I worked onboard P&O Cruises for three years, first assisting and then managing the shore excursions department. I hope to share my insights into booking shore excursions verses sightseeing independently.
First, lets take a look at the benefits, in my opinion, of booking shore excursions. Starting with the two obvious ones…
Convenience – No need to plan or worry about any logistics. You just jump onboard your mode of transportation (coach, boat, helicopter, kayak…) and are shown the highlights of an area by an experienced guide. This is particularly great when travelling with kids because let’s be honest, anything that makes like easier when travelling with kids is a winner!
Learn about the port – Unlike when travelling in a taxi you will learn about the port of call via a knowledgable guide.
Security that the ship will not leave without you! If you think this is a rumour circulated to encourage you to book shore excursions you are wrong. I have witnessed several passengers, (and crew/officers) being left behind due to being late.
A good friend of mine has a very expensive souvenir to remind her of the time she missed the ship whilst shopping in Gibraltar – a white bikini which cost her a hotel stay and flights back to the UK!
Emergencies dealt with by the experts – You can rest assured that if there is an emergency during a shore excursion your guide/driver will liaise with the ship and make all the necessary arrangements. (I have experienced this myself on several occasions including when involved in a minor coach crash during a call in Sri Lanka).
If, however, you experience difficulties whilst exploring ashore independently it will be up to you to get yourself back to the port in time. If the ship has already left you will need to contact the port agent to arrange to pick up your passport and pay for flights to meet the ship in a future port of call.
All tastes catered for – Whether you are looking for an excursion which involves limited mobility, a family friendly tour, a full day/half day, adventurous or sedate, the shore excursions department will be able to help.
Enjoy once in a lifetime unique experiences – Shore excursions are not just coach sightseeing tours. You can for example book helicopter rides, visits to local people’s houses, cookery workshops ashore, scuba diving excursions and more.
Downsides of shore excursions
If you have experienced cruising you will know that the main downside of booking shore excursions is the cost. The average cost of regular coach sightseeing tours are £40 per adult and £20 per child (age 3-12). Once in a lifetime experiences can be £200+ per person and so it is a costly affair to book a shore excursion for each port visited.
To put this into perspective though, the average cost of a cruise, (according to Cruise Market Watch) is $222 (£175) per person, per day. So it is important to have a plan to avoid wasting your precious time ashore.
So how can you save money and still make the most of your time ashore?
My number one piece of advice is that you do not need to book a shore excursion in every port you visit. Mix it up a little! Book a couple of shore excursions for the places that are the most difficult to get to independently, or ones that you would really benefit from being with a qualified guide.
For the remaining ports, do your research in advance. Know where the ship is docking, know how far the nearest town is and how you can independently get to the attractions you’re interested in visiting.
Decisions to make before boarding the ship
1. Your budget. How many shore excursions can you afford?
2. How much sightseeing do you want to do? You may decide that you don’t wish to spend hours sat on a coach to visit attractions/cities inland. For example, the drive from Civitavecchia (the port of call for Rome) is over a one hour drive from the city. You may instead decide to take advantage of the ship being quiet to make the most of the ships facilities or visit attractions closer to the port.
3. Are there any sights on your cruise which are an absolute must visit for you or your family?
4. Do you want to spend anytime shopping or time on a beach?
If you need help deciding which ports you should book excursions for, and which you should explore independently, speak to the team, either via the reservations number before you sail or at the shore excursions desk when onboard. Although you may think they are on commission to sell, sell, sell, they are not. If you explain that you wish to go on a couple of excursions and explore a couple of ports independently they will tell you which ports are more difficult to explore alone.
Example itinerary – 11 night Canaries/Med cruise
Once you have made the above decisions you can start to plan your days ashore. I am going to use my recent cruise onboard the P&O Cruises Ventura as an example. I travelled with my husband, two young sons (2 & 5) and parents-in-law. We cruised for 11 nights and called into 5 ports – Tenerife, Madeira, La Palma, Vigo and Lisbon.
We decided prior to our cruise that we didn’t want to be rushing around during all the ports and wanted to take a couple at our own pace. Each port day also needed to cater for my young sons through to parents in law, who are in their late 60’s.
From looking at the itinerary we knew we definitely wanted to experience the cable car and toboggan ride during our call into Madeira. (We can thoroughly recommend the P&O cruises shore excursion which I have reviewed here.) At £49 per adult and £25 per child including the cost of the cable car, toboggan ride, coach ride and wine tasting we considered this to be good value for money.
From talking to friends who had recently visited Tenerife, and reading the excellent reviews on Trip Advisor, we instantly knew we had to visit the Water Kingdom by Siam Park. The popular water park is located a one hour drive from the cruise ship terminal. As we didn’t want to spend the day worrying about getting back to the ship in time for departure, we felt this was another shore excursion worth booking via P&O Cruises. (You can read our full review of Siam Park here).
From doing some quick research online I was able to find scenic beaches in both Vigo and La Palma. Samil beach in Vigo was a short 15 minute taxi ride from the port which cost us 15 Euros each way.
In La Palma we enjoyed time at a black volcanic sand beach, located directly opposite the cruise ship berth. We walked to the beach which took less than 30 minutes and jumped in a taxi for the return trip.
Our days independently exploring Vigo and La Palma were just what we all wanted. A stroll in the morning exploring the nearby town’s, followed by afternoons on the beach.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a great experience exploring ashore independently in Lisbon. The plan was to get our bearings of the city by riding on a City Sightseeing bus. We paid 20 Euros per adult to experience headsets not working and the ‘audio guided tour’, (when we did finally find headsets that worked) being of a poor standard with a lot of background music and not much commentary.
If we’d booked this coach sightseeing tour through the shore excursions department we would definitely have complained and requested a refund. Unfortunately, the policy for the City Sightseeing bus company states that you have to return to the ticket operator you bought your day pass from. As this would have involved travelling across to the other side of Lisbon this was clearly not an option!
To top it all off the skies opened and we had to take shelter in a local cafe in the city centre. A couple of hours later it was clear that the weather was not going to improve and we jumped into a taxi for an incredibly expensive, (prices we assume hiked up due to the rain!) return journey to the ship.
The moral of this rather long story… Exploring ashore independently can be great IF you have done some research in advance and you have a good idea of what you want to do in all weathers. Jumping off the ship into the unknown can be rather disappointing and a waste of a precious day ashore!
Top tips for exploring ashore independently –
1. Research online in advance. The shore excursions descriptions on the website/brochure are a great place to start. You MAY be able to do some of the activities independently.
2. Download the Google Trips app to your phone and preload the ports you are visiting in advance. This will give you a list of local attractions and reviews from other visitors at your finger tips.
3. Read the port guide which will be delivered to your cabin. The port guide usually lists the nearest beaches to the cruise ship terminal and describes the local town and shopping area. It is worth taking this port guide ashore with you. Many cruise companies, including P&O Cruises, also offer port talks which you can attend on sea days, (or watch via the TV in your cabin) to get inspiration for exploring ashore.
4. Always travel ashore with a copy of the ships newspaper. This will tell you the time you need to be back onboard and most importantly, will list the contact details of the port agent should you have problems whilst ashore.
I hope this article helps you weigh up the pro’s and con’s of booking shore excursions verses sightseeing independently. Enjoy your time ashore!
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Copyright – All images copyright Travel Loving Family
Disclosure – We were provided with complimentary shore excursions in Madeira and Tenerife in return for reviews. All opinions are, as always, our own.