Some Truths about Shore Excursions

That can save you lots!

of time, money & anguish!

Recently, I have had a large number of concerned questions I am hearing from my customers and long time clients, who are quite shocked at the increased amounts of money they have been, and are having to spend on Shore Excursions. For many, the costs of which are almost becoming price prohibitive. But so often my cruisers say that they feel compelled to pay the high prices, as they don’t wish their partners and families to feel that their fun was sacrificed just because of spending money. So while this article will no doubt NOT make me popular with the cruise lines; My first order as a genuine problem solver, is to my clients and my readership. Which is You, the cruising public.

The cruise lines want you to think that booking your port shore excursions through them is the most hassle-free, and time savings way to enjoy your time while off the cruise ship. That answer actually depends totally on whom you speak with, and for many, the REALITY of things couldn’t be more farther from the TRUTH. The cruise lines entice you to book your excursions oftentimes many months prior to your cruise trip. And to make matters even most convenient for you they (cruise line) has “charged” your credit card for these months away events, but think for a moment – who is that really convenient for? Check out a short video by our Friends at AARP on Shore Excursions (click here to view) .

Next the cruise line tells you that booking your shore excursion months before your cruise, eliminates the need for you to waste time during your cruise in standing in line and shopping at the cruise excursions desk, only to get the skimpy, or unpopular cruise excursions selections that are left available. Another truth about shore excursions is this. Most excursion providers are not huge tour companies. Generally they are very small entrepreneurial taxi drivers (ground or water based) and operators (who function more like “fun activity” brokers), who have agreed to accept contracts with the cruise lines at very below market or “going rates”, which enable the cruise lines to make even more profit on every single excursion they sell. So they are in reality making huge sums of money off their passengers, when the passengers are not even on the ship.

What makes the on-board or ship offered excursions so expensive? Cruise Lines contract with local tour operators, who generally turn around and hire local taxi service (land or water) to conduct the actual tour itself. So now you have three separate entities all wishing and needing to get paid for their services, which gets reflected in the price you pay for your “convenient excursion selection process”. So your ability to garner great savings occurs when you go directly to the service provider thereby illuminating two middlemen from the process.

Additionally, let’s take a look at that time efficiency claim again. Let’s assume that you are really having a great time the day (or night) before a certain cruise excursion is to take place, you enjoyed a wonderful open bar party, that led further into multiple hours of fun in a few different lounge locations (that you closed down no less), and so now you are going to tell me that your 7:30am (which by the way the fine print on your excursion ticket says you MUST report for your excursion 15 to 30 minutes prior) to your excursion disembarkation from the ship for your shore excursion is going to maximize your ability to enjoy your cruise experience. Don’t even bother trying to convince me of that one. The times are not for YOUR convenience, but for maximum sales capability for the CRUISE LINES!!!!

 Another misnomer that the cruise lines have convinced (even the cruise professionals) to repeat in an attempt to maintain their monopolistic ways over this enormous money pit, is that when you take a cruise excursion that is NOT SOLD BY THE CRUISE LINE, that you (the excursion buyer)take on the responsibility of getting back to the pier in time, so that you don’t miss your ship. So that, should a breakdown or other mishap occur and you miss the ship, the cruise line has no obligation to wait for you. WHILE THIS IS TRUE, As a cruise professional I have stopped repeating this to my customers. Don‘t be scared into being misled. Each and every tour operator is quite aware that cruise ship passengers have a strict need to be back at the ship in time to make its scheduled departure. Additionally these operators are very dependent on keeping this form or revenue flowing from ship to ship, and it would never be in their interest to not have you back on time!

The Easiest way for me to communicate the REALITY of cruise excursions is to provide you with some pros and cons of booking through the cruise line, vs. through an independent operator. Besides the money issue, there are several things that I think you may want to consider to determine, what is really best for you, as everyone is different so this way you get to make the choice for yourself. Which in my mind is always the best approach to any decision.

