Once your cabin is booked, you'll be receiving information about shore excursions. You'll be urged to book before sailing, because shore excursions can sell out quickly.
But if you book those trips through the cruise line, your cheap cruise could take an expensive turn.
Cruise lines are offering low rates for booking a cabin, but they're using other services to build new revenue streams. Shore excursions are one of those profit centers.
Here are a few examples of this phenomenon:
A shore excursion in the U.S. Virgin Islands from St. Thomas to the lovely, unspoiled island of St. John costs about $80 USD/person on most lines. It is an involved excursion that requires ground transportation, a boat ride and fees to use the spectacular St. John beaches for a few hours.
But I was able to take that trip for under $50/person simply by arranging my own taxi rides and paying for a boat ride between the two islands. Trust me when I tell you none of this was the least bit difficult. With three people in my party, I saved $100 with this do-it-yourself approach to cruise shore excursions.
In Dominica, the cruise line sold float trips on the Layou River for $69/person. I found the small office for same vendor that provided the cruise line's trip and paid $50/person. Chalk up another $57 in savings.
In St. Lucia, you'll always remember the thrill of sailing south from Castries along the west coast and seeing the Pitons come into view. These two volcanic formations rise straight up nearly a half-mile from the sea.
If you want to add a visit to St. Lucia's "drive-in" volcano in nearby Soufriere and some great snorkeling, the cruise line will gladly accept $89/person for the seven-hour excursion.
My cost was $55/person. I simply took a walk around the port area in Castries and found a company offering the very trip I wanted to take at a greatly reduced price. Very little effort was involved.
You can see that great savings are possible. These three trips cost me a total of $455 for three people. I'm sure I could have paid even less than that amount.
But similar trips offered on the cruise line's Web site and at the ship counter would have totaled $714!
A few warnings are in order.
Keep in mind there is no way to make a direct comparison between the excursions I arranged and those offered by the cruise line. Perhaps there were perks I didn't receive on my own. Maybe the vehicles were more comfortable on the cruise line's trips. I'll never know.
But I do know I'm willing to sacrifice a few small perks (if they were even offered) for the sake of savings.
Another obvious point: some people don't want to be bothered finding the tour operator's office or talking with touts about trips available near a port. They want all of these details completed for them. If that's you, be aware that you will pay dearly for the convenience on most cruise lines.
One drawback to this approach is the need for lots of cash. Two of the three excursions I booked on my own required cash payment. The cruise ships allow you to charge these costs to your cabin. The places I visited accepted U.S. dollars, but excursions in many of the world's ports-of-call might require local currency.
Finally, the do-it-yourself approach will also require that you know what you want to do in each port prior to sailing. After all, you can't shop for shore excursions until you know the most important sights or activities.
One way to research is to consult an excellent book on this topic. I recommend Caribbean Ports of Call: A Guide for Today's Cruise Passengers by Kay Showker if you'll be sailing in that part of the world. There are other guidebooks that break down each cruise line's annual itineraries and describe the shore excursions available.
Online, the people at ShoreTrips.com will arrange a trip for you and provide reviews of trips other cruise passengers have booked.
Viator claims it will guarantee the lowest shore excursion prices if you book through their site.
One final thought: cruise lines might tell you that if your return is delayed on a shore excursion, the ship will not pull out of port without you if you booked through them. The message is that you run the risk of missing the boat if you book your own arrangements.
While missing the boat and having to make your own way to the next port could run into a lot of money, it is unlikely you'll find yourself in such a scenario. After all, virtually every tour vendor in a port is keenly aware of when ships depart. Their reputations and livelihoods depend on getting passengers back on time.