How to Choose the Most Memorable Cruise Excursions

So you’ve booked a cruise. Now what? One of my favorite next steps is to explore shore excursion options and pick one.

There are so many different options for cruise excursions and it can sometimes be overwhelming. I’m going to break down my process for you and show you that planning your excursions can be almost as fun as actually going on the trip.


1.Setting Expectations

One important thing to keep in mind is that there is no way that you will be able to do and see a lot of things in a city with only one day in port. I suggest choosing one thing that really excites your group and focus on enjoying that one thing.

Sometimes we are able to work in a tour that includes a few things, but that isn’t always possible. Focus on what you get to do and not what you didn’t do. I always like to think that if we truly love a destination, then we can come back and do more.

Beach time in St. Maarten

Beach time in St. Maarten

2. Decide: Cruise Ship or 3rd Party Excursions?

First, you need to decide if you want to stick to just the options the cruise ship offers of if you are willing to branch out an go with a 3rd party.

For our first couple of cruises, we always took the excursions offered by the ship. But I started to notice that there were ALWAYS so many people at the ports offering tours and the prices were much lower than what we had paid the cruise ship. That made me start to wonder if there was a better way to book excursions.

I was a little nervous to branch out because the cruise ship guaranteed that they would wait for you if there was a delay in your activity. Being left behind in a foreign place with my family and none of our things definitely did not sound like something I wanted to do.

Our first experience with a 3rd party option was in St. Maarten when we were on a Disney Cruise. We were traveling with another family and the ten of us had gone out snorkeling in the morning on a cruise sponsored excursion. As we were heading back to the ship, the adults decided that we really wanted to go and spend a little time at a beautiful beach since we still had a few hours before we needed to be back on board. The kids wanted to get back to the ship for some ice cream and water slides, so we sent them to the ship and the 4 adults hired a taxi company to take us to a beach.

I learned a couple of things on this outing.

A. We could move so much faster with just our little group than with a big cruise ship group. Less people in the group = more time for exploring.

B. Giving rides and tours is what these people do all of the time. They know the best routes, where to park and when we need to head back to the ship.

C. Our driver in St. Maarten gave us very specific instructions on when he would be back to pick us up and where we would meet. We asked if we could stay longer than he’d said and he explained that traffic could get heavy which might cause a delay so we had to leave at the time he said. He knew how to get us back to the ship on time and made that a priority.

So in the end, this experience in St. Maarten gave us confidence to try a 3rd party company on our next cruise.

Enjoying our private cabana in Costa Maya at Jamie’s at the Blue Reef

Enjoying our private cabana in Costa Maya at Jamie’s at the Blue Reef

3. Discovering Excursion Options

Once you have decided if you are going with the ship excursions or private excursions, the real fun begins. Even if you are not going to book through the cruise, I recommend starting off by looking at the excursions offered by the ship for your stops. This gives you a great starting point to know what to expect in that port.

You can weigh different factors when you consider what is right for your group. Look for age and weight restrictions. Also look for the duration of the excursion. Look to see if it is something active and consider if that is right for your group.

Exploring shops in Mazatlan

Exploring shops in Mazatlan

4. Making Reservations or Winging It

I’m not really a winging it person when it comes to cruise excursions. I’ve usually decided what we want to do in each city and don’t want to take a chance on that activity being full, so I like to make reservations. If you really don’t care what you do at a destination, then you could walk off of the boat and find plenty of people waiting to take you to a variety of activities.

Booking ahead gives me peace of mind for a couple of reasons. First, I know we have a plan. Second, I’m able to read reviews on tours and factor that into my decision. You can’t read reviews when you are choosing a random person at a port to give you a tour. Just something to keep in mind.

Enjoying some refreshment in Roataan

Enjoying some refreshment in Roataan

5. Deciding on Excursions

Once we have decided that we are going to make our our reservations with private companies, I narrow down the options to a couple per port. Once it’s narrowed down, I like to get my family in on making the final decision about what we will do. I feel like it’s important to include them on some of the planning to increase their excitement and interest in what we will be doing.

We like to do a screen share from my computer to our T.V. and have everyone gather around to look at the excursion options that I have on my laptop. So far, we’ve always been able to have a clear decision on what everyone wants to do. I think if we had different options, I’d probably let each person in the family make the final choice for a port. The safe thing in doing this is that I’ve already narrowed things to to activities that I know everyone will enjoy.

Swimming near the Tulum Ruins on our Cozumel Excursion

Swimming near the Tulum Ruins on our Cozumel Excursion

6. Research & Book

You can do a web search for excursions as a starting place for your research. Just look up “Costa Maya Cruise Excursions” and you will start to see options. Here are a few of the companies I have used for different excursions.

These are all companies that I have personally used and I am not compensated in any way for sharing them with you. I just want you know what we have done.. Feel free to reach out to me with any specific questions.

Shore Excursions Group

I love the search options on this site. You enter your sailing date and ship name and they will tell you the exact options for your entire itinerary. Lots of great options for Mexico and the Caribbean.

TJ Travel

We used this company to book most of our excursions for a Baltic Cruise. All of the tours were really good with the 2-day St. Petersburg tour being exceptional.

Roataan Adventure Tours We used this site just for our stop in Roataan, Honduras. They were very professional, arranged a private van for our group of 10, set us up at a beach “resort” for the day in addition to organizing a 2 hour snorkel adventure for us.

Dev’s Adventure Tours This company does tours in Langkawi, Malaysia. We had a fantastic excursion where we toured a bat cave, kayaked and ate lunch at a remote floating restaurant.

Phuket Let’s Go We used this company to book one of the coolest days ever. There were 6 adults and we took a boat to 3 different remote islands off of Phuket, Thailand. We had lunch outdoors by the ocean cooked by a sweet Thai woman. I think it was just the 6 of us, the cook and our guide on the island. The food was amazing. The views were amazing! We also had some time for snorkeling.

Jaime’s at the Blue Reef We booked at day at this little beachside spot in Costa Maya. They arranged for a van to take us from the port to their place. We had a private ramada area with 10 lounge chairs. The best part was that it included all that we could eat and drink. The Mexican food was so fresh and delicious. Bowls of guacamole, salsa and chips were flowing. Plus lots of quesadillas, tacos and burritos. I think they even has chicken nuggets. The kids loved the virgin strawberry daiquiris too. They even had massage tables at our little site and arranged for some of us to get massages. It was all-inclusive (except for the massages) and we though it was a great value for the cost.

Enjoying lunch on a private island off of Phuket, Thailand.

Enjoying lunch on a private island off of Phuket, Thailand.

7. Print Your Documents

Many of our excursion tours emailed tickets or vouchers for us to bring. As soon as I receive the tickets in my email, I print them and put them in a folder where I keep all of my documents for the cruise. It makes it easy when it’s time to pack because I already have my paperwork ready to go.

I like to paperclip everything for each day together. Then I put it in chronological order in the folder and write the day/location at the top of each bunch of papers. (Ex.: Day 2, Monday, Ensenada, Mexico.)

Exploring the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Exploring the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Our family has been able to have so many exceptional experiences through cruising. It is such a great way to see cities that you might not get to without it being a cruise port. Taking time to explore port options ahead of time and then making reservations ahead of time will help you relax and really be able to enjoy time with your family with you are on vacation.

Have you been on a cruise? What was one of your favorite excursions?