Let me say this in the simplest way I can. There is one major word, when it comes to describing the difference between booking your excursion thru the cruise lines compared to booking your excursion with an independent. That word is MONEY. I cannot begin to impart to you the number of times I have seen independents (who can often times end up being the exact same provider) that the cruise lines are using, offering identical tours for one half the cruise ship price or even greater savings when purchased on the pier. The only difference is that most of them are going to require payment in cash, rather than a credit card. But if you can save 50-70 cents on the dollar by using cash would you be willing to purchase your excursion(s) in this way?

Getting back to the ship on time. Most people are unaware that the times that on-board excursion bookings have been planned for a purpose. That purpose is to allow the cruise line to maximize the number of participants in shore excursions, so they are enabled to maximize their bookings and their profits.  Ok this is where you have to do a little math. Many if not most excursions are designed to last two and a half to 3 hours. So if your ship is departing at 5:00pm (say 4:00pm to be completely safe), you begin to see there is no need to leave the ship at 7:30 in the morning. On the other hand I would not consider cutting it too close either by leaving the ship at 1:30 for a 2 and a half hour excursion. A good rule of thumb is to take that cruise excursion brochure (copy you can pick up at the ships excursion desk) that describes the tour content and duration as well as times they depart the ship. That way you shouldn’t plan on leaving later than the latest one offered by the cruise lines is timed, just so that you stay on the safe side time-wise.

Sometimes Excursions Cancel, that you have pre-booked with the cruise line, and the customer gets left holding the bag. The cruise line excursion desk tells you that they will apply the amount that you paid to another excursion. So right away you are being put on the spot to select an excursion, that will be as good as your other selection, only to find that all of the good excursions (or at least the ones that you and your partner or family might be interested in) are already filled to capacity, so then you end up taking something less desirable in order to have your partner or family with something to do. So now I ask you again- Who was booking your cruise excursion really convenient for in this case. This never happens when you inquire once on shore with an independent excursion provider, they already know what they have to sell and fill. Oftentimes they can accommodate more or extras, where the cruise line doesn’t have the same capability to do. At least buying from an independent will get you an excursion that you would desire.

 Another point I would like to address is the often made cruise line claim, that cruise ships select only tour operators that provide high standards of service and customer care that equal their own commitment to customer service, while at the very same time (if you read the fine print) in your excursion agreement contract is says, that their tours are run by “local operators” and that the cruise line is in no way responsible or liable for any mishap or failure that may occur. So which is it cruise lines? Bottom line for you to know is that THEY WANT YOUR MONEY, but they DON’T WANT ANY RESPONSIBILITY.

So What Can passengers do, in order to ensure a quality excursion experience? Quality of a shore excursion has little or nothing to do with booking same from the cruise line. As already pointed out, many times drivers are from the same taxi service regardless of where you book. What I have found is that these independent drivers and guides you contact on the pier area are far more motivated to give you the best possible experience, and for the most part are way more grateful to get your patronage. Understanding that these locals are offering a service in a very competitive and open marketplace which means that they must strive to provide the highest and most enjoyable excursion experience possible.

In Summary: So to wrap this up lets recap the points we have discussed here.

  • Shore Excursions booked on/thru Cruise Ships can be charged on a Credit Card
  • Shore Excursions purchased at the pier through Independents often requires local currency/cash
  • Most Excursions (despite how booked) are operated by the same land or taxi drivers
  • When you buy excursions via cruise ship you add two middlemen in the money fee structure
  • When you buy from independent tour providers the passenger takes on timeliness responsibilities
  • Most every independent tour provider understands the need to be on time back to your ship
  • Independent Tour operators offer much lower prices for their excursions
  • Independent Tour operators are generally more appreciative, and work much harder to please, in return for your patronage.

Ok, so there you have it, the real truths regarding shore excursions. Now YOU are more in the know, and have the ability to judge which excursion purchasing option(s) are the best choice for you. I sincerely hope you have found this information helpful!

