How you spend your time in port can make the difference between a great cruise experience and a big fat disappointment. The ports we cover on this website and in our books vary greatly, from quiet un--touristed ports such as Jost Van Dyke, where your ship will likely be the only one in sight, to superbustling tourist towns such as Ketchikan, Alaska, which is almost always jampacked with other ships. Due to factors such as accessibility of local transportation, condition of roads, terrain, and the amount of time your ship is in port (which can range from 4 or 5 hours to 10 or more), some ports are easy to explore independently, others less so.
When it comes to exploring on your own, one downside is that you forgo the kind of narrative you get from a guide, and you may miss out on some of the historical and cultural nuances of a particular attraction. On the other hand, you may find your own little nuances, things that an organized tour skips over as being too minor to bother with. Touring alone allows you to avoid groups and crowds, and hopefully connect with the destination in a more personal way. When going the solo route, though, be sure you know exactly when your ship departs for the next port, because the captain won't wait forever if you're late, leaving you on your own to get to the next port of call.
Sometimes a port's real attractions may be miles (sometimes a lot of miles) from where your ship is docked -- a common enough occurrence in Hawaii, Alaska, and Mexico's YucatÃ¡n Peninsula, among other places. In such cases, touring on your own could be an inefficient use of your time, entailing lots of hassles and planning, and possibly costing more. In these places, the shore excursions offered by the cruise lines are a good way to go. In each port review, we run through a sampling of both the best excursions and the best sights and activities you can see and do on your own.
Shore excursions run the gamut, from snoresville bus tours and booze cruises to more stimulating options such as snorkeling, jungle walks, whale-watching, and glacier helicopter treks. For those who like a little sweat in their port visits, there are physically challenging options such as kayaking, horseback riding, mountain biking, ziplining, dog sledding, and river rafting. There's a decent selection of tours in all the regions covered in this guide (generally at least 10-20 per port), with the greatest number in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.
Some things to keep in mind:
- In almost every case, the cruise lines themselves do not operate the excursions; instead, they contract them out to operators in each individual port. That's why most lines seem to offer the same tours, though prices often vary slightly.
- Excursion prices are often (but not always) lower for kids.
- Excursions can often fill up fast, especially on the megaships, so don't dawdle in signing up. If your cruise line is set up for prebooking before your trip, that's a good option. If not, sign up on the first day of your cruise.
Most lines list their shore excursions on their websites, and (with the exception of MSC, SeaDream, and most of the small-ship lines) allow you to prebook or prereserve them, either online or through a reservation form that comes with your cruise documents.
If a tour offered by your ship is booked up, you can try to book it independently once you get to port. The popular Atlantis submarine tour, for example -- offered at Grand Cayman, Nassau, and St. Thomas, among other places -- usually has an office/agent in the cruise terminals or nearby. In Alaska, as another example, Juneau's popular Mt. Roberts Tramway is located just a few meters from the cruise dock, so it's easy enough to just walk over and buy a ticket yourself.
Other options include contacting an outside company, such as Port Promotions (www.portpromotions.com), at least a few weeks before your cruise. This tour company will arrange many of the same tours the lines do, often for a few bucks less, and will also put together custom tours tailored to your group's needs. Port Promotions currently has tours in the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii, and Europe.
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