Pros and Cons of Booking Cruise Ship Shore Excursions

Grand Cayman cruise pier

Exploring the destinations makes an inevitable part of every cruise vacation. Changing cruise ports every day, discovering different cultures, embracing new adventures are the best part of each cruise.

The cruise ship shore excursions department has a very important role to play, as their main goal is to promote and sell shore excursions to the guests and deal with potential issues and complaints. I’ve been working as Shore excursions staff on board an ocean cruise liner for a few years now (before that I was on river ships in Europe), and have dealt with all sorts of challenges, situations, issues, and different types of people.

In this article, I would like to share my honest opinion on the pros and cons of booking shore excursions with a cruise ship.

Please note that due to the Covid-19 impact on the cruise industry, the things listed below may be affected and temporarily changed. You should check with your cruise line the regulations and policies regarding the shore leave and shore excursions. 

Also, I am giving you for FREE my Exclusive Shore Excursion Guide that you can get by signing up below.

Why Should You Book Shore Excursions with Your Cruise Ship?

1. Everything is Organized for You

Cruise lines organize shore excursions through reliable third-party tour operators with years and decades of experience in working with cruise ship guests. Many of those tour agencies’ owners and employees used to work onboard cruise ships and they exactly know the needs and preferences of paying cruise ship passengers.

Suggested article: 25 Top Shore Excursion Packing List Items

Tour operators offer different types of tours; in the Caribbean for instance, almost every cruise port has dozens of different tour operators – some of them offer sightseeing tours, some of them are specialized in off-road tours, some of them in snorkeling trips… the list goes on.

On the other hand, in Europe, in most of the cruise ports, there is only one tour operator in charge of handling all shore excursions in a particular port of call.

My point is – tour operators know their job and they do their best to provide excellent service to the cruise ship guests.

Once you choose your tour (if you don’t know which one to choose, Shore excursions staff onboard your cruise ship would be more than happy to help), all you have to do is to follow the instructions written on your tour ticket that you have to bring with you on the tour.

The tour ticket normally includes information such as the name of the tour, tour meeting place, meeting time (which is usually 15-45 minutes before tour departure time, or up to 1 hour in busy ports, such as La Spezia, Civitavecchia, etc.), tour departure time, important notes (ALWAYS read these!).

My teammates and I in front of the cruise ship, ready for the tour dispatch in Bruges, Belgium
My teammates and I ready for the tour dispatch in Bruges, Belgium

Your only task is to show up on time, and your tour guide will take care of the rest. When your tour is finished, the tour guide will bring you back to the ship or offer you the possibility to drop you off in town (if the town is further away from your ship terminal), but in that case – you need to return to the ship on your own.

2. Shore Excursions Department Can Assist You

Shore excursions department is there to help you choose the right tour that suits your needs and give you the information on the detailed tour flow upon booking. Normally, there is a shore excursions desk where you can talk to the shore excursions staff and they will assist you. We usually know ports of call and we can provide you with insider information that you can’t find online or on the company’s website. A part of our job is to go on tours, so we can give you detailed tour information and share feedback with you.

(Recommended article: Life Of Shore Excursions Staff Onboard a Cruise Ship: Job Description And Daily Duties)

However, I would like to mention one thing, as that’s the department I work in.

As shore excursions staff, we are not able to go on all tours and we don’t know all the details in terms of tour flow. Sometimes, a shore excursions staff is a new hire, he/she hasn’t been in a particular port of call yet or doesn’t know the port of call well (they often transfer us from ship to ship so we are not experts in all ports of call), so we can’t give the detailed tour description that guests ask for.

In that case, all we can do is rely on the tour description that we have online or ask someone who has been on a tour.

Also, bear in mind that even if we have been on a particular tour and we give you the details – the tour flow might change due to various circumstances and you might not get the same experience.

Tours are subject to change due to unforeseen situations that are not under our or the tour operator’s control. Always make sure you have reliable travel insurance (get a quote by linking on the banner below).

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Besides advising you on what tour to choose, Shore excursions representatives are there to help you with issues or problems that potentially happen on a tour. It is a hard part for us because we need to act in the company’s best interest but also make guests happy and provide you with a partial/full refund if needed. That affects our cruise targets (shore excursions staff is an important part of the revenue department), but we also empathize and understand our guests so we do our best to get the refund from the tour operator and make things right for both sides.

However, I’ve seen many cruise passengers abusing this and trying to get compensation in form of a refund or an onboard credit without any relevant reason. It happened to me that people just pick one thing they disliked about the tour (although the tour flow has been respected) and ask for compensation.

I mean, come on. If your flight with United Airlines (for example) had a lot of turbulences or you didn’t like the food on the airplane, do you ask for a refund?

