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Feeding stingrays. Snorkeling from a catamaran. Exploring Mayan ruins. Hiking through the rainforest. Shore excursions are often the most memorable parts of your cruise and your best opportunity to experience the sights and culture of the islands. But if you’ve never cruised before, the array of trip options can be overwhelming — and expensive. Here’s a quick guide to everything you need to know about cruise excursions.

Why Should You Book Cruise Excursions?

New cruisers may wonder why they should bother paying for organized cruise excursions. Can’t you just explore the port on your own? You can — but the experience may not be exactly what you’re looking for.

In Nassau, the main cruise port in the Bahamas, cruisers walking off the ship will find abundant bars and chintzy souvenir shops. It’s possible to do a walking tour of the historic downtown, enjoy the Arawak Cay Fish Fry or explore the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, but that’s pretty much it. If, however, you opt for one of the Nassau shore excursions, you can find yourself swimming with dolphins, sailing aboard a private yacht or even driving a personal submarine.1

When Should You Plan Your Cruise Shore Excursions?

Right after you book your cruise. Popular shore excursions tend to sell out quickly, but that’s not the only reason you want to plan ahead. Give yourself time to research the available excursions in each port, as well as the local attractions you can tour on your own for free.

Booking excursions in advance also helps you rein in your travel budget. Cruise excursions typically cost from $39 for a basic bus or walking tour up to $200 or more per person for an adventure experience, according to Cruise Critic.2 Multiply that by the number of people in your group, and you see why excursions can rapidly become your biggest cruising expense.

Should You Book Cruise Excursions Through the Cruise Line or With An Independent Company?

That depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.

Advantages of Ship-Sponsored Excursions

  • You won’t miss the boat. Even if your bus is held up in traffic, the ship won’t leave without you if you’re on an official ship-sponsored excursion. However, experienced cruisers say you’re unlikely to miss the boat even if you’re on an independent excursion.3
  • The tour operator is probably reliable. You’re less likely to get scammed or be disappointed by the experience if you’re using an operator that has been vetted by the cruise line.
  • They’re easy to book. Instead of negotiating with tour operators on the pier, you can schedule all your excursions ahead of time.

Advantages of Independent Cruise Excursions

  • Lower prices. Cruise lines make money off the shore excursions they sponsor, adding to the price. Dealing directly with the tour operator often means you pay less, although you may have to pay in cash.
  • Smaller groups. Tired of seeing the same faces every day aboard your ship? Strike out on your own with an independent tour.
  • Unique experiences. The cruise line may offer all the usual shore excursions in Cozumel, such as visiting the Mayan ruins of Tulum, snorkeling from a catamaran and visiting the beach. But independent operators can provide other options, such as private island tours and day passes to private resorts.

How Can You Stay Safe While Enjoying a Cruise Shore Excursion?

There’s no guarantee that a cruise excursion will be safe, even if you book it through the ship. Most cruise lines disclaim liability for shore excursion accidents.4 Cruise passengers have been struck by lightning on a catamaran ride, been injured while riding an ATV in Acapulco, assaulted and robbed during a Nassau shore excursion and run over by a tour bus in Dominica, among other incidents.5 What can you do to ensure your safety?

Use common sense, for one thing. Avoid excursions that combine unlimited drinks with swimming or physical activity. Ask tour operators about their training, licensing and insurance. Always, always read the fine print.

Make sure you’re covered with a comprehensive cruise insurance policy, but be aware that travel insurance coverage often excludes risky behavior and activities.

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