The End

For more information on cruising and traveling, you can contact Mike via email   . You can tweet (or follow) Mike at  . To “Join” our Travel Club go to  .

Please feel free to leave a comment below on this articles’ contents. We are always looking for ideas or suggestions to expand and improve on our content! If you found the information helpful why not include (a tweet to followers) or (share a like) with your facebook friends, that they might benefit from the information as well. Thanks For Visiting, and please come back often to this daily Blog. – Cruise with Mike

About cruisewithmike

Mike is a Professional Cruise Wedding Planner, Wedding Officiant,and owner of CruisewithMike Wedding Planners. With over 20 years of experience in the Travel Industry, as an Independant Travel Consultant, Customer Service Agent, and a retired Va. Magistrate, and Clergy. Mike has a very unique perspective on Customer and Wedding Service Needs and strives to provide custom service that's "TOPS" Totally Outrageous Professional Service, with every customer he works with.
This entry was posted in Affordable and Thrifty Tips and Suggestions on Travel and Cruising, Cruise Ship Shore Excursions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. L Doyle says:

    I recently cruised and landed at a Caribbean port where we needed to use a tender to get to the shore. To my dismay, the ship’s crew gave preferential treatment to those passengers who had booked their excursions through the cruiseline. Those of us who booked independently were asked to wait on another deck until an announcment was made that it was time to disembark, whereas the others were already being tendered to shore. We were finally able to convince the crew to let us off as we did not want to miss the start of our scheduled excurion, but I was disappointed the way this was handled. Do you know if this is a common procedure amongst cruiselines? Thanks.

    • Dear L Doyle,
      Yes it is common practice for cruiselines to give preferred disembarkation at ports (especially those requiring tender service) to their own suite guests, loyalty club members, and sometimes for those who require extra assist in disembarking. However, I have never encountered a cruise line or ships personnel who refused disembarkation for those like yourself had a time limitation if they were strong in their conviction at letting ships personnel know that they needed to disembark in order to meet their excursion. I hope this information is helpful!-CruisewithMike

  2. Carroll B. says:

    Great Info. Thanks for posting!

  3. Diana Hocking says:

    This fascinating dialogue is worth comment. I believe that it is best to write even more on this topic, it won’t be a taboo subject however usually people are not knowledgable enough to write on such topics. Till next time. Cheers

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  8. Barbara says:

    Hi, Mike: I stumbled on your site quite by accident and found the information regarding booking onshore excursions useful. I’ve heard that in some of the Mediterranean heritage sites and the Vatican, etc. the lineups are excruciatingly long unless you book through the cruise lines. Is there any truth to that?

    • Great Question Barbara!
      Actually I have experienced this particular situation on two different occassions and it turned out different both times. Once we waited for about 3 hours to get into the vatican, and the other time my wife and I were with a full day tour and we were doing the vatican right before lunch.We had a very tenatious guide who warned us (there were about eigth of us on the tour) on the coach coming into the city that she wanted us to follow her and act like her no matter what…she actually proceeded to walk us up toward the very front of the line near the entry doors acting is if we were on official vatican business, and had us push our way into the line and went in, which took less than 10 minutes, so my experience would say it all depends on your tour guide how long the wait may be. By the way audience day (papal addressing the crowd) used to be Wednesdays which you might wish to avoid as the crowds are even bigger then. Hope that helps. PS neither time was it a cruiseline offered tour.

  9. Mark A. says:

    Thanks for the info! We are going on our first cruise in November to Greek Isles/Turkey/Egypt. Is it safe to hire locally in Egypt for the sites? Thanks!

