D.I.Y. shore excursions

You can book a shore excursion via a third party for much less than the ship charges (Photo courtesy of Viator.com)
You can book a shore excursion via a third party for much less than the ship charges

Book your own cruise excursions for up to 40% less than the cruise ships charge

Cruise lines contract with local outfitters to provide shore excursions—at a bulk discount—then charge you anywhere from ten to forty percent more than the retail cost of the excursion. Great business, if you can get in on that.

There are two ways to get around the inflated prices cruise lines charge for shore excursions, whether it's an ATV jungle adventure, snorkel trip, or shopping jaunt.

Wing It

Simply stroll right past the cruise lines guys holding up signs for the "official," sanctioned excursions and, beyond them, you'll see wandering touts, kiosks, tour agency offices (often across the street from the cruise terminal), or a local tourist office happy to sell you the exact same experiences—often riding on the same bus as the other ship passengers—for much, much less.

Some people are nervous about waiting until the last minute, of course, so you can always: 

Book ahead... just not via the ship

Find the local travel agencies on your own and book ahead with them. Good resources for doing this are guidebooks, Google, and the forums on Cruisecritic.com.

Another hint: use those forums on Cruisecritic.com or Cruisemates.com to assemble a group of like-minded passengers who will be on your ship and are interested in a tour you've lined up. Get ten people to commit, and you can approach the local outfitter with a group of your own and often negotiate a discounted rate.

If all of that sounds like too much work, or too dicey, you can always still go with a middleman booking agency—just one who takes a smaller cut than the cruise lines.

Several websites have sprung up to feed this need, including our partners Viator.com and City-Discovery.com (both generalists, not limited to shore excursions; also good for booking private transfers from ports into major cities) plus shore excursions specialists like Shoretrips.com.

Viator

DIY Drawbacks

There are some drawbacks to booking your own shore excursions (beyond the obvious convenience of letting the ship take care of it).

  • Less quality assurance (there's unlikely to be anything wrong with a company you find on your own, but with the cruise line you know they've vetted the local guides they use).
  • If you pre-book tours privately but your ship changes itinerary (due to weather, for example), refunds can be difficult.
  • If you wait and wing it, popular tours might sell out (especially if many ships are in port that day).
  • If you are late, the boat will not wait (huge reason to think hard about going it alone). Solutions: 
     
    • Plan to arrive back 30–60 minutes early.
    • If you're interested in an all-day excursion (which are likelier to experience delays getting back to port), it may best simply to book it via the ship.