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