    • Great Question Mark!!
      Sometimes I think it is better to error on the side of price and be sure you are working with someone you can trust. The first element of trust of course is complete understanding, beware and bewarned anytime you are in a country where language may present a barrier. A lot can go wrong due to misunderstanding of what you are buying, so if this is the case you probably would be better off purchasing excursions from the cruiseline. Alternative: Yes to book your excursions early through an english speaking company such as Shore Excursions you can find them here

      • Barbara says:

        We had an unpleasant experience with arranging an off-ship excursion in Kusadasi about two weeks ago. I had been the one to arrange a tour for our group. The arrangement was to meet the guide on the dock. He/she would carry a sign with my name on it. They never showed and our trip to Ephesus (expected to be the highlight of the cruise) was in danger of being a complete failure. And I was responsible. Fortunately, at least I had not paid in advance!!! As it turned out, we managed to find someone who could arrange a rental car and driver for us for the day. He took us to Ephesus and dropped us off, then picked us up a couple of hours later. At the site, we had a fabulous guide who made the site come alive for us. Unfortunately, we lost so much time in trying to make these other arrangements that we were unable to do the other things on our “bucket list”, namely getting to see Mary’s House and the Terrace Houses. Had we booked through the ship, we would not have been able to do those things anyway, as they were not offered as choices through RCI but we would not have had the anxiety of being “stood up” by our tour guide. We have resolved to make all future shore excursions through the cruise line.

      • Dear Barbara,
        First, while I have no idea who you were attempting to book your excursions through, however no reputable excursion or tour provider that I deal with will allow you to reserve an excursion or tour WITHOUT being Paid For In Advance. This should be a flag to anyone attempting to book an outside excursion/tour/or private car, and may have been the reason for noone to greet you as was expected. Next, just last week on an excursion I booked for myself THE INSTRUCTIONS said someone with a specific named sign will be at the ramp from my ship to greet me. Well you can’t always take that verbatum. I did finally find my person (after about 10 minutes of asking around) who was responsible for rounding everyone up, but he was not at the bottom of my disembarkation ramp, and his signage said something totally different. Sometimes you need to look around a bit for your provider, as the Cruise Lines request the pier security to keep back all who are not working with their cruise line. Maybe you should think of your experience as not the way it always works, but the key to excursion success is to work with someone you trust and can easily communicate with. Also just as a side note. None of the Cruiselines, maybe with the exception of the luxury lines (such as Crystal or someone like that) would even offer the capability of arranging private cars for their passengers as it is way too much work than they can handle for most part. Just as an FYI. Thanks for your comments!-CruisewithMike

    • Gordie Forrest says:

      I just returned from Egypt and the tour company we used was Quest. They were excellent and provided first class service with good, knowlegable guides. You should be able to find them on the web. Be aware that they may not be the cheapest but they are the best.
      Our tour of the pyramids was 640 Eygptian pounds ( a little over $100) however what we did not know was that it included all the entrance fees (300 pounds) plus the backsheesh that all the guards look for on entry. It was good value.

  10. Karen says:

    We are looking at going on a canaries cruise in January. Is it advisable and viable to book excursions when we get off the boat? A bit nervous about doing this!

    • Dear Karen,
      Shore Excursions like many other things we purchase in life can be sourced from various outlets. When you purchase from the Cruise Lines, you pay premium price for it while the cruise lines have managed to get the excursion provider to lower their profit margin however, they do not pass any savings onto you, they just make more money. Also remember that you must pay in full when you purchase, so if you do purchase months in advance that is money you are tying up that might be spent elsewhere. However if you DO NOT feel comfortable in this process of purchasing once you arrive on the pier (often at a very sizable savings),then I suggest you purchase your excursion through the Cruise Line, just remember it is never a good idea to wait till you board the ship to do so, as generally all of the desirable excursions will have already been purchased in advance. Normally the cruise lines will allow you to book your desired excursions as soon as your cruise fare is paid in full, which in some cases can be as much a 3 to 4 months before you sail. I hope this helps clearify things for you better! – CruisewithMike

  11. Hello Mike,

    Great post. For Amsterdam I would like to add that the excursions by cruise lines and major tour operators will take people to places where you only see other tourist and not experience the Real Netherlands.
    I can suggest for independent -private- local tours and for independent -small group- shore excursions.

