Cruise ships have plenty of onboard activities to keep passengers entertained, but they also frequently offer shore excursions when they make port. Shore excursions give you the opportunity to explore a new culture, soak up local history, or even take part in a once-in-a-lifetime activity like dogsledding. Going on one might just be the highlight of your cruise, especially if your ship is making port at a locale you’ve never visited before.
However, choosing to go on a shore excursion isn’t a decision to make lightly. Read on to learn more about why you should (or shouldn’t) go on a shore excursion, how to choose the right activities for you, and how to make sure that you stay safe while having fun.
Reasons for Going on a Shore Excursion
When your ship makes port, you’ve essentially got three choices:
- Go on aship-sponsored shore excursion
- Explore on your own
- Stay on the ship
You absolutely shouldn’t feel obligated to leave the ship, especially if you don’t feel comfortable exploring the region or if you’ve visited the area many times. In fact, there are several advantages to staying on board for a port day. While the ship will by no means be deserted, it will be significantly less crowded than it is while sailing, so you’ll have easier access to the buffet, pools, lounge chairs, spa, and other onboard facilities. A port day can be the perfect opportunity to explore the ship and take advantage of the amenities you haven’t enjoyed yet.
It’s also perfectly acceptable to choose to explore the port on your own, but you need to be aware that you are responsible for your own safety. Check the US Department of State website to see if there are any recently issued travel warnings for the region you’re visiting, and check the local weather for inclement conditions. If you do explore on your own, you will most likely want to stay fairly close to the port.
All that being said, there are plenty of good reasons you might decide to go on an organized shore excursion. You might choose this type of outing because:
You want to participate in an activity that requires experienced professionals and specialty equipment. If you want to do something exciting such as snorkeling, zip-lining, or mountain biking, you’ll be better off going with a group led by professionals who either work for the cruise line or have been vetted by cruise line officials, because they can provide you with all the specialty equipment you’ll need and work to ensure your safety.
You want to venture farther from the shore. If you choose to explore on your own, you may be limited to the distance you can walk—unless you want to try to figure out the local transportation system on your own. Certain shore excursions will give you the opportunity to take a bus, cab, or other vehicle farther inland or farther up or down the coast, letting you see more of the region.
You don’t speak the language. Attempting to explore a region when you don’t speak a word of the local language can be daunting, and it can be tough finding a translator on your own. On a shore excursion, you’ll be with other English speakers and sometimes a translator who can help your group communicate with locals when needed.
You want to check an activity off your bucket list. If you find out that your cruise is offering a shore excursion activity like visiting a historic site, swimming with dolphins, or zip-lining through the Amazon, you might want to go simply because you’ve always wanted to do that activity and may not get another opportunity. Even if a shore excursion can make your cruise take a more expensive turn, you may want to do it if you feel you’ll regret skipping it.
You want to learn more about the local culture. There’s only so much you can learn about a region’s culture if you stay on the ship. Going on a shore excursion lets you do things like sample local cuisine, learn about the region’s art and music, visit marketplaces, and meet people who call the region their home.
Choosing Your Activity: Independent vs. Cruise Line Tours
If you decide that you do want to go on a shore excursion, the next thing you need to do is decide whether you want to go through the cruise line or an independent operator. Below are some of the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Pros of Choosing Cruise Line Tours:
- The cruise line should thoroughly research the tour operators they partner with, including performing background checks and looking at safety and maintenance records.
- The cruise line will make sure they’re only working with operators who are insured.
- It’s easier to sign up for a cruise-sponsored shore excursion than to book your own.
- Excursions purchased through the cruise line will be timed to coincide with the ship’s arrival and departure (i.e. there’s far less chance of getting left behind!).
Cons of Choosing Cruise Line Tours:
- Available shore excursion options may not include the activity that you really wanted to do.
- Shore excursions through the cruise line are often more expensive than shore excursions through an independent operator.
Pros of Choosing Independent Tours:
- There are typically more options available.
- Independent tours are often significantly cheaper than cruise-organized tours.
- You may be able to participate in a smaller group activity.
Cons of Choosing Independent Tours:
- It’s up to you to research the operator to make sure they are insured and have a spotless safety record.
- Finding an independent tour can be more challenging if you don’t speak the local language.
If you do decide to go with an independent tour operator, don’t be afraid to ask them specific questions about their safety standards, including what kind of training their guides must complete, how often they test and replace their equipment, and whether they’re insured. You can also check for reviews of activities you’re interested in on sites like Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor.
What to Do Before the Excursion
Even if your cruise line tells you that you don’t need to do anything to prepare for your excursion, there are some precautions you should take:
Evaluate your fitness level. When choosing a shore excursion, be honest with yourself about your fitness level and your comfort participating in a certain activity. For example, if you never learned how to swim, scuba diving probably wouldn’t be the best option for you. If you haven’t ridden a bike since childhood, you might not want to do any rigorous mountain biking. The good news is that cruise lines typically offer a wide array of shore excursions, from relaxing in a sailboat to high-adrenaline outings.
Check the weather and sea conditions the day of the excursion. Your tour operator should be monitoring the weather and sea conditions, but you have to keep in mind that they’re also trying to make money, and they’re going to lose out if they cancel a tour because of the weather. Don’t participate in any sea activities, like parasailing or scuba diving, if it’s windy or looks like it’s going to rain, and don’t participate in any on-shore activities, like hiking through the rainforest or taking a bus inland, if you’re uncomfortable with the weather conditions.
Tune in to the safety talk. Any professional tour operator should go over safety guidelines for their particular activity, and it’s essential that you pay attention so that you avoid injuries and discomfort.
Read the waiver carefully. All shore excursions have some risks, and it’s common practice for the tour operator to ask you to sign a waiver before participating. This usually isn’t a problem, but you should still read the waiver carefully and make sure you’re okay agreeing with everything in the fine print. If the phrasing in the waiver makes it sound as if an accident is likely to happen, you shouldn’t hesitate to back away from the shore excursion. Go with your gut, and never sign something or participate in an activity that makes you uncomfortable.
Accidents Happen: Know Your Rights If Injured on a Shore Excursion
While thousands of people enjoy shore excursions every year without major incident, accidents do unfortunately still happen. When they occur, it may seem difficult to hold the cruise line or independent tour operator responsible due to exculpatory clauses in their waivers. The cruise line or operator will most likely claim that the accident victim understood the inherent risk in the shore excursion and agreed to assume responsibility if an accident did occur.
However, if your accident occurred as a direct result of the cruise line or tour operator’s negligence, you should seek the help of a cruise ship accident attorney, even if you did sign a waiver. An experienced maritime lawyer will look closely at any waiver or contract you signed, as well as the details of your shore excursion and the safety record of the tour operator, to help you determine if you are entitled to monetary compensation.
You may not know what rights you have until you talk to a seasoned cruise line attorney, so don’t wait to seek legal help after you’ve been in a shore excursion accident.
About the Author:
Andrew Winston is a partner at the personal injury law firm of The Law Office of Andrew Winston. He has been recognized for excellence in the representation of injured clients by admission to the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, is AV Rated by the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, and was recently voted by his peers as a Florida “SuperLawyer”—an honor reserved for the top 5% of lawyers in the state—and to Florida Trend’s “Legal Elite.”