Forget gratuities, cocktails and pampering spa treatments, one of the easiest ways to rack up a huge bill on a cruise holiday is to splash out on excursions.
It’s easy to be tempted, especially with the impressive array of tours on offer, but the cost (often running into three figures) can be a proverbial sting in the tail.
Admittedly, cruise companies have introduced more competitively-priced options to counter criticisms, and there are pros to booking with your cruise line. Official excursions bring peace of mind, with companies certain to be reputable and passengers guaranteed not to be left behind.
Another USP of cruise line tours can be the exclusive arrangements they offer, from special concerts in private palaces to after-hours access to famous attractions.
But in most cases passengers can, with a little planning, take a DIY approach to exploring ashore that saves money without diminishing the experience.
Firstly, guests should do their research in advance of their sailing. There’s plenty of material online with a key resource being cruise review site Cruise Critic, which features passenger reviews of countless onshore excursions.
Aside from the official cruise line options, guests can book with independent excursion companies that will pick them up from the port. Alternatively they can opt for local taxi driver tours or simply strike out on public transport.
The main specialist shore excursion companies are Venture Ashore and Viator which claim to be up to 60 per cent cheaper than the cruise lines. Crucially, both firms promise to get passengers back to the ship in time, but if the unthinkable happens and the ship departs without them, they pledge to get customers to the next port of call.
At many ports, and particularly those in some European destinations and the Caribbean, local tour guides and taxi drivers gather at the end of the gangway or the port entrance to offer tours.
Intrepid passengers wanting to carve their own route need to plan ahead and check where the ship is due to dock so they know how far it is from the town and what local transport routes are. Ports generally have a staffed information desk with maps and details of nearby attractions, with advice on the best ways to reach them.
How much you can save on excursions from five key ports
Civitavecchia, Italy: save £80
This is the port for Rome and fleets of coaches leave for the 90-minute drive to the Italian capital, but it is quicker and cheaper to take the train.
Holland America Line (hollandamerica.com) offers an “On Your Own: Rome by Train” option, with passengers transferred from the ship to Civitavecchia station for the one-hour rail journey, where they are left to their own devices for 6.5hrs. Guests are accompanied by an escort on the coach and train who can help with queries. It costs from £90pp ($109).
But guests exploring independently can save around £80pp by catching the port shuttle bus or walking from the ship to the station, a short distance away. Fares to Rome start at around £8.50pp return if booked in advance (see thetrainline.com).
Monte Carlo: save £100
The pocket-size principality is ideal for exploring on foot, though the hilly streets can make it arduous.
Windstar Cruises (windstarcruises.com) offers a 4.5-hour coach and walking tour of Monaco’s Old Town and its main tourist sites for £123pp ($149).
But passengers going it alone can walk from the port to Monte Carlo Casino in around 20 minutes or catch one of the red hop-on hop-off buses, which stop at the port. The one-hour loop costs from £20pp (hop-on-hop-off-bus-tours.com), saving over £100pp.
St John’s, Antigua: save £70
Island tours are popular for those wanting to visit Nelson’s Dockyard and admire some of the Caribbean island’s famous tally of 365 beaches. Cruise ships dock in the centre of the capital, St John’s, which throngs with taxi drivers who greet passengers as they disembark at Heritage Quay.
Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.com) offers a three-hour island drive that includes a visit to Nelson’s Dockyard for £91pp.
But Antiguan taxi drivers, who are also qualified tour guides, offer half-day tours at around £21pp ($25), saving £70pp.
Livorno, Italy: save £50
The Italian city is a key gateway to the Renaissance glories of Florence and the nearby city of Pisa.
Princess Cruises (princess.com) offers a 10-hour tour of Florence and Pisa that takes in the main sites and includes a three-course lunch, from £182pp ($219.95).
Though lunch is not included, Venture Ashore (ventureashore.com) offers an eight-hour tour to the main sights of both cities with prices from £107pp. Put aside £25 for lunch and you’ll still save £50.
Dubrovnik, Croatia: save £110
The Croatian walled city lends itself to a variety of historic and active excursions.
Azamara (azamara.co.uk) offers a quad-bike tour, lasting just over four hours, to the top of Mount Srd which overlooks Dubrovnik, stopping at the village of Bosanka for a snack of local cheeses and hams. It costs from £196pp.
But shore excursion company Viator (viator.com) offers a “Dubrovnik Countryside and Arboretum” quad-bike tour of approximately four hours, including brunch and drinks, from £84pp, saving over £110.