En español | All cruise lines arrange shore excursions, some of them very expensive, to help you make the most of your time in every port of call. But when is it worth it to pay top dollar? Is it better to plan a day trip on your own? Should you just jump off the ship, do your own thing and then jump back on? Here are some questions to ask yourself so you can enjoy every port just the way you want.
1. Just want to be tourist-for-a-day?
The cruise line will always try to sell you an excursion, but if you just want to walk around town, shop or visit the local beach, pick up a map and go it alone. In St. Thomas you can shop till you drop right near the ship and get to the beach easily by cab. In Tallinn, Estonia, the medieval Old Town plus plenty of shops and restaurants are within walking distance of the dock. And don't forget that you can often find hop-on hop-off buses that make it simple and fun to get an overview of everything, with more in-depth glimpses wherever you choose.
2. Do you want to avoid the big bus?
Many cruises offer private and semiprivate city tours in cars and vans for people who don't want to climb aboard a bus. You can explore with a personal guide or get a private, after-hours tour of a museum that's always packed during the day. You can save money by hiring a private taxi or guide yourself, but be sure to negotiate a flat rate — based on your destination, the number of people in your group and the approximate amount of time you'll need — before you depart.
3. Do you want to venture far afield?
If you want to see something well beyond the port — say, the Mayan ruins of Tulum from Cozumel, a trip that requires a ferry to the mainland and a bus ride — it makes sense to take an organized excursion. Booking your tour directly can be cheaper and less crowded than one planned by the cruise line, but remember: You'll be working with local transportation and schedules, and if you miss the ship's departure, it's big bucks to get to the next port on your own.
4. Do you want to immerse yourself in local culture?
Some shore excursions planned by the cruise line provide a hands-on local experience that you probably won't find on your own: a visit, say, to a vineyard to pick grapes and taste the product. Cooking classes, art lessons, dance performances or workshops serve up memorable experiences with unique cultures.
5. Do you want to relax in luxury?
Visits to secluded beaches, scenic sails with rum flowing liberally, romantic catamaran cruises — these excursions are all designed to remind you why you took a cruise in the first place: to sit back and relax. Book one if you're craving that kind of day.
6. Are you dreaming of a bucket-list experience?
Have you always wanted to kayak in the Sea of Cortez, swim with dolphins in Mexico, dog-sled in Alaska or zip-line in a Costa Rican jungle? For these adventures, consider booking an excursion. You can research beforehand and choose an independent company, cutting out the middleman (the cruise line). But remember that the cruise line will have vetted the local operator for quality and safety so you won't have to. One other thing to think about: Is the level of physical activity involved appropriate for you? Make sure that question is answered before booking.