On some cruises, I have no need for organized excursions. I’ll spend the day walking around town, browsing in the shops, or enjoying local cuisine or drinks in the restaurants and bars near the dock. I might walk or take a taxi to the beach for a relaxing day in the sun, or lace up my hiking boots and venture into the woods or up a mountain. I don’t need a tour to take a ride on a gondola or visit a museum.
This strategy saves me money on the activity portion of my cruise vacation, but I still have a great time in port.
However, on a recent cruise to the Western Caribbean with my family, I found that the DIY approach was not going to work for two reasons. The first was because I was traveling with two elementary-school-age kids whose idea of a good time does not include shopping, long walks or local bars. The second was the Western Caribbean ports of Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico, were not as conducive to independently organized family activities as you might think.
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All of which meant that I had to budget extra for cruise shore excursions.
The Western Caribbean is one of the most popular first-time cruiser destinations. (I visited the same ports on this recent MSC cruise that I did on my first ever cruise in the 1990s on Royal Caribbean.) Newbie cruisers, lured by cheap introductory fares and the much touted “all inclusive” nature of cruise pricing, might not realize just how much beyond the cruise fare they’re going to need to budget for activities in port — especially if they have kids in tow.
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Here’s how I planned my Western Caribbean cruise to give you an idea of the family cruise activities you might want to book — and budget for.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Jamaica is known for its lush green hillsides, sandy beaches — and enthusiastic salespeople. You can walk from the cruise port to Ocho Rios Bay Beach, but be prepared for a barrage of offers for hair braiding, souvenir buying, activity signups and more. It’s not always relaxing and can be intimidating, especially for novice family travelers.
The star attraction of Ocho Rios is Dunn’s River Falls, a cascading waterfall visitors can climb up by forming human chains and carefully navigating the slippery rocks. It’s a unique activity, featured in all kinds of tour combos, and one well suited to active families with older kids. On this trip, I wasn’t sure my 70-something mom or my petite 8-year-old daughter could hack it.
Dolphin swims are popular here, but encounters with captive dolphins are controversial because they’re not always treated humanely and may be better off in the wild. Think twice and do your research before supporting an activity like that. I’m not an animal person and have already been kissed once by a dolphin and never need to repeat the experience. Plus, those tours are pricey.
A beach break at a resort was an option for more relaxing sunning and swimming, but I had my eye on one of those for later in the trip. That’s when I saw the option for river tubing. Leisurely floating down a river in an inflatable inner tube seemed like fun for all ages. A more active option included a swim in the Blue Hole, but my mom exceeded the maximum age. (Sorry, mom!)
The river tubing option turned out to be perfect. We got to see some of the Jamaican landscape as we drove from the port to the river. The guides were funny and friendly, and helped my mom and my daughter when they got stuck. My 11-year-old son was a bit underwhelmed by the lack of rapids; my daughter declared it “the best day ever;” my mom did not capsize. 10/10 — highly recommend.
Cost: $72 for adults, $50 for children, when booked online pre-cruise.
Related: Eastern Caribbean vs. Western Caribbean cruises: Which itinerary will I like more?
Georgetown, Grand Cayman Island
Of all the ports on on our cruise itinerary, Grand Cayman may be the best option if you don’t want to book a tour. Seven Mile Beach is a beautiful stretch of white sand, lined with restaurants and water sports purveyors. It’s easily accessed by public bus or taxi from the cruise port.
I would have taken that route, except I was tempted by a tour that sounded perfect for my family.
Many of the shore excursions offered on my sailing were animal focused: more dolphin swims and encounters, as well as meeting some rays at Stingray City. Yet the tour that caught my eye focused on another marine animal — the turtle.
The tour to the Cayman Turtle Center: Island Wildlife Encounter was ideal for my family. We could see and touch many of the center’s turtles and learn about its turtle breeding and release program. We also could see many of the center’s other animals, including crocodiles, sharks and tropical birds. Then, we could relax on loungers on a small beach, practice snorkeling in a calm, manmade lagoon and swim with the turtles and fish, or swim around in the pool and go down the water slide. Finally, a hot lunch was served, so we didn’t need to worry about hangry children.
