Forget tips, cocktails and pampering spa treatments, one of the easiest ways to rack up a large bill on a cruise vacation is to spend on excursions.
It’s easy to be tempted, especially with the impressive range of tours on offer, but the cost (often in the triple digits) can be a proverbial sting in the tail.
Sure, cruise lines have introduced more competitively priced options to counter the criticism, and there are benefits to booking with your cruise line. Official excursions bring peace of mind, with reliable companies and passengers guaranteed not to be left behind.
Another USP of cruise line tours may be the unique arrangements they offer, from special concerts at private mansions to after-hours access to popular attractions.
But in most cases passengers can, with a little planning, take a do-it-yourself approach to land-based exploration that saves money without detracting from the experience.
First, guests should do their research before departure. There’s a ton of material online with one key resource being the cruise review site Cruise Critic, which features passenger reviews of countless shore excursions.
Aside from the official cruise line options, guests can book with independent excursion companies who will pick them up at the port. Alternatively they can opt for local taxi driver tours or simply opt for public transport.
The main companies specializing in shore excursions are Venture Ashore and Viator, which claim to be up to 60% cheaper than cruise lines. Basically, both companies promise to get passengers back to the ship on time, but if the unthinkable happens and the ship leaves without them, they pledge to get customers to the next port of call.
In many ports, and especially those of some European and Caribbean destinations, local tour guides and taxi drivers congregate at the end of the boardwalk or port entrance to offer tours.
Intrepid passengers looking to carve their own route should plan ahead and check where the ship should dock so they know how far it is from the city and what the local transport routes are. Ports generally have a staffed information desk with maps and details of nearby attractions, with advice on the best ways to get there.
How much you can save on excursions from five key ports
Civitavecchia, Italy: save £80
This is the port of Rome and fleets of coaches depart for the Italian capital in 90 minutes, but it’s quicker and cheaper to take the train.
Holland America Line (hollandamerica.com) offers an “On Your Own: Rome by Train” option, with passengers transferred from the ship to Civitavecchia station for the one-hour train journey, where they are left to their own devices for 6 ,5 hours. Guests are accompanied by an escort on the bus and train who can help with questions. It costs from £90 per person ($109).
But guests exploring independently can save around £80 per person by catching the port shuttle bus or walking from the ship to the station, a short distance away. Fares to Rome start from around £8.50 return when booked in advance (see thetrainline.com).
Monte Carlo: save £100
The pocket-sized principality is ideal for exploring on foot, although the hilly roads can make it challenging.
Windstar Cruises (windstarcruises.com) is offering a 4.5-hour coach and walking tour of Monaco’s Old Town and its top tourist sites for £123 per person ($149).
But solo passengers can walk from the port to the Monte Carlo Casino in about 20 minutes or take one of the red hop-on hop-off buses, which stop at the port. The hour-long ride costs from £20pp (hop-on-hop-off-bus-tours.com), saving you over £100pp.
St John’s, Antigua: save £70
Island tours are popular for those wanting to visit Nelson’s Dockyard and see some of the Caribbean island’s famous 365 beaches. Cruise ships dock in the center of the capital, St John’s, which bustles with taxi drivers greeting passengers as they disembark at Heritage Quay.
Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.com) is offering a three-hour island trip that includes a visit to Nelson’s Dockyard for £91 per person.
But Antigua’s taxi drivers, who are also qualified tour guides, offer half-day tours for around £21 per person ($25), saving you £70 per person.
Livorno, Italy: save £50
The Italian city is a key gateway to the Renaissance glories of Florence and the nearby city of Pisa.
Princess Cruises (princess.com) offers a 10-hour tour of Florence and Pisa that takes in the top sites and includes a three-course lunch, from £182 per person ($219.95).
Although lunch is not included, Venture Ashore (ventureashore.com) offers an eight-hour tour of both cities’ top attractions with prices from £107 per person. Set aside £25 for lunch and you’ll still save £50.
Dubrovnik, Croatia: save £110
The Croatian walled city lends itself to a variety of historical and active excursions.
Azamara (azamara.co.uk) offers a quad bike tour, lasting just over four hours, to the top of Mount Srd overlooking Dubrovnik, stopping at the village of Bosanka for a snack of local cheeses and hams. It costs from £196 per person.
But shore excursion company Viator (viator.com) are offering an approximately four-hour ‘Dubrovnik Countryside and Arboretum’ quad bike tour, including brunch and drinks, from £84 per person, saving you over £110.