser and not athletes. What’s strenuous to you and what’s strenuous to the average Holland America traveler may be completely different. If you’re a fitness buff or an experienced hiker/biker/kayaker, you might be disappointed.
When choosing tours, consult the activity level for terms like “moderate” or “strenuous” but also look for the number of miles walked, kayaked or biked. That said, I brought up the rear on a Scenic Cruises’ vineyard bicycling tour in Bordeaux due to the ship’s surprisingly active seniors. To go at your own pace, not the group’s, you’re better off on your own.
Related: Ship shape: 9 tips for staying fit on a cruise
Tours are not necessarily intimate
Instead of a very personalized experience, passengers on some ship-sponsored tours are packed onto motorcoaches with no opportunity to engage the guide if they are not sitting in the first few rows. If possible, look for a tour with a limited number of spots, especially if you’ll be walking, so you can interact. A tour guide speaking through a microphone to a completely full catamaran isn’t necessarily intimate.
Excursions often fill up in advance
There’s a reason you’re advised to pick tours early: They book up. Even if you log into your cruise line’s website to book tours the second they open up (which could be at midnight), shipmates in more expensive suites or higher loyalty program status might have snatched up all the spots on the hottest tours. Independent tours and the top guides also book up in advance, but you usually have more choices of operators and flexibility on when to book, so you can find something you like.
Cruise ship tours won’t take you off the beaten path
A 5,000-passenger ship can hardly offer three tours with 15 people on each, partnering with the island’s most eccentric artist or chef. They have to offer tours en masse to attractions used to handling thousands of travelers each day. When I dock in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, I hail a taxi to Grand Case on the French side and opt out of ship-sponsored tours. That means I’m not one of 50 people still in line for a pain au chocolat at a bakery while the motorcoach driver tells me I have “five more minutes.”
Look to the smaller cruise lines for more options for small-group tours – and know that those excursions are likely to be expensive and sell out quickly.
Ship-sponsored tours are often more expensive
Speaking of price, ship-sponsored tours are often more expensive than the same tour offered directly through the operator. That’s because the cruise line serves as the middleman and inflates the fees so it can take a cut before it pays the tour company.
Related: 15 ways that cruising newbies waste money on ships
Independent tours: Pros
Independent tours take smaller groups
When you sign on to an existing third-party tour, instead of filling up a motorcoach you will probably be one of fewer than 20 people hopping in a van or spreading out on a bus. Book a private tour, and it might be just you and your group. This small setting allows you to ask a lot of questions and even customize the day’s schedule with activities for antsy kids or photo stops at sights of interest. You can slow or quicken the pace and potentially choose what you see.
Tours can be more physically active
A rock-climbing tour probably isn’t going to partner with a large cruise ship. People who wish to scale boulders are a small niche of travelers. Even that hike or bike ride offered through the cruise line will be fairly easy. If exerting adrenaline is a must, go off on your own or find a local guide. You can tailor the day’s activities to your fitness level and skill and go at your preferred pace.
Independent exploration or tours can take you off the beaten path
Tour buses stick to the tourist hot spots to accommodate the general interests of first-time visitors. If you’ve already visited a cruise port before, or prefer to get off the beaten path, you may need to ditch the ship-sponsored tour for a private guide or exploring on your own.
Get recommendations from a co-worker, friend or online travel forums ahead of time. Don’t be shy about asking crew members or shop, gallery or restaurant workers for, say, the best conch salad in Nassau or a locals’ beach. You may find yourself gazing out to sea at a family-owned shack by the side of the road having an amazing local meal or enjoying a quiet strip of sand while your shipmates get herded about in tour buses.
Private cruise excursions will cost less or offer more value
As I mentioned earlier, going straight to the tour provider can get you the same tour as your ship is offering for a lower price. Small-group or private tours, on the other hand, tend to be pricier than large-group cruise ship excursions. However, you’ll get better value for your money when you can customize the tour to your preferences or spend more time sightseeing and less waiting around for other people in your group. If you can get together a group of 8 or 10 people, you can split costs to make a private tour more affordable per person.
Sometimes you don’t need a tour
For ports close to a downtown or the beach, you don’t need a tour to enjoy your day. Hop a cab to the beach, window shop in town or grab lunch at a local eatery; all you need is a map and some cash.
After lunch on the beach in Bridgetown, Barbados, I took a short taxi into downtown, popping into the locals’ version of a dime store and strolling through a farmer’s market. I didn’t need a guide for that, and I was happy to get away from the tour bus hordes for a few hours.
Independent tours: Cons
If the ship skips a port or arrives late, you may be unable to change plans
Ship tours will accommodate schedule changes, but private shore excursions don’t always. The tour operator may not know that your ship had to head back to its departure port due to a medical emergency, or that it changed its docking location and time. It may deem you a no-show and charge your credit card for the tour you missed. Even if you do manage to get in touch, its cancellation policy may or may not allow last-minute refunds.
Most tour operators catering to cruisers understand that weather patterns can change your ship’s itinerary, causing you to arrive on a different day or skip the port completely. Often, their cancellation policies cover these itinerary changes — especially if it’s a group tour rather than a private guide. However, there might not be room to accommodate you on a popular tour on the revised date or arrival. Bottom line: Ship tours will always accommodate itinerary changes; independent tours don’t always.
Related: What to do if your line cancels your port call
Unexpected problems can make you miss the ship
Most tour guides catering to cruise passengers are conscientious about getting passengers back to the ship on time. But a traffic jam, bad weather or a medical emergency can derail even the best-laid plans. If a private tour takes longer than projected, the ship won’t wait – and you might be looking for a hotel for the night.
Independent travel can stress you out
While I love straying from the port and getting away from the hustle and bustle, independent travel can stress me out. On my own, I constantly check the time or worry the taxi will get a flat tire and I’ll miss the ship. Some people stress out when navigating a foreign language without a guide to help translate. Others fret about getting lost in an unfamiliar city, or fear they’re missing out on the cultural and historical context if they can’t read signs in another language.
If independent exploration makes you anxious, by all means, sign up for that guided tour. Even if you see less, you’ll be happier about the sites you do get to experience.
You need to do your research
If you walk off the ship and sign up for a tour with the first company you see you could end up on a dud of a tour because you don’t know a thing about the provider. Whether you book your guide in advance or make a last-minute game plan on the pier, you are on the hook to do your homework, look up reviews and make sure the provider is legit. My independent cruise excursion in Havana was memorable because I did the research and booked a guide who got top ratings on TripAdvisor. But some folks end up disappointed because they booked with an unknown company and the excursion did not live up to expectations.
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Featured photo courtesy of Viking Cruises.