There are several schools of thought about the benefits of purchasing cruise line shore excursions versus doing your own thing in ports of call via taxis, rental cars, pre-arranged private tours or driver/guides. Simply put, there's no universal answer as to which is the best way to go. Based solely on costs, a shore excursion purchased through the cruise line will almost always cost more. The shore excursions are profit centers for the cruise lines, which buy them from local tour operators and add in the extra cost of organizing and managing the passengers and the operators -- plus a profit.
The Benefits of Ship's Excursions
Besides organizing and coordinating with tour operators, the cruise lines are in contact with the excursions as they take place, so if something delays passengers' return to the ship, the captain is aware of the delay and will postpone the ship's departure until all passengers on those excursions have returned. So essentially you are paying a premium for insurance -- a guarantee that the ship will not leave without you.
Here's another benefit of organized shore tours that might not occur to many people: the social aspect. Most ship excursions involve large groups traveling together, creating opportunities to meet and socialize with fellow passengers. On many tours, you are touring with passengers who have demonstrated interests similar to yours by booking the same tours -- e.g.,snorkeling or scuba diving tours; museum tours, etc.
Safety issues often enter the minds of cruise ship passengers, particularly in unfamiliar ports, or places with reputations for criminal activity or unsettled political situations. While there have been a few examples of passengers on ship excursions encountering thieves and robbers, generally security issues are watched closely by the tour operators the cruise lines use.
The Drawbacks of Ship's Excursions
The amount of time a ship spends in port is usually quite limited, so the passenger's ability to experience the port is also limited. The biggest drawback to excursions sold by the ship is that everyone in the tour group moves only as fast as the slowest person.
Though the tour leaders try to stick to a schedule, there are always some on the tour who lose track of the time, and don't return to the transportation when they should, leaving the others waiting. This can dramatically affect a tour that is due to visit several sights in a four- or six-hour time frame.
On occasion, you might chose a tour because it visits to a site of particular interest to you. However, that tour might also include visits to another site (or two or three) that don't interest you, so you have to book the entire tour. This is quite common on more exotic itineraries such as Europe, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Far East, etc.
I always try to avoid full-day tours, where a stop for lunch is included. As a rule, several tour buses will meet at the same restaurant for lunch, because the tour operator contracts with one place to get a better price. With large groups to serve, these lunch breaks often take considerably more time than you would allot to a lunch stop if you were on your own. When time to tour is a concern, spending an hour and a half of a six-hour day waiting for lunch can get annoying.
On large shore excursions, you'll also have large numbers of people arriving to a destination at the same time. This is of less consequence if the tour is to a beach or similar place, but has much more consequence and impact at a museum or similar site where admission is more limited.
Private tours should be broken down into four classifications: group tours booked directly from a supplier other than the cruise line; tours booked with independent operators just for you and your traveling companions; renting a car to explore on your own; and grabbing a local taxi or bus during your port visit.
The main benefit of independently purchased group tours is a reduced cost. And in some cases the independent tours may involve smaller groups than those offered by the cruise lines.
The main benefit of booking independent private tours (for you or your group only) is the ability to customize how you spend your time. You can tell the operator what you want to see, and change your plans "on the fly." On occasion, these private tours can be arranged for less cost than the large cruise line excursions, but most often the cost is slightly higher, because you are paying for additional flexibility. There's certainly something to be said for having the ability to leave one location when you chose, or stay longer somewhere because you're enjoying it.
If the private tour you booked is in a port with museums, palaces, etc. the small private guides can often pre-book or pre-arrange your admission, saving time standing in lines.
Renting a car to explore a port on your own is one of the least expensive ways to get around, while still maintaining the mobility to maximize the sites you may want to see.
Taking local transportation in a port will almost always to be your least expensive option, and can be very effective if you know where you want to go, or feel comfortable enough in the area to manage your time effectively.
The biggest drawback to all types of private tours is that the responsibility falls entirely on you to return to the ship before its scheduled departure. The consequence of missing the ship is having to get yourself to its next port of call, assuming all the costs involved in doing so.
With a private guide/driver, you could face additional expenses as well. This method can be very cost effective for four or more people. Thus many readers use our CruiseMates message boards to find others sailing on the same ship so they can share tours. Booking private guides/drivers for only two people in some ports can be expensive, particularly in ports where sites of interest are far apart.
In ports where the dock is very close to town, or in the city itself, it is often possible to find English-speaking guides at the pier at a reasonable cost. In other cases, they should be pre-arranged. There are many companies offering pre-arranged guides, and searching the Internet for recommendations based on others' personal experiences is a good idea.
When you rent a car, the burden for navigating the area you're visiting is yours. It's possible you'll spend as much time finding your way, after getting lost, as you will visiting the sights. And on occasion, language barriers can come into play (though today carrying a portable GPS unit can reduce the stress from those situations).
Choosing taxis or other local transportation will reduce your mobility. You simply won't be able to cover as much ground as with the other alternatives.
If you are a first-time cruiser, I recommend booking the ship's excursions, just to reduce the stress of the unknown. With ship's agents involved, you can sit back and let their experience supply your enjoyment.
Later, on repeat visits to ports, seize the opportunity to get more adventuresome and explore more on your own.
While visiting areas where government warnings about security issues are in effect, I suggest sticking with excursions offered by the ship. They are very conscious of keeping their passengers safe and secure.
Except for those circumstances I rarely book ship's excursions. I prefer private guides/drivers for visits to larger cities (e.g. in the Baltic, Europe, or Mediterranean). If we are not visiting any large cities, we always opt for a rental car or a taxi. While we're aware of the time, we have never even come close to missing the ship. Though it could happen in the event of an accident or unforeseen delay, I feel comfortable taking the risk, because we get to see so much more than we do on ship's excursions, and we're going on our own schedule.