Cruise tips: “Should I pre-book my shore excursions?”

Oct 02, 2023
Photo: Getty Images

If you’re travelling with a major cruise line, chances are your fare does not include shore excursions.

Your accommodation, meals and entertainment — all you need for a carefree holiday at sea — are all taken care of. If, however, you have your heart set on truly exploring each destination during your day in port, some add-on experiences may be worthwhile. 

Cruise lines will encourage passengers to pre-book shore excursions far ahead of your departure. This can usually be done via an online portal or “cruise personaliser” (where you can also arrange drinks packages, premium dining and other add-ons).

In many cases it can be wise to book ahead, but your personal circumstances, sense of adventure, health, mobility and finances may all play a part in your choice.

In other situations it may be possible — or even desirable — to wait until arrival before choosing. Read on for the pros and cons of each option…

The pros of booking ahead:

  • It may be your only option.
    With some big bucket list destinations (such as the Horizontal Falls in the Kimberley), places are be extremely limited and may sell out well in advance. A little research can go a long way.
  • Mobility needs can be taken care of.
    Flagging your specific needs ahead of time will allow the cruise line or tour operator to get you the best possible accessibility.
  • You won’t miss the boat.
    When booking shore excursions with your cruise line, there is usually a guarantee that the ship will wait for these day tours to return before departing port. If travelling with a third-party tour operator, or exploring on your own, the ship will have no obligation to wait.
  • You may skip the queue.
    Larger ships tend to stagger disembarkation times, with passengers lining up and leaving the ship in allocated groups. If you have arranged a shore excursion through the cruise line, you will likely be allocated a special time to disembark independently.
  • It makes budgeting easier
    By paying ahead of time, you’ll only need to reach for your wallet for a souvenir or local treat.
  • You may get extra safety and comfort
    Often a cruise line will sign contracts with the tour operator years in advance. They’ll usually work with the larger and more regulated operators in town. This will likely mean higher quality vehicles and more insurance and safety aspects. If you have high expectations or champagne tastes, booking ahead will likely be the option for you!

Tip: Some cruise lines offer sales with onboard credit or even an included shore excursion. Ask your travel agent to keep their eye out for specials with inclusions like this.  Of course, extra inclusions sometimes mean a heftier deposit, so make sure you’ve asked your agent lots of questions and weigh up the extra value vs. money saved.

The pros of finding an option on arrival

  • More room to haggle
    As the cruise line will usually run tours with the highest quality operator in town, you will likely pay more than the budget options available on arrival.  If you are a dab-hand at negotiating and don’t mind the adventure of finding a last-minute tour, you’ll have a great opportunity to save.
  • More flexibility
    If you booked a group shore excursion through your cruise line, you’ll need to “go with the flow”, and won’t necessarily have the luxury of detouring to niche experiences. If you’re looking something more personalised and unique, you may wish to look elsewhere.
  • You’ll do right by the locals
    Booking ahead means more money goes to your cruise line. Choosing an operator on arrival will put more back into the local economy.

When it pays to wait

On a recent cruise to Vanuatu, our group of seven compared three options to do a day tour arriving into Port Vila:

  1. Pre-booking via the cruise line: options varied but were around $100 per person. By the time we got organised, these were booked out.
  2. Booking at the information centre on arrival: a private vehicle with driver cost $250 for the entire vehicle ($35 per person).
  3. Booking via one of the many drivers with a van outside the gates of the port: $60 per person.

We chose option two — the cheapest — and had a wonderful experience with Audrey (our guide) and Tom (our driver). The van was rustic but added to the local experience and our day on the island was unique.

After a stop at a look-out for some photos and a chat about what we wanted from our day, we went to an arts and crafts market. Audrey assisted with negotiations, and we purchased some beautiful jewellery made from coconut shell and other souvenirs for the in-laws minding the dog back home!

Some of our group were craving coffee. We mentioned this to Audrey and before we knew it, we were at a local coffee plantation. Housed in a historic mission church, we enjoyed a walk-through the one-room roasting, grinding and packing area before drinking coffee in a beautiful alfresco café. 

Another member of the group said they wanted to see a waterfall, so we went to a swimming hole with tubes, all with clean toilets and changing areas. 

Along the way, Tom stopped at roadside stalls to buy local delicacies such as roots cooked with beef in banana leaves ($1). I wanted to try a fresh coconut, so Tom stopped at a local fruit and vege market and came back with three coconuts ($1.20each). Audrey produced a knife and we sipped on the most unique ‘roady’ any of us had ever had. The coconut juice was so refreshing and when we stopped at the river, Audrey smashed the coconut open on a rock and cut out the fresh flesh for us to eat on the way in the car. Delicious!  

Our last stop was the famous ‘Blue Lagoon’. It’s a unique place that really does look as good as it does in the photos. The highlight was a local man assisting everyone onto a swinging rope out into the middle of the lagoon. One of the local dogs came down to swim at the water’s edge with her puppies following her — except if you looked closely, you’d notice that one of the puppies was actually a piglet the same colouring as her pups. It even suckled her when she stopped to feed the puppies! 

The absolute flexibility of booking a tour this way is fabulous, as your day is tailored to your group. Don’t like coffee? Go somewhere else. Want to taste local delicacies, no worries, they’ll stop at the roadside stalls and buy things on your behalf. Most of all, ALL the money you spend goes back to the local economy.  

There is of course nothing wrong with the cruise company making money from shore excursions, but after chatting with Audrey and Tom and hearing all about their kids, the cost of living and the job market, it’s a great feeling to know you are contributing to the welfare of some awesome people. 

Not to mention that in a bigger group, you don’t get the opportunity to pepper a local with as many questions as we did, nor get as deep an insight into the culture and community. 

Of course, this also comes with extra risk. Flat tires, illness or accidents might not happen very often, but it would have been a very expensive tour had we missed our ship — especially as this was the last port, and it would have meant purchasing airfares back to Australia.

Three important tip if you’re considering this option: 

  • If you have time, research the destination online before you depart. If it’s a smaller port with fewer options, it might be better suited to pre-booking. If it’s a larger port with a thriving population, you’ll probably have more local options.
  • Instead of walking the gauntlet of drivers clustered around the port terminal exit, stop at the visitor information centre if the port has one. (Just look for the universally recognised ‘i’ sign.) These centres will usually recommend reputable options — and in some ports, like Vanuatu, possibly even organise a driver and vehicle for you.
  • Don’t be rushed into a decision. Take a moment to shop around, perhaps a little outside the gates of the port, and compare prices.

Whatever you decide, don’t miss the opportunity to disembark everywhere you can and make the absolute most of your cruise. Bon voyage!

Planning a cruise? Travel at 60 — our dedicated travel agency for Australian over-60s — is here to help. Phone on 1300 414 198 for a friendly chat, or browse our latest cruise deals at

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