Cruising with kids: Shore Excursion Tips

Shore excursions enhance the overall cruising experience.  They’re the land-based part of the trip that can range from island tours, exploring caves, viewing glaciers or zip lining depending on a ship’s itinerary.  These activities have either left a good impression to plan a return trip or made us glad we were only there for a day.  Cruising with kids and picking excursions is not always that simple since there are a number of factors to consider.  Here are some thoughts and tips we’ve learned along the way during our cruises.

St Thomas Virgin Islands port

* Organized or DIY Tours?  There are pros and cons to booking excursions through the ship or going with independent operators.  Most of our excursions were booked using local tour guides.  They were generally cheaper (typically saving 30% or more) and less crowded than the ones booked from the ship.  Private tours also allowed us to customize our day.  We could have multiple stops for photo ops, snack and bathroom breaks and learn a whole lot more about the locals way of life.  We were able adjust the time we spent at each location too.   If traveling with other families, splitting the costs on these private tours would also turn out to be a better deal.

The major drawback from booking your own tour is that the ship WILL LEAVE without you if you’re not there by sail-off.  Things happen and we’ve heard and read about people spending a ton of money to meet the ship at the next port.  Tours booked through the ships guarantee that they will wait for you.  So, weigh the pros and cons and what you feel comfortable with when booking a tour.

There have been times we’ve booked excursions through the ship.

  • The Tender Timesaver. Sometimes, these mega ships cannot dock at certain places.  The ships anchor a few miles from the shore and passengers go on a tender platform and board smaller vessels like the lifeboats.  Getting on these boats are on a first-come, first-serve basis.  It’s not a pleasant experience to try and get off with hundreds of other passengers(usually on two tender boats).  But, booking a tour through the ships’ excursion usually guarantees a designated time to meet and are given priority to board the tender boats.  In this case, we do ship-booked excursions to enjoy more time ashore especially if it’s at a port for a short time.
  • Far and Remote Locations.  We booked a pyramid visit to Mexico’s Kohunlich Maya ruins through the ship since the distance was a bit far and remote.  It was an almost 2 hour one-way trip and it felt too risky to book through local operators.  Many things can go wrong in these remote areas so it was definitely worth the money.

Princess cruise ship tender boats

* Scope out Operators. Since you’re trusting your safety and experience to strangers, it’s important to read reviews on Trip Advisor. We’ve never cruised without consulting the message boards at Cruise Critic.  These boards are a wealth of information for so many destinations from recommendations to personal stories and reviews.

*Keeping kids in mind.  Picking excursions was a lot simpler before my kids knew how to talk.  Now as school aged-kids with minds of their own, we’ve tried to involve them in the planning process.  It’s hard to cater to various interests but kids and their temperaments should be kept in mind.  There are those who do better at sightseeing tours and those who would rather be on a beach.  Some kids can handle a full-day tour while there are those who can only stand a few hours of activities.  You know your kids best so pick excursions accordingly.

*Restroom essentials.  Let’s face it – even kids who are potty trained cannot control their bladders sometimes.  I admit I’ve carried pull-up diapers and put them on my kids who were long gone from their diaper days including my then 5 year old who desperately needed to go to the restroom.  The Caribbean Islands do not always have accessible restrooms for impromptu potty breaks or not up to Western standards.  We’ve also always brought along toilet paper, toilet seat covers, wipes and a lot of hand sanitizers.

Cruising Alaska

*Snack Time. Some of these tours involve long drives and a lot of waiting.  Even with a scheduled lunch, it usually doesn’t go by the kids’ eating time frame. We’ve learned to bring along plenty of snacks from home.  Those small cereal boxes from the ship buffets also make for great snacks.  Please be warned that taking fruit off the ship is strictly prohibited.  Bringing along a lot of water is also a good idea especially in the Caribbean or during summer sailings.

*Car Seats. Car seat laws can vary based on age and weight restrictions with each destination.  We’ve usually inquired with the tour operators whether the vans or buses were equipped with seatbelts for the car seats.  For safety reasons and my own peace of mind, it just made me feel better to have them strapped in.  My six-year old son is still in a booster seat and we carried it around the Caribbean on our last cruise.  Although, some of those larger tour buses do not necessarily have seat belts.  There were instances where we had the kids on our laps which made for some very uneasy trips.

*Spontaneity surprises. Sometimes, it pays to be spontaneous in some ports. For a certain places like Ketchikan, Alaska where it usually rains over 165 inches a year, it may help to see how the weather is before booking a tour.  The wait-and-see approach could also be done when cruising during hurricane season in the Caribbean from July-Nov.  Often times, these tours still come out cheaper than the ones from the ships.

ketchikan alaska rain gauge

*Diversify.  If it’s a port-intensive cruise that stops in 4-5 ports during a seven day cruise, try varying the tours a bit.  Sightseeing one day and having a relaxing time at the beach on another day will satisfy everyone including the kids.  Full-day excursions can also be varied with half-day tours.  It would be a mixture of experiences and ensuring everyone is getting the most out of the vacation.

*Plan and research.  The commonality among all of these is that planning ahead goes a long way.  It is so important to learn about each port’s main attractions and the best way for families to spend their money and time while ashore.  Blogs, destination-specific guides and travel and cruise forums are all invaluable resources for researching each port of call.

Have you cruised before and do you have any shore excursion tips you’d like to share? 

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