Cruise ship docked in Skagway, Alaska. Photo: Nenad Basic/Shutterstock

Cruise Shore Excursions: Are They Worth It?

by Morgane Croissant Mar 13, 2024

It’s very easy to cruise for cheap. Cruise lines always have good deals available, especially when it comes to transatlantic crossings or repositioning cruises. But if you want to keep your cruise affordable, you have to watch for all the extras that are on offer, and often pushed on you during a sailing: drinks package, spa access, preventive sea sickness treatments, specialty dining, and shore excursions.

While cruise shore excursions can be booked on board the ship, I, a keen cruiser, recommend that you book them at home prior to your trip. No matter the destinations, there is usually a very long list of possible excursions to choose from, all of varying length and prices (although rarely under $100 each), and you don’t want to book anything without taking a good, long look at all the options first (and their reviews, if available).

When looking into cruise excursions, you should consider the following five questions:

Won’t I miss out if I don’t book shore excursions?

The short answer, which comes from experience, is no. I have gone on cruises during which I had excursions booked for every port call and it was utterly exhausting and gave me no time to explore on my own. I have circumnavigated Iceland on a cruise ship, a trip during which we stopped at very small towns, far away from the big attractions, and booked no excursions at all and it was the right decision. It allowed me the freedom to go at my own pace without anyone else around, find hiking trails and lovely areas where no group excursions would have taken me, and come back on board the ship whenever I felt like it. It is very important to find a good balance between shore excursions and free time, not only for your wallet, but also for your enjoyment.

Is this shore excursion a good use of my time at this destination?

Crowds on Mount Etna in Sicily, part of a cruise shore excursion

Crowds on Mount Etna in Sicily. Photo: Dirk M. de Boer/Shutterstock

While one of the biggest trends in the cruising industry is to make longer port calls, sometimes even staying overnight, it’s still pretty common for ships to stay at one destination for only eight or nine hours, arriving early morning and leaving before dinner. With such a short amount of time, you’ll want to be careful about booking an excursion that will take up most of your day on land. Booking a lengthy shore excursion often means that you won’t be able to spend much, or even any, time exploring the destination on your own, going into local shops, visiting attractions, wandering the streets to look at the architecture, stopping in a small cafe, etc.

Before we boarded on a Mediterranean cruise with Oceania, my partner and I booked an excursion for the day we were going to spend docked in Messina, Sicily. We chose to book a 4×4 expedition of Mount Etna which would take 7.5 hours and cost nearly $500 each. We imagined it would be the chance of a lifetime to go see volcano craters up close accompanied by a professional guide who would share their knowledge with us. While we could not anticipate that the guide would be a disappointment, if we had done a little more research, we would have known that the place would be commercialized ad-nauseam and extremely crowded, making the experience unenjoyable. Also, we should have foreseen that the excursion was going to leave us with no time to visit Messina at all. All in all, we saw nearly nothing of Sicily and life on the island, which we regretted immensely.

Unless you have done prior research and are confident you’ll have a good experience, or you want to fulfill a lifelong dream, book an excursion that will take less than half your time at the destination, or one that will allow you to wander around at your leisure a little. A professionally guided tour of a city, stopping to visit or look at major attractions, but leaving you time to grab a snack from a street food vendor, is a good option if you’re able to walk for a couple of hours.

Is this shore excursion weather-dependent and what will I do if it gets canceled?

If you’re booking a weather-dependent shore excursion, you need to think of a back-up in case it gets canceled. This is especially true if you are cruising around Alaska, where a lot of the shore excursions on offer involve outdoors activities like whale watching, fishing, hiking around Mendenhall Glacier, kayaking, helicopter rides, etc. and the rain and fog can easily wreck the best laid plans.

Research the destination prior to your cruise, ask an AI travel assistant like GuideGeek, or have a guidebook handy so you can quickly adapt and find the best things to do at your destination and don’t waste your entire day. If the place is tiny and has very few things to do (like in Skagway, Alaska, for example), you can book a different excursion by visiting the appropriate desk on board.

