When cruising the Caribbean, some people have a clear vision of what they plan to do in ports of call -- whether it includes a lounge chair and a white-sand beach, or snorkeling face-to-face with marine life.

To meet diverse tastes, cruise lines have been beefing up their portfolios of shore excursions. However, these organized tours come at an additional cost on most ships -- with the exception of the new-to-the-market Viking Ocean Cruises and luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises that include excursions in the cruise fare (Viking offers a standardized getting-to-know-you tour at each port, where Regent offers a range of options).

If you're faced with paying big bucks for an excursion, you'll want to do a deep think. We recommend that you compare the price of organized tours to what you can do on your own. Then, make a budget and plan out any DIY exploration -- just walking off the ship and expecting to find something fabulous doesn't always work at Caribbean ports. The Caribbean offers a lot more than beautiful beaches, but other experiences are often difficult to find on your own.

That said, you might find that there are plenty of tour options that are worth the extra bucks. For us, those are usually the excursions that delve into local culture, such as foodie tours: A creole cooking class in Dominica, West Indian cooking and rum sampling on St. Kitts, or a tastings tour of Old San Juan, for example. You'll likely be surprised by some of the history and culture on the islands.

Other excursions we often feel are worthwhile are those that include a thrill factor, such as kayaking in a bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico, cave tubing in Belize, racing America's Cup yachts in St. Maarten, snorkeling with stingrays in Grand Cayman, or swimming with dolphins at Atlantis Dolphin Cay in Nassau.

If you find you're really torn between a decently priced excursion and spending the day on your own, book a half-day tour: It saves you a bit of money and still leaves time to hit the beach. After all, cruising is designed to provide the best of both worlds.

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