How to Get the Best Shore Excursions on Ocean Cruise


By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

Shore trips can be frustrating for ocean cruisers.  It is often hard to evaluate if the cost will provide the value you are seeking and if the tour is what you desire to see and experience.  After taking some 25 ocean cruises and experiencing the various offerings of shore excursions, we have developed a good method to determine if we should use the cruise lines shore excursions or try a different method.  So let’s examine shore excursions further.

Advantages of a Cruise Line Shore Excursion

Probably the best advantage is the convenience—it is easy—just select the tour and show up at the right time and enjoy.  The second key advantage is taking a cruise line tour insures you will not be left in port if the tour is delayed.  Cruise ships have schedules and may have to leave errant passengers if they are late back to the ship if the reason is not due to a ship’s excursion.  The third advantage is that sometimes the only way to visit a desired place in port is to take the cruise line offered tour.  A forth advantage happens in tendered ports, as cruise lines usually allow their tour groups to leave the ship first (see the discussion on tendered ports below).  Shore excursions also add a layer of safety in a strange country.

Great Shore Excursion at an Ice Bar in Stockholm

Disadvantages of a Cruise Line Shore Excursion

Many times the tours offered are expensive.  Tours may be capacity controlled—only a limited number can participate.  Sometimes the groups can be so large, it becomes difficult to have a good experience.  Long bus rides also can be a problem, especially if the tour spends most of its time getting to the destination and not much time seeing and experiencing the tour sight.  Tours are controlled experiences—you may have to visit a souvenir shop for example that has zero appeal to you.

Cruise Tour Briefings

Every cruise we have been on offers some type of briefing about the upcoming port, talks about the shore excursions available, and provides shopping tips.  While most of the information is objective, realize that shops often pay commission to become a preferred vendor.  Before you think this is a rip–off, realize that the cruise lines reputation is on the line and they often guarantee your purchases are quality items.  Our best advice is to read the fine print and know what a good price or deal really is.  We also recommend that you check the price or desired purchase before leaving home.

Port Access–Docked or Tendered

There are two ways you have access to a port—tied up at dock or by tender (a smaller boat that takes you to the port).  Docked means you can walk off the ship after clearing customs and basically leave when you want to leave the ship if the port has something of interest.  It also often makes it convenient to return to the ship for a meal, which saves money.  Tendered is whole different issue. Depending on the number of smaller boats being used, this can really restrict the time you have to visit a certain area.  It also means some waiting.  Most tenders we have been on are very efficient, but on one ship the tender service was so bad we never were able to get off the ship at one port (needless to say we do recommend this cruise line for our clients).

An Example Great Cruise Ship Tour

Our wine tasting event in Portofino was one of the best cruise ship tours we have ever taken.  We got to visit this great little town while on a SiverSeas luxury cruise in the Western Mediterranean cruise in 2015.   I can’t tell how much we enjoyed this quaint little city.  After a short tender ride (a small boat to get from our larger ship to the port), we got to this interesting town.  First we went on a special wine tasting, held at a cliff top castle, then wandered the town and ended our visit eating some awesome prawns.  We still rave about this visit and will return.  Here are a few photos of this adventure:

Wine Tasting in Portofino
Guido Porrati provided us with an awesome culinary and wine tasting on our shore tour,with SilverSea

Good Tour Behavior

We have seen a lot of interesting folks on cruise tours.  Most are good but some can be quite irritating.  First, common courtesy of respecting others makes the whole experience better for all.  Second, recognize there is a time schedule.  Don’t be the person the whole group has to wait on.  Be courteous; be on time for events and departures.  It’s a good idea to get the cell phone number of the tour guide in case you get lost or some other emergency arises and especially a location to meet up, should you get separated from the tour or your group.

How we determine to do a trip on our own or to Use the Cruise Line Excursion

Before we think about doing an excursion on our own, safety is our number one concern.  Often, we will use the cruise tour first, especially if we are in an unfamiliar place and there could be a significant language barrier and unsafe areas.  We don’t recommend doing it on your own for novice travelers.

If we decide to do it on our own, here is how we proceed.  The first item to properly decide on what to do at a specific port is what we want to see and experience.  Then we try to figure out if we can get to the spot on our own with less cost and still enjoy the sight.  This sometimes becomes quite complicated.  The exact docking location and ease to public transportation are factors we consider.  Access to the sight is another key factor—can we get in at a reasonable cost and not have to waste time standing in line?  The final key is can we do it on our own with a reasonable chance to see the sight and get back on time.

Getting to the desired site

There are many ways to use public transportation to get where you want to go.  You can use a taxi, a bus, a subway or even the shore excursion when the option is just a transfer to the desired spot and then free time (this often is our favorite shore excursion).  Our preferred method is to walk, then subway, maybe bus, finally cab or private limo.  We also use trains—sometimes a great option.

It is an easy 1/2 mile walk to the Old City of Tallinn, Estonia from the port area

Bus is an inexpensive way to get around.  Prior to using this option, you need some basic bus skills.  First, payment will be in local currency and require small bills or coins.  Second, you must know where to get off.  One tip—write down the desired stop or sight on a piece of paper and ask for help to the driver or others—you do not need much in the way of language skills using this tip (also great for taxi drivers).

Taxis sometimes can be a great deal—saves time and gets you there in the most efficient manner.  The problem with taxis can be overcharging.  We always look for a licensed cab; try to get a cost estimate before the trip, look for a taxi meter and we use small local currency bills to pay if we cannot use a credit card.  Taxis at an official taxi stand are generally better and safer than other cabs. 

A train can also be a really good option.  For example, we have visited Berlin on our own with a two hour train ride.  It does take some skills and a little courage, but the cost saving were significant compared to the same trip provided by the cruise lines.

Berlin Main Train Station
Berlin Main Train Station (Hauptbahnhof)
Brandenbrug Gate
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Germany

Private Guides

We have used private guides in several ports.  In Istanbul, we hired a private guide and saw everything we wanted to see. It was a good value for the money. In two days, we visited almost every key sight in the city and got priority access in many places. 

Spice Markets of Istanbul
Spice Markets of Istanbul

In Rome, we visited a food market and special restaurants that locals use.  Great experience—well worth the money!

Food Tour
Our guide in Rome on the food tour

Other Companies Shore Excursion Offerings

We have several other companies that offer shore excursions.  Depending on the desired outcome, they can be a great value and more importantly, a far better experience.  This is especially true for small groups traveling together.  For instance, we planned a great excursion in southern France by private driver that our clients still rave about—they got to see and experience more than possible with the cruise line or if they tried to do it on their own.  We even arrange a secret proposal on a special cruise tour—she said yes!

Regan Gauthier28
A proposal in Tulum, Mexico

Our Final thoughts

We hope these tips have helped you rethink your shore excursion options.  While it may seem daunting at first, we can help solve these questions and help provide a better experience.  Please reach out to us by sending me an email at or better yet, call me at 713-397-0188.  We want to be your trusted travel advisors.  We want to help you: Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Hank Schrader

HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years.  He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA).  This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years.   He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees.   His other Certifications:

  • AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
  • Viking River Cruise Specialist
  • Scenic River Cruise Specialist
  • Emerald Waterways  Specialist
  • Avalon Waterways Specialist
  • Brit Agent



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