Should You Book Cruise Excursions Through a Third Party?

Shore excursions operated by cruise lines can be worth the up-charge for peace of mind.
Ramsey Qubein
By Ramsey Qubein 
Published
Mature African American couple posing for self portrait while on deck of a cruise ship

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Cruise excursions in each port of call help travelers go deeper and experience more of the destination.

With limited time in each destination, a looming question is how will you spend your time? Will you souvenir shop or explore museums? Do you want to dine like a local or see an important monument or site? In some places, you may want to take additional transit to venture further afield.

Not to mention: Who should you book your excursion through — the cruise line itself? A third party? Or should you go rogue and figure it out on your own?

There are some key differences among these options, including the ability to pay in points for some. Here's what you need to know.

Why book excursions through the cruise line?

They're familiar with the area

Cruise lines invest a lot of time and research into developing tours that appeal to their guests and add value to their trip. Relying on these experts takes some of the stress out of planning, as the cruise lines do the legwork to find entertaining, safe and legitimate activities. Of course, these come with a price, and the amount can quickly add up when traveling with a family or group.

Some cruise lines, like Carnival, have a price guarantee on shore excursions. This means they will match or offer a cheaper tour than what you will find elsewhere. The catch? The other tour has to be exactly the same and at a publicly available price. Time ashore, included meals or additional stops may render the guarantee useless.

You won't get left behind

One important benefit of booking a cruise’s own shore excursion is that the cruise line knows where you are and won’t leave without you. So if the tour is running late, the ship will wait on you.

When organizing your own excursion, the cruise line is not responsible for any delay you incur and may leave without you. If you are unfamiliar with a destination, this is a compelling reason book with a cruise line, even at a higher price.

Trip interruptions are easier to accommodate

If the cruise makes a last-minute change to the itinerary (possible in the event of sea conditions or local weather), you would be refunded for an excursion booked through the cruise. If booked separately, outside vendors may be less understanding.

Excursions where you should rely on the cruise line

Far-off places to visit

If you need the whole day to venture away from port to see an important site, a cruise-led itinerary can make it easier and more efficient.

Let’s say you dock in Livorno, Italy, but want to go to Pisa or Florence. Cruise excursions know what people want to see, plus how to get there and back in time.

If you went on your own by train (and the train is delayed or you miscalculated your agenda), you might miss the ship and have to scramble to get yourself to the next port on time.

Exclusive-access tours

Some cruise lines, especially smaller luxury lines, can organize VIP access unavailable to the masses. These may not be on every cruise, but it makes sense to look into your options in case one sounds appealing.

Small group tours

If your primary reason for booking your own excursion is to travel in a private group (rather than a bus tour), many cruise lines offer smaller or completely private options, allowing for a more personalized and in-depth experience without sacrificing the benefits of booking through the cruise line.

It’s your first time visiting a place

If you know very little about a destination, local customs or language, or its infrastructure, it may be wise to book excursions through the cruise line for peace of mind.

Risky activities

Taking a hot air balloon ride? Bungee jumping? Hiking a volcano? Cruise lines' advance vetting provides assurance you are with a safe operator. This is always a wise move when partaking in hazardous activities, and it may also be a key stipulation for travel insurance coverage eligibility.

Tips for booking through a third party

Consider reaching out to a travel advisor to learn more about local options in a destination. They receive a commission for what you book, but will have a better idea of the place, which providers have the best reputation and how much time you would need to allow. Some credit cards may have their own personal concierge services — such as The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Ask if the third-party vendor has a shore excursion guarantee. Some will, which means they assure you will be back in time or they will transport you to the next port at their own expense.

For more protection, consider paying for your bookings with a credit card. In case the provider does not show up or offers something completely different than advertised, you can seek a refund from your credit card.

Excursions you should do yourself or book through a third party

Museums

Most museums have printed guides, QR codes or audio guides. It is better to explore on your own rather than waste time waiting on buses or regrouping after a tour.

City tours, Segway tours and glass-bottom boats

These can be organized independently for much less, and often you will find vendors waiting at the port. These activities are easy to book online.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Consider booking shore activities via the shopping portal of your favorite hotel brand, such as Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt. That way, you can earn or redeem hotel points.

Beach, pool or resort visits

Some cruise lines sell the option for a visit to a nearby beach, pool or resort. This is essentially a day pass to these facilities, but third-party operators may sell them, too. There is not much upside to spending extra to go through a cruise line when a quick internet search or chat with the concierge will reveal similar places to go for free.

Watersport activities

These are simple to arrange on your own or even through a nearby hotel. Visit the local tourist board to see what activities are available and to see what vendors they recommend.

Nearby city visits

Some cruise ships may dock in the heart of the destination, making it easy to explore independently. Why pay for a pricey tour when a guidebook and your own two feet might suffice?

Small group tours

When you're traveling with a group of people, you can save money by booking a small van with one guide rather than paying for the full cost of the shore excursion from the cruise line.

This option really comes down to your risk aversion level; finding a tour operator that has a return-on-time guarantee policy can help.

When should you book a cruise excursion?

Excursions are listed online or in the printed material you receive for the cruise. If you want to book through the cruise, it is best to book early in case they sell out. This also improves your chances of getting the times you want.

If you are going to book independently, review what the cruise offers first and then compare the price with local vendors.

What if my cruise excursion is sold out?

If the particular trip or time for your excursion is sold out, and you don’t see an alternative, don’t despair. Some cruise lines offer an excursion wait list for passengers once onboard. Since some folks will cancel at the last minute, it's best to be at the top of that wait list.

Another tip from frequent cruisers is to show up for the sold out activity anyway to see if there are any no-shows. Some operators may be willing to sell you a ticket on the spot if there is unexpected space available.


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Cards for Cruises from our Partners
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See more cards for cruises
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