Do I Need To Book Shore Excursions In The Caribbean?

Enjoying Your Caribbean Cruise With Or Without Booking Shore Excursions

The Caribbean is, by far, the quintessential cruise destination. Every year, millions of vacationers flock to ports like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa and others for the privilege of spending a week or two bobbing around in the Caribbean blue.

But when many cruisers reach the Caribbean, they’re disappointed. Ports tend to be on the small side, and they run the gamut from heavily commercialized and touristy to poor and seemingly unsafe. Frankly, it can be difficult to know when you’re better off exploring on your own, or taking an organized shore excursion booked through your ship or an independent operator.

A guide holds up a sign for Carnival guests who have booked excursions through the ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Excursions booked through your ship are protected from delays; independent tours are not. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A guide holds up a sign for Carnival guests who have booked excursions through the ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Excursions booked through your ship are protected from delays; independent tours are not. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Shore excursions, however, can be costly – particularly for families or extended groups of friends travelling together. A simple tour can set you back $50 per person, while more adventurous sailing outings and snorkeling tours can run well into the hundreds of dollars.

So do you need to budget to take an excursion in every port to get the most out of your Caribbean experience? Not necessarily. There are a few considerations you can take before you pull the trigger on any land adventures:

  • What Do I Want To Get Out Of It? If you’re just looking for a lazy day at the beach, you might be within walking distance of it – or a short, inexpensive taxi ride away. If your idea of fun is strolling around town, few Caribbean locales will require a walking tour to get acquainted – but nearly every town offers one. We had a disastrous walking tour of Cozumel, Mexico six years ago that still sticks in our minds as being particularly unfortunate: In two hours, we’d covered four city blocks.
  • Consider Your Personal Comfort Level: If you’ve never been to a particular Caribbean island before and the thought of walking around on the streets makes you nervous, consider taking a ship-sponsored tour. These provide excellent peace-of-mind, and command a high degree of safety and security. If you’re visiting an island for the second, third or fourth time and feel comfortable with it and your surroundings, there is less need to book dedicated excursions.
  • Research Attractions That Might Be Near the Pier: Philipsburg, St. Maarten is a good example of this. Not only does the cruise pier have a full shopping center adjacent to the main dock gates, it also has a convenient water taxi service that takes guests right into the heart of downtown Philipsburg. Getting around on your own could not be easier.
  • Decide If You Want To Venture Farther: Most town centers are conveniently located to the cruise piers in the Caribbean, which means that retail therapy is rarely out of reach. But if you want to venture farther and explore other parts of the island, taking a ship-sponsored shore excursion or an independent tour can be an excellent office. A great example of this is in Lucia, where large ships routinely tie up in the Castries. This is quite a distance away from the crown jewel of the island – The Pitons – which are located on the other side of the island, near Soufriere. Getting to see this amazing natural wonder would be difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous on your own.

Many readers ask if it is better to book an excursion through the cruise line or do one independently. We’re fans of both: We routinely book excursions through the cruise line, but will happily book independent excursions.

Does your ship not offer an excursion to Chichen Itza in Mexico? You might be able to take an independent tour there. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Some sights, like Mexico’s Chichen Itza, are difficult to reach without an organized shore excursion. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

When booking independent tours, there are some important considerations you should take. Do your homework on the operator first; the internet is an incredible wealth of information in this regard. Don’t let anyone push you into a tour you don’t want, and always agree on a price beforehand when hiring a taxi.

It’s also worth noting that shore excursions vary between cruise lines, and can change from season to season. An excursion on a Carnival cruise five years ago may not be offered today. Likewise, a tour that Norwegian Cruise Line offers may or may not be offered on Princess ships. One of our personal favorite excursions – a cycling tour of St. Maarten – was only offered by MSC Cruises during our recent MSC Divina sailing.

msc divina
Do you just want to head to the beach? Chances are you don’t need an organized excursion to take you there – particularly if you’re berthed in Grand Turk, pictured above. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Finally, try not to let price be a guiding factor in determining whether or not you’ll take part in any shore excursions. Many Caribbean tours are highly affordable, but the sky is the limit in terms of price when it comes to the more active excursions like zip lining and dolphin swims. Despite the relatively high cost of the latter, some of these excursions can be the most memorable, particularly for families travelling together on a special occasion cruise to the Caribbean.

With a little planning, your cruise to the Caribbean can be a complete success – regardless of whether you shell out for the shore excursions or not.


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One Comment

  • We are going on a MSC Divina cruise this December in the Caribbeans and were looking for excursions. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated!!


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