7 Reasons we love “On Your Own” shore excursions

October 1, 2017 | By | 12 Replies More
Bergen from our deck on Viking Star (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

Bergen, Norway from our deck on Viking Star (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

We’ve fallen in love with “On Your Own” shore excursions. Read why…

The quality and nature of shore excursions can make or break a cruise: After all, cruisers spend much of their time and collect treasured memories at the ports along their itineraries.

Shore excursions (which can take place on land, or by air or water) offer cruisers the chance:

  • to experience new places (or return to ones they’ve enjoyed in the past);
  • to explore passions and interests; and
  • to immerse themselves in other cultures.

A shore excursion for every cruiser

The shore excursions offered by most cruise lines typically vary along a host of dimensions including their content (e.g. sightseeing trips vs. experiences); distance from the port; physical demands of the tour; excursion length; size of the group; costs (whether included or optional); etc.

Some cruisers prefer the safety and convenience of booking all their excursions through cruise lines (which can  significantly add to the cost of a cruise). Others who tend to be well-traveled—or perhaps, simply have a bit more moxie—opt to explore ports on their own or arrange tours independently of the cruise line. Of the latter group, some connect with independent guides using companies (like Context Travel or ToursbyLocals). Others seek out inspiration and information from websites and/or follow the advice of fellow travelers (and bloggers).

Not-quite-on-your-own shore excursions

We recently enjoyed cruising on the Viking Star on an itinerary called Trade Routes of the Middle Ages, which departed from Bergen, Norway and ended in Barcelona, Spain. At every port, Viking offered varied shore excursions including panoramic bus tours, city walking tours, in-depth museum visits, and more. Ten of these tours were included in the cost of the voyage; others were optional (available at an additional cost).

However, In three cities on our itinerary—Porto, Portugal, Bruges, Belgium and Paris, France—Viking Ocean Cruises offered On Your Own shore excursions, a new-to-us hybrid that fell somewhere in-between the customary guided tour and the totally independent shore excursion.

Characteristics of ‘on your own’ shore excursions

On Your Own shore excursions typically include:

  • ground transportation to a city that may be some distance from a port (for example, in the case of Bruges, it was a 20-minute shuttle bus ride between the port and city)
  • a brief orientation (and sometimes, a panoramic tour) of the destination by a local escort or guide,
  • designation of a meeting spot for the group to gather before returning to the ship; and
  • the opportunity to solicit advice from the guide before setting out “on your own” with a paper map.

How does a cruise line determine which destinations are appropriate for On-Your-Own tours?

“These are generally cities that are a distance from the port…places that are popular, that many of our guests may have visited before,” says Lichén Louw, Shore Excursion Manager on the Viking Star. She explained that these tours offer flexibility for those who want to return to see a place at their own pace.

Why we loved being “on our own”

This is what we loved about the Viking Ocean Cruises “On Your Own” shore excursions.

1-  No Lollipops 

Anyone who has visited a popular tour destination has seen the big “lollipops” guides use to shepherd their groups through the town. Walking behind a lollipop automatically brands you as a tourist and makes it virtually impossible to “blend in.” We enjoy struggling with new languages and signage, and attempting to immerse ourselves in a destination, to the extent we can.

Lollipops (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Lollipops in Bruges (Credit: Jerome Levine)

2-  Convenient Transport 

Although it’s fun to use public transportation, the learning curve entailed in doing so might not be worthwhile if you are only going to use it once. Also, public transportation isn’t conveniently available at many ports. While private taxis are a possibility, it may be tricky to get a taxi to meet you at your ship because of port security. (For example, on a South America cruise, we had to arrange to meet a taxi driver outside the port gate.)

3-  Set Your Own Pace

Being part of any group can be stressful and distracting. Everyone doesn’t walk at the same pace (or even same direction). It can be tough winding up behind a slow walker when you are a fast one or conversely, feeling out of pace and slower than your group.