The variety worked well. My daughter struggled with the snorkeling, so she and Grandma hung out at the pool, while I followed my son and the turtles around the lagoon. The clear, calm water meant I saw more fish and turtles than I often do when snorkeling in choppy ocean waters. The conditions are definitely ideal for novice snorkelers.
Cost: $75 for adults, $53 for children, when booked online pre-cruise.
Related: Ship-sponsored vs. independent shore excursions on cruises: Which should you book?
Cozumel was the port I had targeted for a beach day. The island is a jumping-off point for tours to some of Mexico’s most popular cultural attractions, such as the Tulum Mayan ruins. To get to many of those destinations, though, you need to take a ferry to the mainland, then a bus, and suddenly you’re looking at a long day of touring that younger kids can’t handle well.
Many travelers spend the day shopping or at the bars and restaurants in town, but that’s not so family-friendly. A beach day sounded better. But which to choose?
I narrowed it down to two options: A beach break at Playa Mia Grand Beach Park or Chankanaab Beach Park with shore snorkel. The beach break was appealing because it offered a pool and handful of water slides in addition to the beach. It was also five hours long over the hottest part of the day. (There was also an all-inclusive version, with open bar and all-you-can-eat lunch for $25 more per adult.)
Chankanaab also offered a beach experience, but included snorkel gear in a marine reserve with underwater statues, additional attractions like a sea lion show, reproduction Mayan village, tequila tasting and botanical garden. It was also shorter by an hour.
I couldn’t decide, and my mom was fine with either option, so I waited to book until I was on board and could ask the excursions team. The lady I spoke to was all about the all-inclusive beach break, which seemed not worth the extra fee to me because I didn’t think I’d consume that much food and drink between our dietary restrictions and wanting to stay sober while watching the kids.
Ultimately, my son decided he was all about the snorkeling, and we went with Chankanaab. If I had to do it again, I’d go with the beach break.
Don’t get me wrong; Chankanaab is a great excursion option. As promised, it offered a variety of activities and shady palapas for our use. However, there wasn’t much of a sandy sloped entry into the water, and the waves were rather rough. It was not an easy place for a new snorkeler to feel comfortable, and ultimately the gear was too big for my small daughter. The snorkeling was a half-hour guided swim, which only my son ended up doing, but there wasn’t a great place for my daughter to play in the shallows and that put her in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
We did enjoy the sea lion show, walking through the Mayan village and spotting huge iguanas around the grounds. My son was a fan of reading in the hammocks set up under some trees near the beach. You could order food and drink to your beach chair. But, ultimately, based on the personalities I was dealing with, perhaps the beach with swimming pool option would have suited us better.
Cost: $55.99 per adult, $39.99 per child, booked on board.
Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions
All told we spent nearly $700 on shore excursions for a family of four. In my mind, that’s a fair price at less than $100 per person, per port day; some tours, especially the dolphin swims and all-day excursions, easily top $100 per adult. A tour schedule that included a zip-line tour over Dunn’s River Falls ($99.99 per adult), a dolphin swim and Stingray City ($155.99), and a visit to the Tulum Mayan ruins ($109.99) would have upped the activity cost for a family of two adults and two kids to $1,244.
However, for some folks who scored deals on inside or ocean-view cabins, these tour costs can be akin to paying an additional cruise fare or two. Families traveling on the cheap don’t want to be caught unprepared when they realize they have to choose between missing out on the best a port has to offer and blowing their vacation budget.
The key to avoiding unwanted financial surprises is to account for the total cost of your trip before you book that cruise cabin. That includes any flights to your departure port, pre-cruise hotel stays, onboard splurges (drink packages, extra-fee dining, spa treatments and the like) and, yes, activities in port.
For first-time family cruisers eyeing a tropical sailing, I’d wager that it’s easier to skip the tours and explore independently in the Eastern Caribbean (at ports like San Juan, Puerto Rico, where you can walk from the port to the fort and fly your own kite on its lawn, and St. Maarten and St. Thomas where it’s easy to take a water taxi or shuttle to the beach) than in the Western Caribbean.
If your vacation budget can’t accommodate everything, consider choosing a lower-tier cabin or skipping some of the extra-fee dining venues to save money for activities in port. Only you can decide which aspects of a cruise will be most memorable for your family, but I’d say that the tours we took were some of our favorite parts of our Western Caribbean family cruise.
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