Port Excursions ~ Book Via the Cruise Line Direct or Independently? Some tips to get the best of each port!

Are you looking to book port excursions, but wonder if you should book via the cruise line, or independently?   Excursions are a very important part of your cruise.   For example, they are enriching and can be the highlight of your holiday.  So, it’s important to book the very best port excursions on your cruise.

Unfortunately, the cruise ship can only take you so far.  For example, to get to the land-based destinations, (I.e. Think Glaciers in Alaska or the amazing Batu Caves in Malaysia) you’ll need to think about a port excursion.

Batu Caves Entrance - Cruise Port Excursion
Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

Making the Best Choice When Picking your Excursion

It is important to consider you will likely have only one, maybe two days in port.  So, for your cruise excursion, it’s important to do your homework.  Regardless of where you are, be it Alaska or on a 28-day repositioning cruise, whatever excursion you choose, research the destination first.  And then, consider what you’d like to see and do.  For example, if you like wine tasting, you might decide to book an excursion to Sonoma on the cruise ship if you’re docked in San Francisco.

Inevitably, you’ll be faced with the challenge of deciding who to book your port excursions through.  For example, you can book your excursions while you’re on-board the cruise ship, or, you can book them independently.

Below, we examine the differences between booking directly with the cruise line, vs booking independently.

Booking Cruise Ship Excursions

Pros:

  1. Booking an excursion directly with the cruise line makes the process much easier. For example, the cruise line can offer multiple choices for each excursion.  Moreover, they are usually knowledgable about each of the excursions.  Booking with the cruise line saves you time vs doing it yourself, and it’s usually possible to reserve your excursion in advance, via the cruise portal.
  2. Excursions booked on the cruise ship are usually provided by excellent operators that have been hand-selected and vetted by the cruise lines. 
  3. Guaranteed return to the cruise ship – this is perhaps the most important feature.  For example, if the excursion is late getting you back, the cruise line will be responsible to get you back on-board the ship! (Think about bus breakdowns, or traffic, etc.)
  4. It can be an excellent way to use onboard credits.
  5. The refund policy is much easier. For example, if the cruise line has to cancel for whatever reason (i.e. canceled port).  If you book the excursion independently, you might not be so lucky with an independent vendor.
  6. The cruise excursion can usually be canceled up to 48 hours before.  As such, it’s worth it to book your excursions with the cruise line. This way, you can keep your options open and cancel or change it for something better.

Celebrity Cruise Ship - Port of Vancouver - Home to Many excursions

Cons:

  1. Cruise ship excursions can be a bit more expensive than the ones booked independently. However, some cruise lines, offer “best price guarantee“. (Princess, for example, gives you 110% of the difference in form of onboard credits).  I have used this several times and it works well.
  2. They can be a bit more crowded than the independent excursions.
  3. They also can be a little manufactured, sometimes the experience is not 100% authentic.  Also, this is to ensure everyone is able to participate.
  4. Lastly, sometimes they include an unnecessary stop to a gift shop or a local factory.  While some people like it, some (like me) won’t.  If this happens to you, and you’re not interested in the goods, make the best use of your time: Free washrooms and wifi are often provided 🙂
Crown Princess in the Port of Santa Barbara - excellent for wine tasting excursions
Paddleboarding in Southern California

Important Tip Re: Booking a Port Excursion Through the Cruise Line

If you decide to book excursions with the cruise line, I recommend booking them in advance. You see, most cruise lines now let you book the excursion online in the cruise portal.  By doing so, it will save you time (sometimes the line at the excursion desk is huge!) and will guarantee you get the excursion you want.  As a matter of fact, the best excursions are often sold out even before embarkation.

Very long line at cruise line excursion desk
Very long line at the excursion desk!

Independent Port Excursions

Pros:

  1. Booking port excursions independently can be more customized.  For example, some tour companies allow for additional stops.
  2. Independent port excursions can be less crowded or even private!  For example, you can even arrange a tour just for you and your friends.
  3. Independent excursions can offer options that are not provided by the cruise line.
  4. Lastly, it’s possible to use a local company that can offer a more authentic experience.

Cons:

  1. Booking independent port excursions required that you do your own research.  Additionally, it may be difficult to find a trusted guide, especially in remote areas of the world.
  2. English might be a challenge –  The cruise lines excursions have translators 🙂
  3. Importantly, if your independent tour is late, the cruise ship will leave without waiting for you.  Distinctly, the cruise ship is under no obligation to stay if you’re late coming from an independent excursion.
  4. They might request a non-refundable payment, upfront.

If you decide on an independent excursion, do your research.  It’s important to check that the tour company is reputable, and has good online ratings.  For example, read other people’s reviews of the independent port excursion online. Also, make sure you have good amount of time to make it back to the port before your cruise ship is scheduled to depart.

Do-It-Yourself Port Excursions

In case the port of call is a big city, sometimes it’s not necessary to book an excursion.  For example, you may be able to just walk off the ship, and explore the city on your own.  Vancouver Canada is a perfect example of this.

Furthermore, modern cruise ports often have representation from the tourism bureau and offer plenty of information on attractions and transportation.

Also, in larger cities, we love to use the Hop On Hop Off bus  – have used them in many ports of call (Barcelona, Singapore etc).  The Hop on Hop Off Bus is a great way to explore the major tourist attractions of a city, with narration.  Then, you may get off anytime there’s a stop that piques your interest.  In almost every port of call, there’s a Hop On Hop Off bus available right by the cruise terminal.  Generally, it’s possible to buy tickets on board, or in advance, online.

Independent Cruise Port Excursions like the Hop on Hop off bus can be fun!
Hop On Hop Off Bus – Barcelona

The hop on hop off busses are usually double-decker and offer a fabulous vantage point for photo taking.

Though, if you’re traveling to a beach destination like the Caribbean or Greek Islands, and just want to go to the beach, it’s usually not necessary to book an excursion.  You can just jump in a taxi and ask the driver to take you to a good beach.

To be sure, cruise lines offer beach excursions, and they are usually a little more upscale.  For example, the excursions could be in a charming beach resort and include lunch or snacks. Regardless, whether you decide to do a taxi ride or independent excursion, be sure to negotiate the price in advance in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. Also, ask the taxi driver, in advance,  if he takes credit card or cash only.  And then, if he takes cash only, ask which currency is accepted.

Some ports, like Grant Turk do not require a cruise ship excursion as they dock close to the beach
Grand Turk Cruise Port

Bonus Tip: Cruise Ship Excursions

If you need to shop for essential items in port (toiletry, souvenirs, wine, etc), be sure to ask a crew member!  Crew members know the best places to shop.  Since itineraries are usually repeated several times in a season, crew members know the best places to shop.  Crew members also know where to find free Wi-fi and the best food!

Happy Cruising!

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