Full vs. Half-Day Tours: Shore excursions vary in length. Some take up all your time in port, while others are just a few hours of an all-day visit. Choose a full-day tour to see the most you can in one trip or for journeys to destinations outside the port city. A half-day tour might only focus on one specific itinerary -- a three-hour kayak trip or a highlights tour of a city -- but gives you free time to explore the port on your own before or after.
Guided vs. Free Time: Not all shore excursions involve busloads of tourists, dutifully following flag- or umbrella-waving guides. You will find these types of sightseeing tours, as well as athletic endeavors overseen by dive masters or hike leaders. However, some tours simply bring you to a destination where you're free to explore until it's time to meet the bus to go home, while others feature guided components, followed by an hour or two of free time.
Highlights vs. In-Depth: Some shore excursions -- such as daylong trips from Tunis to the marketplace, museum and ancient Carthage -- pack many activities into one trip. Others focus on one destination or activity, like a trip to the Mayan ruins from Cozumel. It's up to you whether you'd prefer to see many things for short amounts of time or focus on one place, in-depth.
Concierge or Boutique: Some of the newest trends in shore excursions include intimate tours that are limited to 25 or so guests. Many lines offer these boutique excursions, which could be cooking classes at a renowned French cooking school or a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Many lines also offer car-and-driver packages, so you can customize your own tour, or have concierges to arrange shoreside activities exclusively for your travel party. You can skip the caravan of four large tour buses and trade up for a more exclusive experience.
Check out What's New in Shore Tours over at Cruise Critic
One of the biggest questions cruisers have is whether or not to take a ship-sponsored shore excursion. The answer banks on your budget, as well as your inclinations. Port tours vary in price, depending on the cruise line, and can run you anywhere from $40 per person for a simple beach break to hundreds of dollars each for such higher-priced options as helicopter rides, golf and day-long or overnight tours. Taking a tour in every port can quickly inflate your onboard bill.
Shore excursions are worth it if you want to venture to attractions that are located far from the pier, learn more about an area through a guide or participate in physical activities where gear is required (biking, diving, golf). However, if all you want to do is walk around town, shop or visit the beach, it could be much cheaper and less time-consuming to get a map and go it on your own. For instance, in St. Thomas, the shops are a stone's throw from the ship, but beaches are a cab ride away. (Keep in mind it still might be less expensive to hail a taxi to the beach than to participate in a tour.) And, in tiny Monte Carlo, the castle, cathedral and casino are all within walking distance of your ship. Don't forget about arranging your own transportation, too. In Hawaii, many ports offer on-site car rentals or rental agency pickups. In Barcelona, you can easily use a combination of local buses, the subway and hop-on, hop-off tourist buses to get around.