Exploring ashore: Booking shore excursions v’s sightseeing independently

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.

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.

booking shore excursions verses sightseeing independently

Booking shore excursions v’s sightseeing independently

how to make the most of a cruise ship call into Madeira toboggan ride

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).

booking shore excursions verses sightseeing independently

The Water Kingdom, Siam Park in Tenerife

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.

Exploring Samil Beach in Vigo

booking shore excursions verses sightseeing independently

Black volcanic sandy beach opposite cruise ship terminal in La Palma

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 this had been booked 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.  This would have involved travelling across to the other side of Lisbon which was not a feasible option!

booking shore excursions verses sightseeing independently

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.

booking shore excursions verses sightseeing independently

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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Exploring ashore: Booking shore excursions v's sightseeing independently


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. 




  1. 19th December 2016 / 8:15 am

    This is eye-opening to me! I have not done any cruising or shore excursion, maybe it is time!

  2. 14th December 2016 / 10:03 pm

    Fantastic tips Lisa! The thought of getting left behind is rather terrifying but we so like to go exploring solo a lot. Have yet to book a cruise but when i do this will be very helpful. Off to pin. Thanks #mondayescapes

  3. 13th December 2016 / 9:32 pm

    I agree some trips are so much better done independently and some aren’t. We prefer Rome on our own the last organised trip we did cost £600 and we hardly got off the coach whereas getting the train was an adventure, you just have to make sure you get back in plenty of time x

    • Lisa
      13th December 2016 / 11:12 pm

      Wow £600 for one port is a lot of money Sarah. Just out of curiosity what shore excursion did you go on? Completely agree re timing, when exploring independently keeping track of time is crucial;)

  4. 13th December 2016 / 1:06 pm

    Great tips. I’ve never taken a cruise, but I can definitely see the benefits in doing both independent sightseeing and short excursions. Thanks for breaking the costs down like you did. :)

    • Lisa
      13th December 2016 / 11:12 pm

      Glad you found it useful Mandy;)

  5. 13th December 2016 / 9:59 am

    Perfect timing for this post, just today I was looking for tips about cruising! I am working on a list of cruising tips, I hope it’s ok that I link back to you? xx

    • Lisa
      13th December 2016 / 10:48 am

      Absolutely of course Marta! Glad you found the tips useful x

  6. 13th December 2016 / 7:41 am

    I don’t know why we keep putting off the cruising option – it sounds perfect. Definitely book marking these tips for later

    • Lisa
      13th December 2016 / 10:50 am

      Its a great way to travel with kids Keri! We will definitely be cruising again with our boys soon

  7. 13th December 2016 / 1:40 am

    This is a very detailed post and it gives you great insight into what to consider when making a decision. I have done both in ports: I have explored independently and I have booked with the cruise company. Both experiences have worked for me but it depends a lot (like you mentioned) on what your expectations are and who you are with (I have been with people who want do not want to spend in excursions). I have also been in tours organized by local companies. They are usually cheaper but you have to do your research. #MondayEscapes

    • Lisa
      13th December 2016 / 10:55 am

      Absolutely Ruth, I think research is key. Often the local tours you can book independently are the same companies used by the cruise lines but you can’t be sure. A major part of my role when I managed the shore excursions programme was risk assessing the tours that our passengers went on to make sure they were safe. By booking via the ship you are booking through a safe and insured operator but obviously this costs more. I definitely think mixing it up, a couple of shore excursions with some independent sightseeing, is the best way of making the most of time ashore.

  8. 12th December 2016 / 9:56 pm

    I have never been on a cruise – though I have my heart set on one in Alaska at some point! Some useful advice and things to consider!

    • Lisa
      13th December 2016 / 11:06 am

      I would love to cruise around Alaska too Tracy! My husband worked onboard Princess Cruises around Alaska for a while and loved it. Thanks for stopping by

  9. 12th December 2016 / 9:33 pm

    Even with shore excursion tours, the boat has to leave if it has to leave,…tho the risk is smaller.

    • Lisa
      12th December 2016 / 9:51 pm

      A cruise ship would not leave behind passengers travelling on a shore excursion Lydia. Its one of the main selling points of booking via the ship;)

  10. 12th December 2016 / 9:21 pm

    Wow this is really useful! Im going to bookmark this and show my parents as they are going on a cruise next year. Very helpful for pros and cons for each. We have always wanted to go on a cruise but the price just adds up when you go to look at excursions :-) #MondayEscapes

  11. 12th December 2016 / 8:36 pm

    I haven’t been on a cruise but I still read your blog with interest. It never occurred to me the amount of factors which affect these kind of decisions. Whilst I’d much prefer independent travel where possible I think I’d be paranoid about missing the ship!

