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I was going through a menu of shore excursions available on our next cruise- Oceania Marina from Barcelona to Copenhagen – and it got me thinking about the whole topic. Exploring ports of call is one of many reasons why we cruise; you only have to unpack once, yet you get to visit a number of different places in a period of time, without the hassle of having to get yourself there.

Ben and I are avid explorers on land when we cruise, but we take a lot of time to research ports of call which are new to us, what’s available excursions wise, and what we can do by ourselves before we leave home. And as anyone who’s looked into shore excursions will know, there’s a lot to consider, especially if you plan to go solo.

In my experience, shore excursions can be very hit or miss. Some involve long hours on a bus and little time at the destination, but in the case of Hanoi, which we visited recently on Azamara Quest, it was still worth the long day and the effort; from the little we saw, we know we want to go back one day!

Other excursions can involve too many museums or shopping ops for our liking, or they are effectively “babysitting” trips…a pleasant bus ride to see a few sights, without much in the way of walking. That’s all well and good if you have mobility challenges, or just fancy a ride out from the ship, but they can be frustrating if you want to really explore in depth or take photos.

Then there’s going it alone, which can be risky in some places. I have touched on this before in a blog about safety (our infamous Bali taxi driver episode), but the main problem you have to worry about is being late back to the ship. Anyone who saw that video I posted a few weeks back will recall the horror on the faces of the couple who were rolling up to the port just as the ship was pulling out. Nasty.

Although some expedition style cruises offer shore excursions as part of the cruise, usually associated with village visits, walks or landings to spot wildlife, Regent is the only cruise line which offers free tours of the normal kind, such as those for sightseeing and so on. And if you are booking a cruise at the luxury end, it’s a line  well worth considering for that reason alone.

Called the FUSE program (free unlimited shore excursions) all tours up to the value of US $200 are free, which means there are usually an average of three to four free tours choices per destination, with one you have to pay for as it is more expensive. For anyone who likes exploring, this can save you quite a big bill at the end of the cruise.

With Oceania, although tours do cost, they have a few options to choose from which are somewhat appealing. One is the Oceania Choice program, where some tours in selected ports are offered as a small group of about 14-16 people only, and you pay a premium for that. If you prefer fewer people, smaller transport and not having to deal with waits to get on and off the bus this is a good option.

But they also have tour packages. Just like you can buy beverage packages on some ships covering bottled water, specialty coffees and so on, with Oceania you can buy touring packages covering most or all destinations, and including Oceania Choice options.

Whichever way you, when it comes to touring not all cruise lines provide staff which are au fait with all the excursions – in some cases they are really just there to sell them. Ultimately the onus comes back to you, and I strongly recommend you do your own research. Ships may dock in a port of call where it’s all just there to explore on foot, such as Hong Kong or Dubrovnik. In other places it may be harder to get somewhere interesting unless your ship is providing a shuttle.

Check into your destinations and get an idea of what you want to do before you leave home. And if you do plan on taking excursions, and the cruise line offers an online booking service, take advantage of it; on bigger ships in particular, popular tours will sell out. If you change your mind once you are on the high seas there’s usually a period of grace for you to switch to another tour. Happy cruising!