Finding Affordable Shore Excursions: Tips and Tricks

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Planning your excursions for a cruise and trying to keep costs down? I know how overwhelming it can be to balance your desire for memorable experiences with your budget constraints!

I’ve gathered the best tips and tricks to help you get the most bang for your buck.

1. Start with Research

Getting the most out of your shore excursions means planning before you set sail. It’s all about ensuring each stop along your cruise is as enriching as possible. 

On my first cruise, I did zero research and I had no idea what to expect in any of the ports, or what to do when we stepped off the ship!

Nowadays, I like to kick things off by exploring what the cruise line suggests for activities at each port.

First, I’ll log in to view my booking on the cruise line’s website, and see what excursions they suggest.

viewing cruise excursions on laptop

This will give you a baseline for what’s popular and how much things cost. It’s worth doing, even if you have no intention of buying any of the cruise line’s own excursions.

But don’t stop there. Websites like Cruise Critic and TripAdvisor as well as Facebook groups and forums about cruising all have helpful insights too.

But, don’t just plan for what’s popular. It’s your cruise, you can do whatever you enjoy doing! Whether that’s taking a hike, or just sitting in the square with a glass of sangria.

When I’m with the kids, they love nothing more than to visit a playground. So, I always open up Google Maps and find ones near the port, so I can be sure to include a visit in our plans.

2. Booking Independently vs. Through the Cruise Line

When deciding on shore excursions, you have two options: stick with the streamlined, no-fuss option offered by your cruise line or venture out on your own with tours run by locals. 

Of course, you can also just decided to skip the excursion altogether and wander around, that’s a good option too!

Booking with your cruise line is the path of least resistance. You choose, pay through your account and when you step off the ship, there’s a coach waiting for you.

cruise excursion coach

You can also rest easy knowing the ship won’t sail without you if there’s a delay.

The trade-off? You’ll likely pay more for the convenience and might miss out on hidden gems not on the cruise’s list. 

Opting for local operators could save you some cash and offer a broader palette of experiences tailored to your interests.

A group of people on an open top bus.

But tread carefully: if you’re not back on time, the ship might leave without you unless the tour operator guarantees a timely return. 

If you go the independent route, diving into reviews on platforms like Viator can offer a glimpse into what to expect regarding quality and reliability.

Some operators might even promise to get you back to the ship on time, adding a layer of security. 

Cruise Mummy and family on a cable car ride in Madeira

3. Group Tours vs. Private Excursions

Deciding whether to join a group tour or book a private excursion is crucial to planning your shore activities, as both options offer different experiences. 

Group tours can be a wallet-friendly way to see the sights and provide a social atmosphere where you might meet other cruisers, making them an attractive choice for those travelling alone or looking to make new friends.

Glacier sightseeing coach

However, they tend to have fixed schedules and routes, which might not align with all your interests, and larger groups could lead to more waiting time and less attention from your guide.

A tour guide with a red flag, showing a group of men around a city.

On the other hand, private excursions allow for a customisable experience tailored to your specific interests. You can choose where you go, how long you spend there, and even when you start your day. 

This personalised approach is perfect for those with particular sites or activities in mind and offers a depth of experience that can make your visit memorable. The downside is the cost, as private tours generally have a higher price tag than group tours.

Colorful Cruise shuttle buses parked side by side - yellow and blue.

When deciding, consider what’s most important to you: the types of sites you want to visit, your budget, and whether you’re looking to socialise.

If you lean towards a private tour, booking early is wise to secure a spot with a reputable guide. 

4. Making the Most of Last-Minute Deals

Sometimes, the best deals for shore excursions come at the last minute. This approach requires flexibility but can lead to significant savings and unexpected discoveries. 

A man and a woman on an open boat tour looking at a city.

Last-minute deals often occur because tour operators want to fill up unsold spots on their tours.

To grab these deals, check with local operators right after you dock or even the night before while still on the ship. Many cruise ports have kiosks or local tour operators set up near where you disembark, offering tours for that day at discounted rates.

It’s important to research the operator quickly, using your phone to check reviews. Also, be clear on what the tour includes and its duration to ensure you return ship on time. 

While this method can be a bit of a gamble, it’s often worth it for the savings and the adventure of spontaneous choices.

Plus, it’s an opportunity to visit places or have experiences you might not have considered when planning in advance. 

5. Utilise Technology and Apps

From maps and guides to deal-finding platforms, leveraging these tools can enhance your excursion planning. Websites and apps like Viator and TripAdvisor are fantastic starting points. 

A man with a map laid out planning a trip.

They often feature exclusive deals on tours and activities, sometimes at a fraction of the price offered elsewhere. Also, these platforms provide user reviews, which are invaluable in gauging the quality and value of the excursions.

Another handy tool is the local tourism board’s website or app, which can offer up-to-date information on attractions, some of which might be free to visit. 

Before you sail, download the apps you plan to use and familiarise yourself with their features.

Me holding a phone on a ship

Also, consider offline options or download maps and guides ahead of time, as internet access can be limited or expensive on the ship and in certain ports. 

6. Free Walking Tours

Free walking tours are a fantastic way to explore a city’s main attractions under the guidance of a local without the usual cost associated with organised tours. 

These tours are typically based on tips, allowing participants to pay what they feel the tour is worth at the end. This approach not only makes such tours accessible for every budget but also provides a more personal connection to the city. 

A group of people being showed around on a city tour.

Guides of free walking tours are often enthusiastic locals eager to share their deep knowledge and personal stories about their homes, offering insights you might not find elsewhere. 

Besides being cost-effective, these tours offer flexibility in scheduling, a chance to meet fellow travellers, and a way to support local guides directly through your tips.

It’s an excellent option for those looking to get an overview of a city on a budget, promoting a deeper understanding and appreciation of the destination’s culture and history. 

7. Create Your Own Shore Excursions

Designing your own shore excursion provides a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the local environment, tailored specifically to what interests you the most and the time you have available.

Cruise Mummy in Norway

Walking is an excellent way to soak in the sights and sounds of your destination, allowing for unplanned discoveries around every corner. 

For longer distances or when time is of the essence, consider hopping on a scooter or a Segway for a fun and fast way to cover more ground.

Taxis are also a reliable option for reaching specific attractions quickly and can be especially useful for ensuring a timely return to the port.

A pole with 6 signs pointing to different directions of locations in Norway.

Each mode of transport offers its own advantages. Walking affords a leisurely pace, ideal for photography enthusiasts and those keen to experience the local atmosphere up close. 

Scooters and Segways add a bit of adventure to your exploration, suitable for those looking for something different while still being immersed in their surroundings. 

Though more conventional, taxis provide a straightforward solution to navigation challenges, making them a good choice for families or those with limited mobility.

It’s about striking the right balance between adventure and practicality, ensuring you make the most of your time ashore while still catching your ship’s departure.


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The Bottom Line

Taking some time to research affordable shore excursions can elevate your cruise experience without stretching your budget thin. It’s about smart choices.

Deciding between the convenience of cruise-line offerings and the potential savings of local operators, embracing the spontaneity of last-minute deals, and tapping into the authentic insights of free walking tours. 

The essence of finding these cost-effective adventures lies in your approach to planning, whether you opt for self-guided explorations with easily accessible local transport or engage in rich, local experiences that don’t come with a hefty price tag.

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Cruise Mummy

Jenni Fielding is the founder of Cruise Mummy. She has worked in the cruise industry since 2015 and has taken over 30 cruises. Now, she helps over 1 million people per month to plan their perfect cruise holidays.

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