11 Important Tips for Cruise Port Days and Shore Excursions
After picking your cruise ship and itinerary, choosing what to do and see in your cruise ports of call, may be your most important part of cruise planning.
Whether you book a cruiseline sponsored excursion, a private tour, or decide to visit the cruise port on your own, you’ll want to follow some basic guidelines.
In this post, I’ll go go over a few important tips, so that you can make the most of your day in your cruise destination, and do it safely.
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Practical advice for cruise shore excursions and port days
1. Check, double and triple check the all aboard time
Let’s get to this tip first, as with cruising, there’s almost nothing more important than making it back to your cruise ship before it sails to the next cruise port!
I’ve literally had strange dreams about this happening to me, lol!
No matter what you plan to do in the port of call, check to see what time the ship sets sail, and, what time are cruise passengers required to be ALL ABOARD.
Typically, the all aboard time will be 30 minutes prior to sailing time. For instance, if you’re cruise ship is in a cruise port from 9:00-5:00, you’d be asked to return by 4:30 at the latest.
There are 2 ways to verify the time (don’t rely on the original itinerary as it can change)
- The Cruise Compass, Princess Patter or other cruise line daily planner will usually have the all aboard time noted. I like to bring one with me, folded in my tote or shore excursion day bag.
- As you disembark from the cruise ship, there will usually be a large sign at the gangway stating the time for guests to be back on board. Take note of the time, or even better, take a photo with your phone camera (and you won’t be second guessing yourself).
2. Book cruise ship excursions online (and in advance)
Whether to book a cruise sponsored shore excursion or not, can be a bit of a debate, and there are definitely some pros and cons.
One benefit that can’t be overlooked is that your cruise ship will wait for you if your tour is late returning to the ship.
If you really want to do a certain activity in a cruise port, my advice is to check the shore excursions offered on your cruise ship, and book it online as soon as possible.
This avoids the possibility that popular tours sell out.
Most of the time, ship sponsored excursions are actually refundable up until a certain date, which gives you time to research other options if you want to.
In some cases, cruise lines have price matching policies: see this Princess Cruises article for more information.
3. Research private tour operators
Research tour companies ahead of time if you’re doing a non-ship sponsored shore excursion. Often benefits of private tours include a somewhat cheaper fare, and a smaller group or passengers on the excursion.
If you do book privately, you’ll want to ensure that the private excursion company gets excellent reviews and is reputable.
Some places to check for recommendations are on the Cruise Critic forums, Trip Advisor, Facebook groups, and a variety of cruise blogs and YouTube videos.
Some cruise bloggers and vloggers you may enjoy offer their own cruise tips in this blog post: 15 Cruise Bloggers Reveal Their Best Cruise Tips
If you have some other suggestions of websites, apps or bloggers, please let me know in the comments below.
4. Plan and allow more time than necessary
If you go on your own to a nearby beach or attraction, allow ample time to return to your cruise ship.
Keep in mind, that while a cab ride may take only 15-20 minutes in the morning, small islands can have traffic buildup toward the end of the afternoon as cruise passengers return to their ship.
We’ve experienced this on a local bus in Bermuda as well as in an open air bus in St. Thomas. Luckily we had a least a couple of hours of leeway, which gave us some peace of mind.
Others aren’t so lucky, and end up sadly being “pier-runners” (which isn’t any fun!)
More information and tips available in this YouTube video below
5. Bring small cash for tips for the driver and tour operators
While tipping is a personal choice, you may want to have a few dollars on hand to give tour guides and others who have made your stay in a cruise port a good experience.
Most Caribbean islands happily accept US dollars, however do research the local customs if you’re traveling by cruise to other destinations.
6. Bargain at local stands and markets
If you’re on a Caribbean cruise and want to buy some souvenirs at any local flea markets, stands, or shops, we’ve found that it’s customary to bargain and not pay the initial inflated price.
Only offer and pay what you feel is fair, but feel free to offer what you are willing to pay.