    Both are fair priced and provide a mix of Dutch highlights’ and unknown gems.

  12. Dave says:

    Hello Mike,
    We are going to St. Thomas, Nassau and St. Maarten. I think we are going to stay away from booking with the cruise line and do it on our own. Do we book the trip before we get on the ship or just do it when we reach each of the island…. kind of “wing” it? What are your thoughts?

    • Hey Dave,
      About the only way to book early is to use a service such as, other than something like that you will just need to check out the offerings which should be located close to where you disembark from your ship at! Hope that is helpful.-CruisewithMike

  13. Bruce McConchie says:

    HI Mike
    I really enjoyed having my suspicions confirmed. My wife and I last took a cruise about 30 years ago (Greek isles) and found that, if we waited for all the tour passengers to leave the dock on the cruise ship tours, we could approach local taxi/limo/boat companies to do the same tour for about half the cost. Also, we enjoyed personalized service! We are now taking a cruise in late April through the eastern Mediterranean (celebrating our 60th birthdays) and plan to use your advice in a number of ports. Do you have any first hand knowledge/information on the ports of Greece, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovakia?
    Thanks again

    • Dear Bruce,
      I am sorry but you must understand that these local company drivers and contact can and do change on a frequency level that I am unable to keep track of. There will no doubt be representative from the tour companies right there close by where you depart the ship at. Sometimes right along the pier walkways depending on local laws restricting same. Oftentimes these are the very same providers that are used by the cruise line, and they give you the same tour at half the cost of purchasing through the cruise ship. Enjoy!-CruisewithMike

  14. Renee says:

    Love the advice! We are taking our 3rd cruise and have always booked through the cruise line. This trip I would like to be a little more adventurous. I have read a lot about booking off the ship and found excursion that sounded a lot better than the cruise line is offering. We are visiting San Juan and Grand Turk as well as Nassau and St Thomas. I never thought about looking for an excursion after we get off the ship. Any advice on how to figure out beforehand what type of excursion are offered on the docks? Nassau I think we are taking a self guided walking tour but really interested in something in Grand Turk and San Juan.
    Thanks so much!!

  15. Wayne says:

    Hi Mike;
    My wife and I are going on a cruise to Easter Island , Bora Bora and Papeete, etc. The cruise line, as an incentive to purchase the cruise, is offering up to $1500 in shipboard credits that can also be used for shore excursions. However, the thing that concerns me is that the cruise line will not allow us to book our excursions prior to the cruise, We have to wait until we are on board, I am thinking that perhaps the good excursions will have been pre-booked and we will not be able to use much of those ship board credits. Is this just a maketing ploy that maybe isn’t as good as it sounds?

    • Hey Wayne,
      Unless you are a big spender in the on-board shopping, or drink a lot…………if they won’t let you pay for on-board excursions, and all the good ones will be sold out by the time you get there, then what good is the 1500 on-board credit for? CruisewithMike

  16. Xin Meng says:

    Great article! But according to my recent cruise trip, not all excursions are a rip-off. Sometimes doing on your own actually costs more than you do through excursions. I was on the cruise ship Carnival Splendor last week to East Caribbean, and when the ship docked in St. Thomas, I went to Coral World Ocean Park to do the Helmet Dive. The taxi ride cost me $18.00 for a round trip, and the ticket to the park is $19.00. And I needed to pay another $69.00 for the Helmet Dive, which ran out of space when I was to buy the ticket. So I would have spent $106.00 in total if I had done the Helmet Dive there. But if I had booked the excursion for this through the ship, I would have had to pay only $89.99 and I would have guaranteed a space. So sometimes it actually saves money and all the hassel if we book excursions from the ship.

    Dear Ming – sorry for being so long in getting this back. After doing some research with the Park, they tell me if you mentioned you were coming from the cruise ship to do the helmet dive only, that they would have waived your entrance fee to the park. Sorry you didn’t know to do that, if so you would have actually paid less even with the taxi fare!
    Thanks – CruisewithMike

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