  12. 12th December 2016 / 7:24 pm

    These are great tips. We’re going on our first cruise in February. I’ll keep these in mind as we’re planning our port days.

  13. 12th December 2016 / 6:42 pm

    A ‘white bikini experience’ would be my worst nightmare, especially with children. Great tips on making the most of excursions and exploring solo. I think we’ll definitely be taking your advice on mixing it up during our next cruise #MondayEscapes

  14. 12th December 2016 / 5:48 pm

    Im a cruising novice, so any tips like this are useful! You are also not the first to talk of ships leaving people behind! This would petrify me!! Your poor friend in Gibraltar!

  15. 12th December 2016 / 4:51 pm

    I’ve never been on a cruise, but love the idea of seeing so many places in one trip. I suppose it gives you a brief taste of what to expect and then you can book longer holidays if you really like somehere.

  16. 12th December 2016 / 4:21 pm

    Some fantastic tips here, especially for cruise ship novices. We have never been on a cruise before but with two young boys I can imagine it’s pretty great to have your itinerary organised for you! #MondayEscapes

  17. 12th December 2016 / 2:13 pm

    I absolutely love cruising. Seeing multiple cities and countries in one vacation is so fascinating. I agree about switching it up, you might not need an excusrion at every port of call. Although I always prefer to book a reputable local tour vs ship tours, which are sadly always much more expensive. xoxo, nano | http://www.travelwithnanob.com

  18. 12th December 2016 / 2:01 pm

    More invaluable advice Lisa! I agree that when you take into consideration the overall cost of the cruise and compare it to the cost of the ship organised shore excursions, you will find the organised shore excursions good value. Still, it makes sense to mix it up a bit and decide if and when you can save a bit of money and do things independently. #mondayescapes

  19. 12th December 2016 / 1:39 pm

    This is a really useful post, loads of great tips! I keep coming back to the idea of a cruise -I like the idea of being able to visit lots of places to get a flavour of them to then maybe return to them on a separate holiday. (any excuse!)

  20. 12th December 2016 / 11:20 am

    I’ve only been on one cruise and we found the price of the excursions so overwhelmingly extortionate that there was no way we could even afford to take them even if we’d wanted! But luckily I knew this before and had done tons of research and am a very experienced independent traveller so we had a great time exploring on our own. All the points you make are valid but honestly, if the prices are as crazy as they were on our ship then there’s simply no choice! #mondayescapes

  21. 12th December 2016 / 10:10 am

    I’ve never been on a cruise but I’ll keep these tips in mind!

    I’d like to add another (in my opinion) major downside of the excursions that you can book with the cruise operator, generally these activities mean additional revenue for the company. Which is not bad in itself, but it’s usually at the expense of the local economy. So although a destination receives visitors, the local economic benefits are severely limited.

    • Lisa
      12th December 2016 / 10:40 am

      I agree with you Sandra, booking shore excursions via the ship does mean that some of the profits go to the cruise company however many local people do still benefit (tour guides, coach drivers, attraction/restaurant staff, etc). In general, I also believe that cruise ship passengers travel further away from the cruise ship port when on shore excursions than they would if they were travelling independently, therefore spreading the money spent more widely and further benefiting the travel industry as a whole. Of course if cruise ship passengers enjoy their time in port whilst on a shore excursion they are also likely to return for a longer visit and recommend the port to family/friends which must have a hugely positive impact on a local economy;)
      I must admit I am against cruise ships that provide their passengers with packed lunches to take ashore for this clearly has an impact on money spent in port (I know P&O Cruises do not do this but I have experienced other ships in the Caribbean offering this service to passengers).

  22. 12th December 2016 / 9:24 am

    Great tips – you are right it really does depend on budget, location and time in port

  23. 12th December 2016 / 8:18 am

    I love the idea of taking cruises. I’ve been on one in 2004 and it was fun, but I felt like there just wasn’t a lot of time to do serious sightseeing with only 6-8 hours. That’s not enough for me. I want to explore every crevice of a city at my own pace.

    • Lisa
      12th December 2016 / 10:26 am

      I completely agree Lolo. 6-8 hours in any port is not enough time to fully explore however, one of the main reasons I love cruising is because it allows you to get a taste of different places and establish where it is worth returning to for a longer visit/holiday;)

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