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Cruise Q&A: How do I book a shore excursion?

Most cruisers don’t stay onboard throughout the duration of their vacation. They get off the ship at each port to explore the destination. The cruise lines offer shore excursions—tours and activities you pay extra to join—to offer guests the best experiences at each port. Booking a shore excursion can be a complicated process, so we’ve answered the most basic questions below.

What are shore excursions, and how do I know which ones are available on my cruise?

Shore excursions are tours or activities organized by the cruise line, often through destination-based providers, that allow guests to have unique experiences at each port-of-call. Excursions may include snorkeling trips, scenic helicopter flights, horseback riding, and city tours. Prices can range from $5 to rent a glass-bottom boat on a cruise line’s private island to $399 for a day of dog sledding and helicopter flightseeing in Alaska. Cruise lines usually list all of their shore excursions on their websites. Once you book a cruise, you should also receive a shore excursion brochure with your final cruise documents.

How do I book shore excursions?

All cruises have a shore excursion desk or a place onboard where you can go and sign up for shore excursions on a first-come, first-served basis. But now, many cruise lines, such as Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, and Royal Caribbean, are offering online bookings before sailing. For example, Royal Caribbean lets all booked passengers purchase shore excursions up to 10 days prior to departure. It is wise to book shore excursions ahead of time, as popular activities tend to sell out quickly. Some lines do reserve a percentage of spots on the tours for onboard bookings, but if you have your heart set on a particular excursion, you’ll want to lock in your place well in advance.

Should I book the cruise line’s excursions or make my own arrangements?

If you are willing to do some research and are comfortable making your own arrangements, you can often save money by planning your own excursions at each port. However, if you book the cruise line’s excursions, you will know that your activity is being run by a reputable company. You are also guaranteed that the ship will wait for you if traffic or other problems cause the tour to return late to the gangway. Book your own tour, and you will need to be back on time, otherwise the ship will depart without you and you will be responsible for transportation to the next port-of-call.

Do I need to go on the shore excursions?

Sometimes shore excursions will enhance your port experience, and other times you will find them unnecessary. Shore excursions are a must when you want to explore a port in depth or try something new, such as horseback riding or scuba diving. They are also helpful when there is not much to do right by the dock. However, you could happily skip the excursions if you prefer to spend the day sunbathing on the beach or shopping and exploring in town. In many ports, you can walk or take a cab to these places. Also, you never have to get off the ship when it calls at a destination. Most cruises include one or more days spent solely onboard while the ship is in transit, but if you want more time to take advantage of the ship’s amenities, you can spend your day relaxing onboard instead of exploring a port.

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