I think in these situations we need to have mutual understanding and try to find an acceptable solution resulting in both sides being satisfied.


3. Your Return to the Cruise Ship is Guaranteed

When you join a shore excursion with your cruise ship, you are guaranteed to return to the ship before all onboard time. Even if your tour arrival is delayed, you don’t have to worry because your cruise ship will wait until all guests who joined an excursion are back onboard.

Tours can be delayed for many reasons: traffic, mechanical issues, lost guests on a tour, injuries… If this happens on a cruise ship shore excursion, be sure that the cruise ship management and the tour operator will provide you with support and help, and the captain will wait until the last guest comes back onboard.

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However, if this happens on a tour that you booked with an independent tour operator, the cruise ship and shore excursions department cannot issue a refund or any form of compensation. Also, if something happens on a tour and you are extremely late for all aboard time, the cruise ship can leave without you as you didn’t return onboard on time.

Of course, the cruise ship management and the captain normally wait for the guests as long as they can, but sometimes the captain makes the decision to leave in case the ship can’t stay in port longer.

This varies from ship to ship, and companies have different policies, but one is sure: when you book a shore excursion with your cruise ship, none of this should be your concern.

4. It’s the Safest Option

When you go on tours with your cruise ship, your safety is guaranteed. Of course, this doesn’t refer to your belongings (it’s your responsibility to keep an eye on your personal things), but safety in general.

Suggested article: 25 Top Shore Excursion Packing List Items

Very often, besides the tour guides, the tours are accompanied by escorts as well, and they can offer you a hand if needed.

When on a tour, you follow the tour flow and stay with your group all the time (except when you get free time). The tour guide usually gives you a contact number that you can call in case you get lost and the group waits for you.

In case of incidents or accidents, the tour guides and tour operators know exactly how to react and what action to take. They immediately inform the cruise ship management, they provide instant help/first aid to the guest (or take guest to the hospital if needed), they take care of the rest of the group… in one word, they know their job which makes you feel safe and confident.

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Unfortunately, some of the incidents can affect the whole tour in terms of missing or skipping a part of the tour, but in this case, you need to talk to the Guest Services or Shore excursions department to get it solved.

Finally, this refers to safety in general, but of course, there are exceptions to the rule and some tour guides don’t know how to react or what procedures to follow in case of unforeseen situations. It’s rare, but it happens.

5. When the Cruise Port is Far from the City

I’ll give you an example – You want to visit Rome and your cruise ship docks in Civitavecchia cruise port. Civitavecchia is 82 kilometers far from Rome, which means that if you don’t go to Rome, you’ll pretty much be stuck in Civitavecchia and there’s not much to do there.

Me in Rome, Foro Romano
It takes around 1 hour 15 minutes to reach Rome from Civitavecchia cruise port, and 1 hour by train

In this situation, the best way to get to the city is by a cruise ship shore excursion (in the picture above, I joined the tour that included only a transfer and 4 hours of free time in Rome).

Of course, you can always arrange a private tour with an independent tour operator, or a local vendor – but, what if your tour is delayed and you are stuck in traffic on the way from Rome to Civitavecchia?

Shore excursions guarantee your return to the ship and are a good way to ensure your spot to visit Vatican or Colosseum (this is only an example – if you book a tour going to the Vatican, the ticket is included). In busy cities overcrowded with people and tourists, getting inside the venues can be a true nightmare and you can face long lines even if you pre-book your ticket online.

By booking a ship shore excursion, you can avoid the headache and let the tour operator arrange everything for you.

Grab my FREE SHORE EXCURSION GUIDE for detailed tips & advice!


Disadvantages of Booking a Shore Excursion with the Cruise Ship

In this following part of the article, I will write about several disadvantages of booking a shore excursion with your cruise ship.

1. The Prices of Cruise Chip Shore Excursions are Higher

This is a fact, although it varies on cruise companies and depends on a port of call. According to my experience, the same shore excursions you book with a cruise line, you can also book with an independent tour operator as well, for a cheaper price.

As I said earlier, shore excursions represent an important revenue income for the cruise lines, and therefore the prices can exceed their average value.

However, sometimes you can avoid this by pre-booking your shore excursions. Prepaid price is usually lower, and if you have the intention to book a tour with a cruise line – don’t wait until the last moment and do it at home before you embark. Sometimes you can get them for a cheaper price, but sometimes you’ll find the same price onboard. This is not under our control and the Head Office is in charge of it.

2. You Need to Stick to the Tour Flow

When you are on a tour with other people, you should strictly stick to the tour flow and not make detours. You usually get some free time on sightseeing tours for example, but that time is not enough and you need to run to catch up with your group.

If you want to stay in a particular place and leave your group, you need to ask a tour guide and it’s his/her decision to let you go or not. Depends on how flexible they are and what instructions they got from their supervisors.