During my 2022 cruise in Alaska with Holland America, the Tlingit-style canoe paddle across Mendenhall Lake that I had booked got canceled because of heavy rain and fog, and so did my partner’s salmon fishing expedition. The ship was docked very close to the center of Juneau, so we grabbed the paper map of the city provided by the cruise staff, donned our waterproof clothing and footwear, and went to explore the city for a few hours. We discovered great little shops and art galleries where we got to chat with locals, visited a tiny Russian Orthodox church, and generally wandered around to get a feel of the place. We had a blast and, while we were drenched, made the best out of a day that could have been disastrous. Of course, our shore excursions were refunded and that left us with unexpected money to spend elsewhere.

That said, don’t be discouraged to book an outdoorsy excursion when in Alaska or anywhere else where the weather can change very quickly. When the climate cooperates, those activities are fantastic.

Does this shore excursion require a lot of travel time?

Ephesus in Türkiye is the location of many cruise ship excursions

The archeological site of Ephesus. Photo: Boat Rungchamrussopa/Shutterstock

A lot of shore excursions require spending many hours on buses with dozens of other passengers. That is true for cruise ships that dock in Civitavecchia, Italy, the port associated with Rome but which is about one hour by bus from the city. The same goes for ships that dock in Cadiz, Spain, from where many excursions go to Seville (1.5 hours one way), or Malaga, Spain, from where excursion take you to visit Granada and the Alhambra (two hours one way), among many other docking ports around the world. Hours spent on a bus getting to the location of your shore excursion usually mean three things:

  • An early departure from the ship
  • Limited amount of time on site, and sometimes a rushed visit.
  • Very little time in the city where you docked, some of which like Cadiz and Malaga, are very much worth visiting.

Look carefully at the description of the shore excursion and make good use of Google maps to determine how long you’ll have to travel by bus from the ship to the location of your shore excursion, and how long you’ll have on site. It should help you make an informed decision.

My experience booking a shore excursion to Mount Etna from Messina, Sicily, is a good example of time poorly spent. While the excursion was 7.5-hour long, it included four hours spent zig zagging around in a bus without bathroom or snack breaks, and over one hour in a pre-arranged restaurant, leaving us with less than 2.5 hours on site. However, my experience visiting the stunning archeological site of Ephesus in Türkiye, which required a total of two hours on board a bus from and to the town of Izmir was worth the traveling time and money. A knowledgeable guide and plenty of time spent on site, including leisure time, made for money and time well spent.

Can I do it on my own for cheaper and the same amount of effort?

Once again, once you have selected a few cruise excursions you’d like to book, take the time to research how much it would cost, and how easy it would be if you organize them yourself.

The first question should be: Is the activity or attraction far from where the ship will dock? If you can walk there or take reliable public transportation, that’s a win. If you need to rent a vehicle for the day, the price may be higher than booking a shore excursion with the cruise line. And if the only way to get there is public transport in which you have little faith, abandon the idea immediately. Missing the ship’s departure will cost you big.

Once you’ve looked into the transportation options, examine the cost of the activity and attraction if you were to do it individually rather than in a group setting. It might be cheaper, but make sure that it’s cheap enough to be worth the hassle of organizing it yourself.

One thing for sure is that if your ship docks close to a city center, do not book a Hop On Hop Off bus tour via the cruise line. You’ll pay much less purchasing it yourself, and chances are there’s a stop nearby from where you can board the bus. I booked a Hop On Hop Off bus tour via a cruise line both in Naples and Rome and would not recommend it for those who are able-bodied enough to get to a stop, internet-savvy enough to book a ticket online, and have some sort of sense of direction.

The same can be said for tourist train rides like the White Pass & Yukon Route train in Skagway, Alaska. If it’s cheaper to book it on your own, go for it. Skagway is tiny and ships dock right by the city center so you’ll have no trouble getting there.

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