7. Bring cash for small purchases
Use cash to buy inexpensive souvenirs, to pay cab fare and even to give out tips to tour providers if you choose.
Something to be aware of when traveling, is that while the US dollar is widely accepted in many Caribbean ports of call, it isn’t usually the destination’s currency. This means that you’ll often see signs in shops with 2 prices, American dollars for instance, and Mexican pesos for example.
Be cautious when buying something, that the dollar value makes sense.
I recently read a story of a Canadian tourist who was charged $7500 US dollars for about $50 worth of souvenirs. To sum up the story, the tourist used his credit card to make a relatively small purchase in a store.
He saw that the amount being charged was $7500, however was assured that this was Jamaican dollars and not US dollars. Unfortunately, when he got his credit card statement after his vacation, he found out he was grossly overcharged.
Sadly, he entered his PIN and therefore authorized the transaction, and according to the report, it looks like a case of “buyer beware”.
This isn’t the only story that can be found. A google search turned up a few of these cases, including a tourist being charged over $4000 for ice cream in another destination!
Of course, this isn’t meant to scare you and keep you from getting off the ship – just be cautious and aware.
8. Bring a credit card when in a port of call
Even if you don’t plan on using it, bring a credit card with you for emergencies, as well as potential large purchases.
While using cash makes a lot of sense for items under $20, once you get into larger purchases such as jewelry like gold and diamonds or luxury watches, it’s best to pay with your credit card.
As mentioned above, be very cautious that the amount being charged to your credit card is in the correct currency. When in the Caribbean we only authorize purchases being charged in US dollars.
Of course, if you’re traveling to Europe, Asia, or another destination where the US dollar isn’t as happily accepted, this wouldn’t apply.
9. Don’t bring food off the cruise ship
Most destinations that you’ll visit on your cruise vacation, have strict rules about not bringing certain foods off the ship.
Forbidden items often include fruits and vegetables, as well as meat. There may be cases when you can bring dry goods and packaged snacks.
You actually do need to be very careful to follow the rules on this one – some countries can and have imposed fines on cruisers who have been caught.
Your daily planner will often list the rules, however if in doubt, you can always ask on the cruise ship.
10. Disembark early to make the most of your visit
If you want the most time and flexibility on your port day, try and plan to be off the cruise ship as early as possible.
Firstly, you’ll avoid the crowds that come just a little later, and you’ll have more time to explore and enjoy your visit. Many times you can also avoid being out in the sun during the hottest times of the day.
Plus, if you get back to the shop a bit earlier than other passengers, you get a bit of a treat – a quiet, less crowded ship!
11. Pack a cruise port day bag with essentials
Last, but not least, prepare a shore excursion backpack or beach bag with the essentials you’ll need for your day in port.
These are some items (available on Amazon) to keep packed and ready for your beach day or other activity.
- beach towels (provided by the cruise ship)
- water-proof sunscreen
- lip balm
- water bottles or reusable water bottles
- bathing suit cover up
- wide brimmed sun hat or baseball cap
- hand sanitizing wipes (love these travel packs)
- mini-first aid kit with bandaids, antibiotic ointment and pain reliever
- Daily planner from your cruise ship (with all aboard time!) or take a photo
- book (optional)
- water shoes
- wet/dry bag (verify price on Amazon here)
- snorkeling equipment (most popular full face mask with 4.5 * reviews)
- beach excursion portable lock box safe (popular with cruisers)
- children’s sand toys
If you intend on snorkeling, something to note is that many Caribbean islands are asking snorkelers to use coral reef safe sunscreen
For more information, check out this blog post where I went over everything you could need to pack for in your port day bag.
Recap: 11 Cruise Shore Excursion Day Tips (all cruisers need to know)
In this post we went over some guidelines for keeping safe, not missing your cruise ship (seriously), and having the best cruise shore excursion and port day!
What tips do you have for cruise port days? Do you prefer cruise ship excursions or booking and organizing on your own? Please let me know in the comments below.
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