Snorkeling through coral reefs, exploring ancient Roman ruins, hiking on glaciers, shopping at local outdoor markets; all these shoreside activities are as much a part of the cruise experience as enjoying the onboard amenities of your ship. Indeed, half the fun of taking a cruise is exploring exciting new places, tropical islands, bustling metropolises, exotic countries.
So to enhance each port visit (as well as to increase their profits), cruise lines offer organized shore excursions on all ships for additional fees. The land-based trips run the gamut from sightseeing city tours to cultural events and active pursuits.
You can take a sunset pleasure cruise in St. Lucia, visit penguin colonies in the Falkland Islands, go wine-tasting in Provence or rollerblade through Copenhagen. The tours can be booked onboard at your ship's excursions desk or online before you depart on your trip.
The benefits of booking ship-sponsored tours are many. You can skip the hassle of arranging your own onshore activities, you'll know the tour provider is licensed and reputable and the ship won't depart until all of its tour buses have returned, even the tardy ones. You may also meet other shipmates whose company you'll enjoy back on the ship.
But ship tours are not always the way to go. The pleasurability and efficiency of tour operators varies from ship to ship, and some tour offerings are simply duds. All too often, shore excursions translate into time-consuming bus rides with drop-offs at shopping centers proffering souvenirs you can live without.
For example, after a long, hot (but worthwhile) tour of the Acropolis outside of Athens, passengers who thought they were being driven back to their ship were squirreled into a tacky little shop, belonging to the tour guide's brother-in-law.
Finally, you will often pay more for the privilege of letting the cruise line arrange your day than you would if you booked directly with a provider.
To give you the skills to make the best decisions about your days in port, here is our advice on what to expect from a shore excursion and how to make the most of your time ashore.
Cruise lines offer a mind-boggling array of tours, everything from basic snorkeling trips to more involved, overnight tours to see the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Here's a primer on what you can expect to see on offer.
Active vs. Sightseeing Tours: Shore excursions cover all levels of activity and interest and vary greatly, depending on what's available in each destination. Active tours could be anything from water sports to zip-lining, hiking, biking and dog-sledding. Activity-based trips might feature a day at the spa or beach, a pleasure cruise on a sailboat, wine or food tasting, a cultural performance or a visit to a museum.
Sightseeing excursions are typically bus tours that take passengers to the highlights and shopping areas of the port city or nearby destinations. Remember that excursions look different in different parts of the word. In the Caribbean, you'll find options like snorkeling with sting rays or transportation to private beaches; European tours focus more on sightseeing -- for example, full-day tours from the port of Livorno to the museums and cathedrals of Florence or multi-hour lunches, featuring local produce, meats and wine at a farmhouse in Tuscany.