Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first time cruiser shore excursions are a huge part of any cruise vacation. Let’s face it… the bottomless food, the dive-in theater, the nightly shows, the piña coladas… the ship itself is great but when you get home and share your adventure with the fam it won’t be the shrimp cocktail you rave about.
Planning the perfect shore excursion can be intimidating… there are so many choices! You aren’t sure who to trust, you want to have a good time but you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg to do it.
As an army brat I’ve been traveling since before I could walk… and I’m nothing compared to my Mama. I inherited my love of travel directly from her. We spent many family vacations traveling as I grew up and she took me on my first European adventure when I graduated high school (Paris, London and Rome).
Now she’s discovered cruises and is a platinum level cruiser with Carnival Cruise Line (who I have no affiliation with… even though I’D LOVE TO!). Even at 30 years old she’s still teaching me everything she knows about travel (I’ll be a gold level cruiser this year!) including all of her tips and tricks to getting the most out of your shore excursions.
If you’re going on a cruise and trying to find the perfect adventure you’ve come to the right place. Here are my (and my mama’s) favorite tips for planning your perfect shore excursion
Tip 1: Start with a Destination Search
When you’re planning a trip the first question is often: what are we going to do! If you’ve ever been on a cruise you know that port days (when you get off the ship to explore the destinations) are your chance for a big bad adventure.
Whether you’re looking for a specific excursion or you have no idea what the island has to offer start with a destination search.
Pull up a travel website (I like Viator) and type in your destination. For example, I typed in Barbados where I went a year or two ago with my Mama. Once Barbados comes up take a look in the left side bar and click “shore excursions”… that will bring up the best tours that are available from port.
Now you can start looking through all the tours to see what strikes your fancy: swimming with turtles, historical tours, cave explorations, shipwreck dives… take a look and decide on what you want to do.
Once you decide on which activity sounds perfect you can move on to picking the perfect tour. We ended up picking a tour that included swimming with turtles and swimming through the shipwrecks on Barbados… score!
Tip 2: Research the Island
When going on a cruise one of the hardest parts of deciding on the perfect shore excursion is organizing excursions for multiple days. If you’re going to Ocho Rios on Monday, Grand Cayman on Tuesday and Cozumel on Thursday you have to decide not on one port excursion but 3!
So you may want to go swimming with turtles but which island is best?
Once you’ve taken a look at what shore excursions each island has to offer you’ll have a better idea of what to research. Take a look for specific island reviews and see what each island is known for.
I like to look at personal reviews from travel blogs, excursion reviews on Viator and Carnivals excursions and top the whole thing off by doing a search on Pinterest for “Barbados Shore Excursions”.
After a bit of research you’ll find out that Barbados has amazing shipwrecks to snorkel right by the turtle grounds and you can usually do both on the same tour, you’ll find that Grand Cayman is home to Stingray City (a natural sand bar where stingrays gather) and that Ocho Rios is home to Dunn’s River Falls and the Blue Hole… natural attractions that are amazing to see.
Once you know a little bit about each island you’ll be able to pick exactly which excursion you want to do on each day and whether it will be overcrowded with tourists like the mud bath we visited on St. Lucia (that’s the picture above), a popular tourist spot like stingray city on Grand Cayman or a hidden gem like Pirates Cove on Barbados.
Seriously if you ever go to Barbados Pirates Cove: Shipwrecks and Turtles is the cheapest and BEST tour we’ve taken. Do. it
Tip 3: Ship Excursions vs. DIY
When you start to look through all of these excursions on sites like Viator there is one element you need to take into consideration: transportation.
The biggest perk of booking a Carnival excursion on a Carnival cruise is the safety behind it. You know exactly where to meet on the pier because the ship arranges it, you know that you’ll have decent transportation to the excursion, you know that you’ll make it back to the ship on time.
Even if the excursion is 100% the same through Carnival or Viator that transportation is a big deal.
When you book your own excursion you also have to book your own transportation… now many of Viator’s excursions have reliable transportation. They pick you up at the port and get you back with plenty of time to make the ship.
Before you book your trip make sure to see whether transportation is included or if you’ll need to take a taxi. Taxi’s are readily available in port but they may not be available where you’re going… this is something to take into consideration (any large tourist attraction will probably have taxi’s available).
Cruises are great… a party on a ship! BUT if you are late coming back from an excursion they WILL NOT WAIT FOR YOU. Check out “dock runners” on YouTube if you don’t believe me. The ship will leave you in port if you don’t make it back on time.
The only exception is if you are on a Carnival excursion and it has problems… the ship will not leave a Carnival paid excursion behind.
As an experienced cruiser I have no problem booking a non Carnival excursion… I use Viator all the time. BUT if you are a first time cruiser gong with a ship-based excursion will give you a certain peace of mind.
All of this leads me to my next tip: if you feel comfortable going off book make sure to check multiple sites for the best price
Tip 4: Check Multiple Sites for the Best Price
Nailing down the perfect excursion is the first half of the battle but once you’ve decided exactly where you want to go and what you want to do it’s time to find the best price. You may have decided on the perfect excursion through the ship’s excursion portal but make sure to compare the prices through different sites.
Depending on the day you may find a better price purchasing your excursion directly from the cruise line, directly from the shore excursion themselves OR even through a third party like Viator.
We are planning an upcoming trip to Ocho Rios where my brother has convinced me we HAVE TO GO ZIPLINING. I’m not sure about that but what the heck… we’ll give it a go. So I start looking at shore excursions and find Mystic Mountain: their ziplining course has 6 platforms through the rain-forest and goes over a few waterfalls.
So I double checked all 3 sites. The ship: Carnival has a big 3 promotion where you can do ziplining (check), the sky explorer attraction and their infamous bobsled ride for $109. Viator: currently didn’t have a 3 pack and only bundled the sky explorer and ziplining for $177. Straight from the source: the Mystic Mountain website boasted all 3 attractions for a sale of $140.
I have found the same exact excursion way cheaper on the excursions website in the past and Viator has come through with huge discounts on multiple occasions. SO before you click purchase make sure to check all 3.
And don’t worry…. I’ll update the post with pictures from our ziplining adventure.
Tip 5: Talk to the Chat Box
This is a strange tip but just stay with me. On my very first cruise I was set on swimming with the dolphins… I had been dreaming of this day since I was a little girl and would have paid just about anything.
The shore excursion through Carnival was $199 but in order to compare I wanted to look at all the options. I read through the description of the excursion and found that it was through a company called Dolphin Discovery.
Googling their company I found that the Dolphin Swim Adventure was priced at $159 through the company… big difference! Going one step further I noticed that there was a chat box popped up in the bottom corner of the screen asking if I wanted help finding the best deal.
I thought why not? I chatted with the chat box for a couple minutes and was able to secure the Dolphin Swim Adventure for $119 as their deal of the day. I have gone back to Dolphin Discovery on other cruises and always get the best deal by talking with the chat box… and this little tip has worked on other sites as well.
Of course, not all sites have a chat box and sometimes the chat box is only there for assistance. BUT I have found that it’s always worth a try.
At this point you should have the perfect excursion picked at the absolute BEST price… enjoy your trip!