We recently embarked on a 12-night cruise (my first) and noticed the exorbitant prices for the shore excursions at every port. My question is - Are these really worthwhile, given that they relieve all the stress of touring a strange land (but that's part of the experience, right?) and are guided? Or is it almost always better to disembark and make your own way?
Excursions booked through the cruise line are often marked up quite a bit due to the fees the tour companies pay to the cruise line.
Your best bet is to research the ports you're sailing in to and find a well-reviewed independent company that offers similar excursions, often for much less money. They often have enough experience with the cruise lines to know exactly how long the excursion can take, and will get you back to the boat on time.
One resource I find very useful for taking cruises are the CruiseCritic message boards. They have a forum for each cruiseline, and for each destination port, where you can often get the answer to any question about any ship or port.
Given that the answer I wrote here actually fits this question better, I might as well post it again
There are generally two reasons to book your trips through the cruise line:
There's one other reason to go with cruise line tours: one of the nicest parts of cruising is the instant community that arises, and it's fun hanging out with some of the same people off the ship, too.
Yeah, the excursions are expensive. But hey, how often do you get a chance to take a helicopter to a glacier and then walk around? I did it on my first trip to Alaska, and while I feel no urge to do it again, it was a great experience and one that I'm happy I did.
When I book tours, I research who the tour is actually with and then go to the company website to check their prices. I have found that when I booked directly with the company that I wanted to do a tour with, they ended up being cheaper than if I went through the cruise line or another tour booking agency. Also, a lot of tours even come with guides so you don't have to worry about navigating through a city all by yourself.
BUT...I have also found that it is quite fun to just go off by yourself and do whatever you want. It all depends on what kind of experience you are looking for. I enjoy both types so maybe you could try a bit of both and see which one you prefer overall.
The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to take many shore tours at all.
In connection with a cruise ship, there are three basic types of activities: 1) Shore tours 2) performances (usually musical), plus some shows and talks, which often include slide shows of the land tours and 3) the use of amenities such as the athletic facilities (gym, spa, tennis and handball courts, swimming running track) during the day, and cocktail parties and other social events during the evening (the ship-sponsored events, including alcohol, are free).
Most people can participate in only two out of three sets of events. For many, the cruise is the experience; sailing and sunbathing during the day, socializing at night. They can learn what they want to know about the shore excursions through the previews the days before.
If shore tours are a priority, while shows and socializing are secondary, realize that this is where the cruise makes most of its money. It barely breaks even on board because of all the "free" events. The cruise has the advantage of "buying in bulk" on the more exotic locations and experiences, so keep that in mind. Also, in places such as Russia, you basically can't go ashore independently of the ship (at least not without a lot of red tape).
There are certain "generic" locations where it makes sense to go it alone. Almost any stop within the United States, for example. Or a tour of Rome, where if you miss your ship, the next stop is say, Naples.
But in most cases, it's a choice of not going ashore at all, or going with the cruise tours. You might not want to do so every day, and thereby have some days "on," some days "off."