Have you dreamed of exploring Oahu’s Kona Coast and snorkeling in the pristine waters of Kealakekua Bay, or imagined spending the day among ancient ruins in Rome? Have you envisioned soaking in local culture while walking through Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, or pictured yourself on a catamaran, swiftly gliding through the tropical waters of the Caribbean? If so, your dream can become a reality on your next cruise vacation.
I have made it no secret that I am a big fan of cruising—otherwise referred to as the destination sampler platter. It is the perfect vacation to experience several different ports while only unpacking just once. From sailing the Mediterranean on Holland America to cruising the Caribbean with Disney Cruise Line, there is a cruise to suit everyone’s preference. You can get a taste of a destination without committing to an entire week or two, and if you love it, you will visit again knowing first hand exactly what you want to do during your stay.
Navigating all of the excursion options can be overwhelming. Here are a few tips to enhance your experience.
Book in advance: If you have the type of personality where you like everything in order and want to know exactly where and when you are going, then prebooking your shore excursions in advance is probably your best option. You can do this before you ever step foot on the ship, by booking your shore excursions at the same time you book your cruise for one-stop shopping. You can board your cruise knowing that everything is already taken care of, and all you have to do is show up at the designated meeting place at the appointed time.
Play it by ear: Sometimes serendipity can be a beautiful thing. We had been to Rome before, so on one particular cruise we decided not to book an excursion. We toured the city on our own, by bus and on foot, stopping at our leisure to shop or for an occasional photo op. As we meandered through the Eternal City, we bumped into a friend who lives part-time in Italy. What were the chances? While as slim as they were, we were ecstatic at this stroke of good fortune. Our friend showed us around the neighborhood and took us to her favorite piazza, where we enjoyed local artisanal gelato—the real deal, with fresh and ingredients, made right in the window. Do you know how to tell if it’s an authentic gelato? If the gelato is pale or muted in color, like the pistachio is a dull gray-green, you know it’s genuine. Had we been on a prearranged excursion we would have never had experienced this beautiful afternoon.
However, if you do decide travel off on your own, be cautious. Like with anywhere you’re unfamiliar with, don’t travel down dark streets frequented by unsavory characters. Throwing caution to the wind can be fabulous—and by all means, be spontaneous—but do so wisely.
Find a tour on your own: You don’t have to book a tour through the cruise line. In fact, many local guides at every port specialize in taking cruise passengers on local adventures. Some of these you can book the day of when you disembark, and others like Walks of Italy’s small group tours (also in New York and Turkey) you can book in advance.
Mind the time: The most important thing to remember if you go off on your own, the ship waits for no one. Allow plenty of time to return to your ship. Cruise lines are very punctual and will not hold a ship because you lost track of time. Also, you will be responsible for all costs and arrangements to catch up with your ship and all of your belongings.
Viewfinder Tip: Check for Expedia specials when booking a cruise where you get an onboard credit that can be used towards shore excursions.
Dress appropriately: Wear comfortable shoes. We all like to look fashionable, but blisters can ruin an excursion. You don’t want to spend the day sitting on a bench. Depending where in the world you are, a particular dress code is expected and required. Check in advance to make sure you know the local customs.
Staying connected: Roaming and data charges can be costly when you’re in a foreign port. Check with your cell phone carrier before you depart and find out what type of coverage you have. Often you can buy supplemental coverage for the duration of your trip to avoid racking up costly cellular and data fees. If you’re away and unsure of what type of coverage you have, be prudent and leave your phone in airplane mode until you’re back in your covered area.
Stick to your budget: It’s easy to get carried away when it comes to spending freely on a cruise vacation. Shopping in port can add up fast, especially when there’s a currency conversion that’s not in your dollars favor. Make your budget and stick to it. If you find you can’t trust yourself, get a prepaid credit card with the total dollar amount of your spending limit.
Smile, you’re on vacation: Take your pictures on your own! With today’s smartphones, GoPros, and variety of user-friendly cameras, you can save by taking photos yourself. Shipboard photos can add up pretty fast, so pose your own family photos that will double as space saving souvenirs.
From swimming with the dolphins to shopping with the chef, lounging on a beach or zip-lining through the rain forest, there’s so much to see and do on your next cruise excursion.
What have been your favorite cruise excursions?