Tips on Planning Cruise Shore Excursions

 In Categories, Travel & Adventure

Among the many aspects of a Sea Princess World Cruise which excited us, the ports of call were obviously pretty much top of the list! We are visiting so many bucket list destinations, and we realised early on that planning what we were actually going to be able to see in a limited time-frame was paramount.

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And sometimes the ports come fast and hard.

For instance, over a 10 day section of the cruise from late June to early July we visited six ports of call in the Baltic including Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn and Riga.

Cruise Shore Excursions – so much to see and do

But what exactly should we see and how should we see it? We knew that we couldn’t do everything!

It was at this point that the value of ship’s tours, for us at least, became very evident.

As the ports of call were in quick succession you really needed to be on the ball and have made decisions about what you wanted to see and how to get to see it. But booking on a ship’s tour, the decisions are made for you and no time is wasted.

A big question we had before embarking on our maiden world cruise was how much of a place would one get to see in a typical day in port which might consist of 8 – 10 hours. We were concerned that after all the bureaucracy and logistics of getting on and off the ship there might be little time available to see much or explore a destination.

Variety and quantity

At the time of writing we’re 70 days into our voyage, and we are in a far better position to answer this question. We’ve  been pleasantly surprised at the amount of sightseeing that we’ve been able to do, in fact in some instances we’ve been staggered by the variety and quantity of experiences we’ve been able to pack in.

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In Muscat we booked on an excellent ship’s tour which took us on a desert safari with Zahara Tours.

What’s the bureaucracy like?

Firstly the bureaucracy in nearly all the ports we’ve visited has been minimal and shortly after berthing, Angus, the customer services director has over the ship’s loudspeaker advised us that all clearances have  been received and the gangways are open for disembarkation.

Only in St Petersburg were we required to go through passport control and even in this case it was efficiently organised and we were rapidly able to proceed through immigration in under 15 minutes. For Boston, the immigration officials came on board, and although there was a queue, formalities were completed reasonably quickly.

Which shore option will you choose?

There are different options for passengers to explore a port; these include … a pre-arranged ship’s tour, pre-arranged independent tour or to simply walk off the ship and do your own thing.

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In Amsterdam we decided to do our own thing. Sea Princess docked in Rotterdam and it was an easy train ride to Amsterdam.

In some instances the port might be a significant distance from where you would like to travel to – for example in Sweden we berthed at Nynashamn (instead of Stockholm as planned) a small town some 60kms out of Stockholm.

However, Princess laid on an excellent complimentary shuttle service directly to the centre of Stockholm, and in fact on reflection we considered this a bonus as we had the opportunity to see some wonderful Swedish countryside on our way to and from the city.

In other instances the ship is able to dock very close to the city centre for example in Tallinn it only required a pleasant easy 15 minute walk to be at the centre of the old walled Medieval city.

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We’ve thoroughly enjoyed numerous ships tours, and we’ve also done our own thing in a number of ports, and thoroughly enjoyed all our excursions.

Things to consider

There are a few things to take into consideration when planning your trips.

The ship provides a broad range of tours for each port, which usually cover a variety of activities, interests and points of interest.

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In Lisbon, we didn’t book a tour. We hopped on a Tuk-tuk – probably one of our least enjoyable decisions.

A major advantage of being on a ship’s tour is that if delayed for any reason on land the ship provides a guarantee that it won’t depart until the last tour returns, but this is not the case if you travel on an independent tour or independently where you have to be very alert to being back on the ship on time which could have significant consequences!  Err, No one wants to be waived goodbye standing on shore!

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The ship’s tours are very flexible in so far as you can cancel or change them up to 48 hours before travel, as we have done on occasion, when perhaps we’ve learnt more about a destination and decided we’d prefer a different option to the one first planned.

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Tours which involve canal tours are a great way of getting a different perspective of cities and places.

Waiting times and queue

Another thing to remember about an organised tour is that if you’re visiting very popular museums, palaces, cathedrals and other tourist hotspots then organised group tours are often given preferential access … for example in St Petersburg when we visited Petershof Palace and The Hermitage Museum we gained entry to these early in the mornings before thy were open to the general public and as such the waits to get in were minimal, and although still busy, the congestion inside was nowhere near as busy as it is when open to general admission.

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The two day “Best of St Petersburg” ship’s tour we did was brilliant, and included a canal trip.

Also in St Petersburg we visited the Usurpov Palace (where Rasputin was murdered) which can only be visited through pre-arranged organised tours.

