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Is it better to book excursions through a cruise ship or separately?


With only so many hours in each port of call, you'll want to maximize your time ashore with shore excursions, tours designed to immerse you in the culture, history, and beauty of each destination. 

You can elect to book shore excursions through your cruise line or independently. Either way, it's important that you do enough research on all the available options to ensure you find the best fit for your budget and preferences. There are also pros and cons to each. 

Booking through the cruise line, for instance, will offer convenience and peace of mind, as you won't have to worry about getting left behind. On the other hand, third-party operators typically offer tours for a lower price, helping you stretch your vacation budget even further. 

Is it better to book excursions through a cruise ship or separately? Here's a breakdown to help you decide!

Pros of booking excursions through the cruise line

They guarantee your return to the ship


Cruise ships operate on tight schedules. If your all-aboard time is 5:30pm, you won't want to show up any later. Even if the ship is still docked, you may not be allowed on, especially if the gangway is retracted. 

When you book an excursion through your cruise line, you're guaranteed to make it back before departure. If anything goes astray and your tour is running late, the ship will wait for you. In the event that they have to leave, the cruise line will cover all costs associated with meeting the ship at the next port of call. 

It's always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to returning to your ship on time. If you think you'd worry while on an independent tour, you will want to book all excursions through the cruise line. You don't want to spend your time ashore constantly checking the clock. 

Sometimes, the cruise pier is far from the actual destination. Ships, for instance, cannot dock in Rome, so they have to call on Civitavecchia, which is around an hour away. Trying to plan your own excursion becomes difficult when you have to account for transit times, whereas you could take a sigh of relief on a ship-sponsored tour that got stuck in traffic.

Read more: Couple left behind by cruise ship highlights why booking cruise line excursions is important

The cruise line takes care of the planning


Everything from transportation to the itinerary is arranged on cruise line-sponsored excursions. You'll meet at an assigned place, whether it is the ship's theater or a central location within the port. From there, everything is taken care of! Guests, however, who opt to go off on their own must handle all arrangements themselves, including researching local attractions and figuring out transportation. 

Though going off on your own allows you to be more flexible than sticking with a pre-planned tour, it also requires careful planning and organization, especially since you don't want to miss your ship. Those who want the convenience of having everything handled for them will prefer booking tours through the cruise line. 

Additionally, if there happen to be any interruptions onboard your trip or changes in itinerary, your cruise line will handle issuing a refund or adjusting the time of the excursion. If you booked the tour on your own, you are subject to the operator's terms and conditions, which might not allow you to get a refund even if you had to cancel due to your ship skipping the port of call. 

Read more: Your really dumb cruise shore excursion questions answered

Reliable operators

MSC excursions

All tour operators are vetted and endorsed by the cruise line, ensuring a safe experience for all guests. Passengers who seek out their own excursions face a higher risk of encountering unreliable operators. 

If you plan ahead, you'll have time to read reviews to make a well-informed decision; however, if you walk off the ship and flag down someone by the port, you likely won't have the same level of assurance. 

Whenever considering third-party tours, it is critical that you prioritize safety and reliability to minimize any potential risks. 

Cons of booking excursions through the cruise line

They're often more expensive 

Deluxe Catamaran Sail & Snorkel with Open Bar Carnival Cruise Line

Unless you're sailing on a luxury line, you can expect to pay for all of your excursions. Depending on what tours you're interested in and where you are cruising, they can get pretty expensive. It's not uncommon, for example, for tours in Alaska to cost $150+ per person. 

Excursions offered by third parties are often less than those available through the cruise line. It's a great way to experience the same highlights for a fraction of the cost. 

I'm a fan of GetYourGuide; I've booked numerous tours through them and have had great experiences! In fact, on my 7-night cruise onboard Celebrity Ascent in July, my finacée and I booked an excursion in Mykonos to visit a local vineyard. It cost just shy of $150 for two of us, whereas a wine-tasting excursion through Celebrity was upwards of $115 per person

The more money you save on excursions, the more you can allocate towards other add-ons, such as Wi-Fi and drink packages, specialty dining, and more. 

Read more: 10 tips for getting the best cruise shore excursion values

The tour groups tend to be larger


Independent operators usually offer small group tours, which is ideal for those who don't want to spend the day waiting on a large tour bus full of passengers. Because there are so many people, there's not a lot of flexibility. 

When I went on an island tour in Curaçao, I found it difficult to hear the guide while visiting the Curaçao Liqueur Distillery. Moreover, when I was in St. Kitts, we stopped at Romney Manor for a short demonstration of how batik is made. Similarly, I was unable to see due to how large the group was. 

Typically, choosing to book independently ensures that you'll have a smaller group. Though not always the case, I found this to be true in Rome. Rather than book a tour from Civitavecchia to Rome with MSC Cruises, I opted to go through GetYourGuide, not only because of the smaller group size but because it gave me the most time at many of the historical and cultural landmarks in the city. 

Read more: 12 cruise ship shore excursions you should skip

Less variety


By opening up your search beyond what's offered by the cruise line, you'll find more options. If you aren't finding what you are hoping for through the cruise line, don't be afraid to broaden your search to see what tours are offered by local companies. 

Maybe you want a tour that focuses on a few highlights rather than trying to cram as much as possible into a single day, or perhaps you're seeking off-the-beaten-path adventures that truly allow you to immerse yourself in the local culture. This is especially true if you've already visited a cruise port before, as you don't want to visit the same touristy spots. 

I took an amazing street food tour in Palmero, Italy that wasn't available through MSC. The group was lovely, and I got to see a lot of the town on foot— not to mention try some delicious food! 

Read more: 11 common cruise shore excursion mistakes to avoid

Ship-sponsored tours tend to sell out in advance


Though amazing last-minute cruise fares are quickly becoming a thing of the past, that doesn't mean that they're impossible. 

Excursions in destinations like Alaska and Europe are popular, so if you book a cruise a few weeks out from the departure date, you'll find that you will have significantly fewer options. 

Though tours run by third parties can also be booked up in advance, you are more likely to find something that interests you closer to your cruise date. 

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