Sometimes getting the most from your cruise means getting off the ship and into port. In order to maximize the experience, figure out where you'd like to go and what you'd like to do early on, so that there's plenty of time to work out the logistics. After all, joining a cruise-line excursion is only one of many options. Experts share their wisdom on soaking up the scene.
Meet the Locals
"I get inside a port's culture by approaching residents and asking them to take me around — though it's best to do this in groups. You'll be surprised by the random acts of kindness from strangers, and by the things that you otherwise might not see — a traditional wedding or a funeral procession in Bali; morning exercises in Beijing; a hidden thatched-roof village in Togo. These are sights that a bus tour wouldn't be able to access or stop to observe."
— Jamie Logan, cruise director for Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Share the Experience
"A great way to save money in port, especially if you are doing independent touring versus an organized excursion, is to pair up with others from the ship and share rides. Even before getting on the ship, it's possible to introduce yourself to people who are going on the same cruise through the world of social media. You may find people who are planning similar itineraries to split the expense of transportation."
—Scott Kertes, president of Vacations by Design and A-List agent
Know Before You Go
"You can usually explore on your own without a plan. But knowing what you want to see beforehand will help you make the most of your time. If you want to visit a particular site, make reservations in advance for your tour and your transfer. And consider timing: if your ship calls early in the morning or on certain days, some shops and services may not be open."
—Mina Agnos, president of Travelive and A-List agent
Have a Meal Off-Ship
"I recommend dining in port. People who go back to the ship for lunch or dinner miss out on a great opportunity to eat like — and meet — locals. If your travel agent doesn't have a restaurant recommendation, I'd suggest talking to the concierge. Crew members are also great resources."
—Ruth Turpin, travel advisor at Cruises Etc. and A-List agent
Get Some Resort Time
"Whenever I take a cruise, I try to spend one or two afternoons at a top resort. I might have a spectacular seafood lunch at Viceroy's Sugar Beach in St. Lucia or at the Ocean Club in the Bahamas. And I've dined alfresco at the Belmond Splendido in Positano, Italy, and the Cap Rocat in Mallorca, Spain. Here's the deal: many properties welcome outside guests for a meal, or charge a nominal day fee to use their beach facilities. This way, you can get a five-star experience on land, then head back for more pampering on the ship."
—Jacqueline Gifford, T+L travel director
Prepare for Extra Expenses
While luxury lines like Seabourn, Crystal, Silversea, and Regent Seven Seas are all-inclusive, other cruise companies have costs that may come as a surprise. A per-day rate covers gratuities for the crew, but an additional 15 to 18 percent may be factored in to specialty-restaurant bills and bar tabs. Cash tips for tour guides and bus drivers are customary. Once a courtesy, meals delivered to your cabin are now sometimes subject to a fee. Royal Caribbean imposes $8 per order, whereas Carnival applies a surcharge to certain menu items.
Web surfing at sea can also make a dent in your wallet. Per-day rates for unlimited usage typically start at around $13. Royal Caribbean charges $18 a day to stream; rates decrease with each additional device.
Though clubs for children and teens are usually included in the fare, babysitting and nursery programs can cost extra. Rates can be per session ($20 on the Norwegian Escape) or per hour ($9 on Disney ships). Additional children are typically given a reduced rate.
Not all cruises dock at the hot spots; at Civitavecchia, ships anchor an hour from Rome's historic center. If you haven't purchased an excursion, bus transfers to points of interest may cost extra; for example, MSC charges $15 to travel to the center of Valencia, Spain.