A great cruise shore excursion can be the difference between an ordinary cruise and a lifetime experience. Here are a few tips to ensure that you make the most out of your short time ashore.
Taking a cruise vacation is a rare way to indulge in many experiences, at many different locations, all on one trip. Once you've locked in your decision on which cruise to take, you'll need to decide what activities you'll participate in at each port. Shore excursions vary greatly, both in cost and the type of activity involved. Pretty much any shore excursion is going to give you a taste of that particular port, but some of these 'tastes' will cost you around $50, while others will be more in the $200 range.
Video: A Shore Excursion presentation by P&O Cruises.
Yes, cruise excursions get expensive. But they're not that expensive considering the total cost of the cruise. And I've said it before... going on a cruise and not taking an excursion while in port is like riding the bus to Disneyworld, and then sitting in the parking lot!
So it's a no-brainer that you should take the opportunity to experience the countries you'll visit, and yes, that means experiencing them farther than the gift shops just off of your ship's gangway. But you may want to put a little thought into how you'll choose to tour a particular port, based on your budget, your physical condition, your personal taste, and the level of security at the particular port you're visiting.
There are a few ports, such as Cozumel, where we're very familiar with the surroundings, to the point that we often choose to go our own way. We love Chankanaab Park, and it's a quick taxi ride from the cruise terminal... in fact, you can get a whole vanload of people there for about $20 total. Once there, we can choose from numerous activities inside the park that best suit each person's taste, then either hop a taxi and return to the cruise terminal, or do some shopping in downtown San Miguel.
Going your own way gives you the liberty to visit where you want, for as long as you want, and you don't have to worry about getting rushed or left by the group. It's often a little cheaper to do things this way, too... just remember that, being on your own, you're totally responsible for yourself, and the ship will not wait for you if you're late! Seeing your ship sailing away into the sunset would make a great picture, but that's one shot you definitely don't want showing up in your photo collection.
For this reason, we usually take advantage of the excursions organized by the cruise line, and we recommend that you do, too. But regardless of what approach you'll take with cruise excursions, they generally fall into one of two types:
Some excursions are mostly based around sightseeing in the area of the port, whether by bus, on foot, or some combination of both. This could include visits to historical monuments, places of worship, wildlife sanctuaries, museums, bustling marketplaces famous for certain things that are produced in the area and so on and so forth.
The other type of excursion could be more activity-based, such as trips offering snorkeling, water rafting, parasailing, hiking, rock climbing and other activities. Needless to say, where you are visiting in the world will often dictate what types of excursions are available there; for example, snorkeling and scuba diving are popular excursions in the Caribbean, while wildlife and glacier tours are a big draw on Alaskan cruises.
Some excursions may actually be a combination of both of these scenarios, offering sightseeing but requiring a degree of physical activity in getting around on the tour. If you're concerned that you may not be up to the challenge physically on a particular tour, contact the cruise line or your travel agent for more specifics on what's required of you. Also, be sure to check the cruise line's website for more info on this... you'll often find a “ Cruise Excursions” section on the site that will give specific details about each trip. Often there will also be some type of system displaying a symbol, or other indication associated with each excursion, that specifies how strenuous that excursion will be.
One thing that I've learned to appreciate over the course of many cruises is the fact that your excursions can add significant meaning to your cruise vacation. In other words, snorkeling in St. Thomas is a great thing to do, but when you return to a particular port, you should consider 'branching out' and trying a different experience at that port on your next visit. A trip to Doctor's Cave Beach in Jamaica can be relaxing, but turn over a new leaf on the next trip with a tubing trip down the Great River.
Try to diversify your port stops even during the same cruise. In other words, maybe consider a beach break excursion at one port, a sightseeing tour at another, and possibly a nature-related excursion at your third stop, such as a hiking or tubing trip. Of course, your budget and physical abilities will have a lot of say in your final decisions, but the point is to try new experiences where possible.
I love scuba diving, and I could truly just hop off the ship and onto a dive boat at each port, never having touched the land of that nation. But I've come to learn that one of the greatest 'life experiences' offered in cruising is the opportunity to know a distant country and its people on a more intimate level. By forcing yourself to vary your excursions, you'll find that you develop a more well-rounded understanding of a particular port and its home country. It'll also give you a better appreciation of the experiences you've been blessed with as you've traveled the world.
So don't make the mistake of 'sitting on the bus' while a new world waits to be discovered onshore. Be sensible about what you're physically capable of. Be prudent about finding the best excursion deals for the money. But, having said that, also bear in mind that you likely won't be back in Belize next month to visit that ancient Mayan ritual cave.
Seize life's opportunities while the door is open. You can either spend the years that follow recalling an amazing experience in a faraway land, or live with regret that you chose to save a few dollars by never leaving the cruise terminal. It's been said that life is not a spectator sport, and getting the most out of your cruise vacation also means you've got to participate. There's no better way to do that than by taking advantage of the shore excursions offered at each port of call. So go out and experience what the world has to offer!