One of the perks of cruising is that you get to experience a bunch of cool places in a single week. And cruise lines know that with limited time in each port you’ll be tempted to hand over even more money for easy touring options you can book right onboard. But should you?
Sure, some excursions are worth every penny for the access and expertise they provide in a country where language barriers are an issue (a guided tour of the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg or Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, for example). Yet some options are practically guaranteed to make you regret booking them.
The top cruise ship shore excursions to avoid tend to fall into three categories: just do it yourself, don’t waste your money, and you’ll be in a coma afterwards. To avoid disappointment, it always helps to read online excursion reviews, but as a general rule of thumb, here are six types you probably shouldn’t book:
1. “Panoramic” bus tours
This is drive-by tourism at its most obnoxious. You will likely sit on a bus for two to four hours, hopping off for a few five-minute photo-ops at key sights, and end up spending the last 45 minutes to an hour ushered into a shopping opportunity (a carpet demonstration in Turkey or Morocco, an olive oil and lavender boutique in the south of France, a pottery emporium in Spain, or a cigar factory in Cuba). Unless the destination is known mostly for its scenery, or you have limited mobility, avoid “panoramic” excursions and opt for something more focused or in-depth.
2. Sightseeing cruises
If a ship can book you on a sightseeing cruise of a port famous for its harbor, canals, or rivers (such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Bruges, Bangkok, and New York), you can probably find a comparable cruise for about half the price by booking it yourself before leaving home. Check online reviews for the best options, and book a tour that begins at least 90 minutes after your ship’s scheduled arrival and ends at least 90 minutes before all-aboard.
3. Anything with “ultimate” in the title
Not only do the eight letters in ultimate seem to make these tours cost way more, but they’re also a dead giveaway for an itinerary that is ambitious at best and totally exhausting at worst. These cram-it-all-in tours lasting eight to 10 hours might visit all the things you hoped to see (and which most non-cruisers will spend two or three days exploring), but it will all be a great big blur by the time it’s over. Believe us, after one of these marathons—especially during the hot summer months in Spain, Greece, and Italy—you’ll probably just want to crawl back to your cabin and call it a night.
4. "Day at the beach" excursions
These tours that transfer you via bus to a popular beach (Horseshoe Bay on Bermuda or Palm Beach in Aruba) also fall into the “just do it yourself” category, especially for families. Public transport via bus or ferry or taking a taxi is typically much cheaper than four excursion fees—and you can stay as long as you like. If you take a taxi, ask the driver if he’ll return at a specific time to take you back to the ship (and get his card or cell number just in case).
5. Tours that include lunch and a folkloric performance
No matter how much you love song and dance, these types of shore excursions almost always end up being super touristy: Lunch at a massive restaurant specifically designed to accommodate cruise ship passengers and a performance of colorfully costumed dancers. You’ll be fed (but you could have eaten for free on the ship) and entertained—but did you actually gain much insight into the destination? If you’re interested in a place’s history and culture, opt instead for a walking tour of its old town, a guided visit to a museum or local market, or an excursion to a winery, farm, or ranch.
6. The relentlessly promoted tour
If an excursion is being heavily promoted in the daily passenger bulletin, it’s probably a dud. Don’t fall for the shore excursion desk’s sales pitch. Some are best left untried.