Tourists gather in Walplein, a cobble square in Bruges (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

Tourists gather in Walplein, a cobbled square in Bruges (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

4-  Improve your Sight Line

If you are a photography buff, someone else (and probably many in your group) will want to capture the same images as you. As a result, your photos may include unwanted heads of others in your group who are trying to photograph the same thing at the same time. Going on your own offers a better chance of improving your sight line.

5-  Design Your Own Itinerary

Whether or not it’s a first-time destination, many travelers prefer to set their own agenda. Being on your own allows you to avoid heavily touristed sites that hold no interest for you. Since we had visited Bruges two times previously on other cruises, we were able to use our seven hours on our own to visit the local market, lunch at De Koetse one of our favorite restaurants (for mussels and frites), and wander through streets and alleys a bit away from the town center.

Mussels at De Koetse (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

Mussels at De Koetse on an On Your Own shore excursion  (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

Yes, the mussels were this big and this orange (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

Yes, the mussels were this big and this orange (Photo credit: Jerome Levine)

6-  Seize the opportunity to get lost 

Well, it’s really hard to get lost if you have a smartphone and know how to ask for directions but some of our most interesting and joyful shore excursions allowed us the possibility of discovering things for which we weren’t looking. Clearly, being on your own allows for greater spontaneity.

Quiet street in Bruges in early morning (Photo Credit: Jerome Levine)

Quiet street in Bruges in early morning (Photo Credit: Jerome Levine)

7-  Having A Backup 

If you are “belt and suspenders” person (like us), you know that it’s always nice to have a backup—just in case of an emergency. Before we left the bus, our tour guide Marlene, gave each of us a card with an emergency number should we have questions, get lost, or encounter any problem that would interfere with our return to the cruise on time.

Emergency # in Bruges (Credit: JeromeLevine)

Emergency # in Bruges (Credit: JeromeLevine)

Curious about cost?

The cost of Viking Ocean Cruises “On Your Own” shore excursions in Bruges and Porto were $49 per person. Paris “On Your Own” was a no-cost (included) shore excursion.


Previously on More Time To Travel and in the Chicago Tribune:

On Cruise Critic:


Disclosure: We were guests on Viking Star but paid for our on your own excursions. Any opinions expressed in this post are our own.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Janice Chung says:

    It totally agree with all your points and had never heard of, or considered the “Lollipop” affect. That is SO true. Perhaps that’s why I love to travel on my own, sometimes at odd times of day/year. If I have to join a tour, I would much prefer a small group. I could NEVER do a tour with 30 people!

    • Thanks for chiming in, Janice. There are so many different types of travelers from very independent, like you, to people who only feel comfortable escorted. Moreover, there is also cost to consider. Smaller groups generally translate into higher costs.

  2. I had to laugh at your ‘lollipops’ comment, Irene as we’ve just returned from Valencia, Spain where we noticed the tour guides carrying their own versions of lollipops, orange umbrellas, and followed by obedient flocks of tourists. We avoid big tours like the plague for many of the same reasons you’ve mentioned and the “On Your Own” shore excursions sound like a good alternative. It’s fun to set up your own itinerary, go at your own pace and make your visit to a foreign city a place that’s more memorable because you’ve discovered it for yourself!

  3. This is a very interesting “hybrid” – had never heard of this option before, but it sounds like a very reasonable and safe way to get to and from the ship to explore – thanks for sharing!

  4. I really like the concept of the hybrid “on your own excursions”. I sometimes opt for cruise excursions (lollipops and all) when we’re at a location with sketchy transportation infrastructure as I’m always worried about missing the proverbial boat. The “on you own” excursion would alleviate that particular concern. We visited Bruges while traveling overland on our own. I’d love to spend another day there as part of an “on your own” cruise excursion.

  5. I would definitely prefer to have an “on your own tour” at least part of the time just for the freedom, though sometimes the organized shore excursion is definitely the way to go. I didn’t get the “lollipops” at first, because, I think, I’ve mostly done organized tours in Asia and there they use “flags.”

  6. I love the concept of “on your own” excursions. The nominal fee is well worth it for the added level of safety.

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