Overall, you need to follow the group rules and you don’t have much freedom when it comes to doing your own things.

3. The Tour Quality is Not Guaranteed

My experience has shown me that a lot of cruise ship passengers book their shore excursions with a cruise ship. The piers are always crowded with people finding a meeting place and checking in for the tour, and it can take ages to get together and start the actual tour.

With such a large number of guests joining the tours (and especially if there are several other ships in port), what happens sometimes is that tour operators struggle to find tour guides to operate the tours. Unfortunately, this happens often, particularly in small cruise ports where tour operators can provide a limited number of tour guides, bus drivers, buses, spots in a restaurant (if the tour includes meals), etc. This results in the poor quality of the service, and unhappy guests, as they can’t really enjoy the local experience and have a personalized tour approach.

You should keep one thing in mind: Both cruise lines and tour operators want to have the tours fully booked, which may result in full (overcrowded) buses or boats, inexperienced tour guides, and generally poor quality of the tour.

Of course, cruise ships offer small group and more exclusive tours as well, but the prices of such tours are usually higher and do not guarantee a quality experience.

4. A lot of “Time-Wasting”

When you are joining the cruise ship shore excursion, you need to follow the instructions marked on your tour tickets. As I mentioned above, the meeting time for a tour is usually 15-45 minutes before the actual tour starts and may involve delays due to cruise guests being late for meeting time or getting lost in the crowd.

You can experience the same thing during the tour when the whole group is delayed due to a few guests who got stuck in a souvenir shop or a restaurant.

Suggested article: 25 Top Shore Excursion Packing List Items

These things can happen and they are an inevitable part of a tour, especially if you travel with a large group.

On the other hand, if you want to enjoy a relaxed tour, in a smaller group, with more flexible times, and a more personalized experience, you can always consider booking a tour with a reliable independent tour operator, as some of them offer a wide variety of such tours.

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These tours are normally of high quality because tour agencies/guides do their best to get positive feedback from you, which affects their online bookings and sales. You get a nice experience for a smaller amount of money, and in addition, these guys are usually experienced with cruise ship guests and are informed of the cruise ship’s arrival/departure time, etc., so you don’t have to worry about that.

If you prefer booking a tour with an independent tour operator, make sure you do it through a reliable online platform such as Viator, Get Your Guide, Expedia, or Trip Advisor. Also, make sure you book cruise ship-friendly tours (the ones that take into consideration your cruise ship arrival/departure), in order to avoid the unpleasant scenario.

5. Shore Excursions Cancellations

Last-minute shore excursions cancellations are among the most unpleasant situations that can happen, and in the Caribbean, for example, they happen very often.

They can happen due to various reasons: mechanical issues, bad weather, broken equipment… That’s something that we can’t control (the shore excursions department, the ship management, tour operators), and the guests who had their shore excursions canceled are automatically refunded.

The cancellations can happen a few days before coming to the port of call or last minute (the worst option). They put both guests and the shore excursions department in a frustrating situation, and we need to figure out the alternatives for our guests in order to make their day fulfilled and happy.

Overall, this is a normal thing that can happen in the world of cruising, and it’s important for both sides to have a lot of mutual understanding in these situations.

Recommended article: 10 Things That Can Negatively Impact Your Cruise Vacation

To Wrap Up

I hope this article helped you realize some of the pros and cons of booking shore excursions with your cruise ship. There are always positive and negative sides, and the choice depends on you – your budget, your expectations, your plan on how to spend a day in a cruise port…

What I would definitely recommend is to always have a backup plan: do the research on the destinations you are visiting and always keep your options open in order to get the most of your trip.

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What is your view on this matter?

Do you prefer to book shore excursions with a cruise line or you prefer to do your own thing?

Share your comments below. Thanks for a read!

This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see my disclaimer here.

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3 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Booking Cruise Ship Shore Excursions”

  1. I agree with your point about being guaranteed a timely return. That’s my biggest worry. (Check your heading of #1 in Disadvantages. :))

  2. I think much more cruise ship shore excursions would be booked if they were less expensive. I think rates of appr 30 €/25 $ for half day and 50 €/40 $ for whole day (excl meals and entry fees) would attract much more guests.

  3. I don’t think I have had a cruise tour where there isn’t someone who makes everyone else wait for them to show up before leaving. I think it might only happen one time IF just once the tour would just leave at the time it is supposed to. I actually like small or private tours because we don’t have to linger waiting for the person who doesn’t listen and know that shopping, etc. should be done on their own time, and not hold up the entire group. Cruise tours almost never take in the “good of the entire group” instead of the few. Sitting on a bus waiting for one or two people and cutting into everyone else’s tour time is unfair and inconsiderate but on large tours it ALWAYS seems to happen.

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