Easily the best times we've had on our cruises have been during our adventures onshore at the port stops. We have had great success in booking our excursions independently. This is for a number of reasons.
1. The Cost. When you book on your own, you can plan well in advance of your sailing. We have locked up an excursion more than a year in advance for Barbados, for example. Doing thorough research online helps you find the exact type of experience you want. Go to the forums on Cruise Critic or read the reviews on TripAdvisor to check what others have enjoyed in their port stops.
You might find specific recommendations for independent excursions and the names of well-regarded outfitters. Or you can at least learn the best type of activities for a certain locale. In Costa Rica, for example, we found out that ziplining would be a great option. So, we started focusing our web searches on "best ziplining Costa Rica" and the like. We ended up negotiating a good price and locking up our adventure ashore more than six months ahead of our cruise (make sure you understand the tour guide's cancellation policy) and had one of the best excursions ever. Cruise lines' shore excursion desks offer outings for prices that typically will average 20 percent to up to 100 percent more than you can negotiate on your own for a similar outing.
We paid $75 for our Costa Rica ziplining trip, which included a range of other activities. A similar tour available from our cruise ship cost $129.
2. The Flexibility. When you book your own excursion, you often get to design your day so that it's just the way you want it. We love snorkeling, so we'll seek out a catamaran sailing that makes stops at a couple reefs, offers time at a beach along with lunch and drinks. You might get all of that on cruise line's excursion, but you also often will find that you must sacrifice at least one item on your ideal list.
Perhaps you want a full day checking out all the highlights on your island. You can design an island tour with your outfitter that includes as much time as you would like at the beaches, shops, bars or historic sites. When you go on the ship's tour, the day is more regimented because the group is large, so the activities canât be customized to meet the preferences of everyone.
During our day in Costa Rica, we went ziplining, toured a banana plantation, spent time at a beach, ate at a roadside fruit stand and stopped to spot howler monkeys and sloths in trees that our guide had seen (along with other wildlife and plants). And when I mentioned that I liked to sample beers where I visit, our guide Danilo Hall, went to a grocery store and bought us a sampling of the island brews at no extra charge. You are not going to get that unless you book an independent tour.
We've also had good luck in negotiating a good price and customizing our tour by simply walking off the ship with no specific plans and heading right to an excursion kiosk dockside and seeing how desperate the operators are to make sure they make a sale that day. Wait until most of the organized prebooked tours have cleared out, then go do your wheeling and dealing with the tour operators who have been left on the dance floor without a partner. You can get a greatly reduced rate if you can approach your day in port as a wildcard, not knowing exactly what's on the agenda.
3. The Intimacy. Cruise ship excursions cater to extremely large groups. I've found myself frustrated on several occasions when I've felt like nothing more than cattle being shuffled about all day. Nope, that is no fun at all! You end up in long lines on big tour buses and moving only as fast as the slowest person in the group. Book your own tour and you can limit the number of people you will be spending the day with. We've often been in groups as small as four of us (just our family or friends) and usually about eight to 10 people. This works great because you will all get along because you obviously have similar interests and travel experiences. Yes, this is a lot of fun!
NOTE: There is one great reason that so many people book the excursions directly from the cruise line. You get a guarantee that the ship will not leave you behind if your tour runs behind schedule and your group is late back to port for the ship's scheduled departure time. You are out of luck if you are late for some reason on your independent tour. We have never had a problem, but there are tales of those who have had to make arrangements to meet the ship at the next port stop after they pulled up to the dock too late after a tour and watched the vessel pull out to sea while they ran down the pier hoping the ship might stop and return for them. (It won't.)
Give your guide on an independently booked tour constant reminders of when you MUST be back to your ship.
Thanks for reading.