D.I.Y. Cruise shore excursions

Book your own shore excursions for up to 40% less than the cruise ships charge

Cruise passengers flocking to the shore excursion guides.
If these cruise passengers flocking to the shore excursion guides holing up lollipop signs were simply to walk past them and out that building, they would find the street lined with local agencies selling the exact same tours—often on the same bus—for much less than the cruise ship charges.
Cruise lines contract with local outfitters to provide shore excursions—at a bulk discount—then turn around charge you anywhere from 10% to 40% more than the retail cost of the excursion. Great business, if you can get in on that.

The cruise lines rely on a lack of information and simple inertia (i.e. laziness) on your part to fill their coffers this easily at the expense of your wallet. You need not let them.

There are two ways to get around the inflated prices cruise lines charge for shore excursions, whether it's a cultural tour, wine-tasting trip, or shopping stroll—though there are some drawbacks.

Here are the details on each.

Wing It

If you're just after sightseeing, do like all the independent travelers do: arm yourself with some good guidebooks and head off to see the sights of Italy on your own. It's easy, it's fun, and it's far more fulfilling that sitting on an air-conditioned bus listening to some bored guide yammer out a canned spiel.

If you want a tour of some sort, either book one ahead of time (see below), or simply stroll right past the cruise lines guys holding up signs for the "official," sanctioned excursions and you'll see wandering touts, kiosks, tour agencies (often across the street from the cruise terminal) or a local tourist office happy to sell you the exact same experiences—often riding on the same bus as the other ship passengers—for much, much less.

Some people are nervous about waiting until the last minute, of course, so you can always...

Book ahead... just not via the ship

If you're prefer a guided tour—whether a bus tour, walking tour or bike tour, museum/sight tour, or something thematic like wine-tasting, a cooking class, or a walking tour with photography lessons—sign up with an independent agency that sells such things at the lowest competitive price (not the inflated cruise line price), like our partners at Viator.com—or hire a private guide.

You can also find local travel agencies on your own and book with them. Good resources for doing this are guidebooks, Google, and the forums on Cruisecritic.com.

Another hint: use those forums on Cruisecritic.com or Cruisemates.com to assemble a group of like-minded passengers who will be on your ship and are interested in a tour you've lined up. Get ten people to commit, and you can approach the local outfitter with a group of your own and often negotiate a discounted rate.

If all of that sounds like too much work or too dicey, you can always still go with a middleman booking agency—just one who takes a smaller cut than the cruise lines. Several websites have sprung up to feed this need, including our partner Viator.com (also good for booking private transfers from ports into major cities) as well as Shoretrips.com.


DIY Drawbacks

There are some drawbacks to booking your own shore excursions (beyond the obvious convenience of letting the ship take care of it).

  • Less quality assurance (there's unlikely to be anything wrong with a company you find on your own, but with the cruise line you know they've vetted the local guides they use)
  • If you pre-book tours privately but your ship changes itinerary (due to weather, for example), refunds can be difficult.
  • If you wait and wing it, popular tours might sell out (especially if many shops are in port)
  • If you are late, the boat will not wait (huge reason to think hard about going it alone). Solutions:

    • Plan to arrive back 30–60 minutes early.
    • All-day excursions (those likeliest to get delayed) may best booked via the ship.

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