Use of time ashore

We’ve found that when we’ve gone on ship’s tours, in general, our use of time in port is highly efficient and this is useful especially when you have an agenda during which you want to view many sights in a relatively short time

However, not every tour appeals to everybody. We had what we thought was a wonderful taste of Riga with our guide Zana, but on the other hand somebody else said they didn’t have such a great day out in Riga, and this was possibly due to the quality of their guided experience.

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Zana was our wonderful guide in Riga.

Sonny, our kilted guide in Nova Scotia was a wealth of information during our tour of Cape Breton Island.

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In St Petersburg for example, in two days we believe it was only possible (because we went with a ship’s tour) to see so many iconic sights in such a short time. Plus, if you are on a ship’s tour in Russia your visas are organised for you. This was a huge plus for us.

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“We are doing the Ultimate  tour said Irina, our guide and we shall see all the main sights which normally takes people 5 days to see,” and at the end of two days in St Petersburg we believed her.

Guide’s often know best

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We were on a ship’s excursion in Rome – Our guides knew how to get us to the front of queue and were incredibly well informed.

Also we’ve found that the guides are very aware of what’s going on around you, and are able to provide advice from warnings about pick pockets in the vicinity, to knowing when best to view a particular room in a museum or palace when there’s likely to be minimal congestion.

In a very large museums like The Hermitage in St Petersburg, having a guide who’s able to guide you to the highlights of the museum is most helpful. The Hermitage houses more than 2 million exhibits and if you looked at each one for 1 minute a day you would need around 11 years to see the entire collection!

Due to Irina’s great planning (in the two hours we had available at The Hermitage) we were able to get to the most impressive rooms at the Winter Palace and see works by Reubens, the leader of the Flemish School, visit the Rembrandt gallery, see the Da Vinci paintings (Maddona and bird, Maddona and flower), Michelangelo’s sculpture, the sculpture of Voltaire, the Peacock Clock and the Van Dyk gallery among other impressive, very famous, priceless works of art.

Independent Tours

There are groups of passengers onboard who book independent tours, and so this is another option to consider which is potentially more cost effective and might offer alternative destinations, but of course these tours do not have the backing of the ship if anything goes wrong.

For example due to bad weather we did not dock in Germany, so anyone who had booked an independent ship’s tour would have had to claim their own refunds or claim from their own insurance.

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If you haven’t booked any tours, hop on hop off buses in big cities are a good way of getting to the most important sights.

Doing your own thing

Sometimes you don’t want to be herded or organised or follow the flag, and just want to discover a destination organically at your own pace, and on a whim be able to detour.

We did this in Tallinn, and after the intensity of seeing the sights in St Petersburg this was really a pleasurable experience – just wandering where the fancy took us and lingering longer at certain places on a whim.

Overall experience

So it’s important to do some research on your destinations, think where you want to go, read about the ship’s tours on offer, listen to what the destination expert onboard has to say, because this will add to the quality of your overall cruising experience.

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We’ve had a destination expert called Hutch, on the cruise providing us with excellent destination notes prior to each point of call, not only ‘live’ but also on our Stateroom TV’s (above) and we’ve found these very useful, especially if you’re planning to see the place on your own as he offers great insights on how to get around, what to see and what to avoid.

For us, we’ve enjoyed many well organised and interesting ship’s excursions which provided opportunities to see and learn a great deal over a relatively short period of time. However we’ve also enjoyed doing our own thing on occasion, especially when the ship has docked close to the town and it’s been easy to find maps and get on trams or hop on hop off buses.

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Trams in Lisbon, Portugal are a fun way to get around.

May the tour be with you! Happy planning!

Do you have any tips or suggestions for booking tours on cruises?

I’m travelling as a guest of Princess Cruises but all opinions are my own.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Kathy Marris
    Reply

    I think it is a good idea to mix it up a bit between cruise ship excursions, independent excursions and just winging it yourself. I sometimes get a little tired of being herded around on organised tours and like to do my own thing. But as you say you then don’t get the benefits that go with organised tours. Great post.

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Thanks Kathy, and yes I agree. Mix and match to keep things interesting.

  • Jackie Young
    Reply

    It’s always a good idea to book lots of trips before your cruise begins. We planned so many online whilst still at home. That way you can be sure of being on the “most popular” tours without being disappointed or having to go on a reservation list. Remember, you do not pre-pay for anything until your bill is made up on the ship. Booking in advance means you cancel as the mood takes you. It does not cost anything to book in advance.

    • Johanna
      Reply

      That’s a great tip Jackie, thank you!

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