Guided Tour vs. Independent Exploration

Well, you made it. You somehow navigated those last few hectic work days, packed for every possible scenario, survived the 4-hour airplane ride with negative 5 inches of legroom and you have finally arrived at your hotel! (Or, alternately, you’ve enjoyed your bon voyage cocktail on your floating accommodations for the next seven days!)

Whether you are staying in one location or cruising to multiple ports, all travelers will ultimately make the decision with their travel consultant about destination activities. Specifically, will you have your consultant schedule guided destination tours/shore excursions in port or will you independently explore on your own? Either way, there are pros and cons. See below for some helpful notes on each!

Guided Tours/Shore Excursions

Shore Excursion: Catamaran in St. Thomas USVI with built-in tour guides, snorkeling, snacks and unlimited rum punch.  A fabulous time!


  1. Your guides are experts and can give you the most accurate information.When we visited Old San Juan last year, we had not booked a shore excursion onboard. But, once we disembarked in port, we thought we might like to have a guided city tour. We had about 8 hours in port and didn’t want to take up the entire day and we also didn’t want to pay the premium price the cruise line was charging. We happened to bump into a man with a tour bus, just outside the port, who was offering 2-hour tours for $20. His bus was almost full and he seemed legit, so we took him up on his offer. As it turns out, it was a lucky coincidence because he was a local professional Puerto Rico historian who was doing these 2-hour tours on his day off. His day job? Professional tour guide for the rich and famous at an ultra primo resort in San Juan. He told us about his 10-day tour with Vice President Joe Biden, his 3 days with Johnny Depp and his personal favorite client, Mariah Carey. Needless to say, we learned a bunch amazing things about the history of the island, in addition to satisfying our appetite for celebrity gossip.
  2. Scheduled tours will start and end on time, allowing you to plan your day to the full.A great benefit of pre-scheduled tours or excursions is that you receive a reliable timetable. If you know you are leaving for your tour at 8am and returning at 2pm, you can best plan the rest of your afternoon, based on that information. For families, it might be helpful to have scheduled events, so you can work around children’s rest times and keep some of their routines, even though you’re on vacation.
  3. Some experiences are only available to tour suppliers, not the general public.Some guided tour operators can get special access to exclusive hotels (even when they are showing as “sold out”) or are able to provide experiences that even the most influential heads of state aren’t privy to – such as, a lavish dinner on a private yacht situated on the Seine River with a perfect, unobstructed view of the Bastille Day fireworks in France. While anyone can have a wonderful experience on their own in any destination, there are some experiences that warrant a bit of extra planning and budget.


  1. Guided tours/shore excursions cost money.One reason many choose independent exploration is that guided tours/excursions cost money. While it’s true that many reputable tours and excursions are definitely a great value and give you the most bang for your buck, there is always a risk when money is involved. If you’re unsure about spending the extra cash on a tour, it is helpful to read reviews from previous guests online. Word-of-mouth referrals from friends who have already visited your destination will also help. And never forget that your travel consultant is an expert in certain suppliers and can help you determine whether a structured tour is a good fit for your travel style.
  2. You are at the mercy of the group/tour operator, in terms of pace and speed.Being in a group can be an exercise in patience and discipline. You will find that some group members won’t always respect the time limits put on certain stops on the tour and this might cause delays. In particular, if it’s a walking tour, you will quickly learn that the group is only as fast as its slowest member.
  3. You might feel there isn’t enough time to fully enjoy specific elements of the tour/excursion.On the flip side of the coin, there may be sites that you would like to have more time to explore, but you will feel rushed to return to the group on time. Just as you don’t want to stand around waiting for other inconsiderate guests to return so you can move to the next site, you will want to be on your best behavior and not be the cause irritation for other group members. On one excursion recently, my husband and I thought 3 hours of beach time sounded heavenly, but we found that the time passed rather quickly. It would have been nice to have a bit more relaxation, but we were pretty happy with the excursion overall.

Independent Exploration

Found the most perfect pina colada in a tiny, off-the-beaten path bar in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico!


  1. You’re on your own schedule.As long as you return to the ship in time to sail away from port or return to your home base hotel at your pre-scheduled time, you are free to do whatever you like. My husband and I recently meandered through Nassau, Bahamas and lost ourselves in its grid of side streets and alleys. We discovered a pirate museum and a beautiful church that was in the middle of a service, which we quietly slipped into and observed. We ended up on the balcony of the very touristy Bacardi Rum Bar, sipping cocktails and leeching their free WiFi to update our Facebook pages with three days’ worth of vacation photos. It was perfection for us, and we didn’t need any less or any more.
  2. You might find hidden gems that aren’t on a typical tour.Once, on a business trip, I had a free day in Newport Beach, California. I had arranged to meet a friend on nearby Balboa Island for breakfast. Being completely naive of the area, I thought it would be just as easy to walk back to my hotel in Newport Beach as it would be to figure out how to call a taxi or pay for an Uber. So, I started walking. I must say, I was greatly mistaken on choice of footwear that morning and I didn’t realize I’d literally be hiking up some pretty steep hills (might even call them mountains here in Indiana!) I walked along some busy roads and wondered if the cars’ drivers speeding by even noticed me and if they wondered why anyone would be walking on the sidewalk near a highway? But, as I looked for the shortest path, I ended up cutting through some really beautiful, really fancy private neighborhoods. I started a secret game, where I counted how many Lexus’s (Lexi?) were parked on the curb. I happened upon a gorgeous dog park and stopped to watch families lounging and playing with their dogs. And, by the time I reached my hotel several hours later, I felt I had seen the entire city from a fly-on-the-wall perspective.
  3. You can experience true cultural immersion.When I travel to New Orleans, I love to go “off book” and just wander. The French Quarter alone has so many lovely nooks and crannies. And the best part about New Orleans is…she cannot be fully explored in one day, or even in one short vacation. There is always more to her. She’s the only city I’ve been to (so far) that I refer to as a “she” because she’s the one I’ve found to have the most unique personality and ambiance. New Orleans is perfect for independent exploration and, because I already know the language and because the locals are very welcoming, it’s fairly easy to get a feel for the local culture. If you steer clear of some of the major tourist sites and elect to dine in smaller restaurants and visit shops and art galleries and cafes not on the main tourist itinerary, you will sink into her culture. But be warned…you just might fall in love with her.


  1. You might miss out on local treasures.Particularly overseas, it might be easy to miss some very significant historical or architectural sites if you are on your own. When I traveled to Ephesus, Turkey, we had a full day tour with a knowledgeable tour guide. I was amazed at how much information she shared and pointed out as we perused the city, down to the smallest markings on the pavement! I realized afterwards that, if I would have been on my own, it would have looked like not much more than a bunch of old rocks. As it were, those “piles of rocks” were actually ancient temples, Turkish baths, secret symbols and the remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. My Ephesus experience would have been terribly lacking without that guided tour.
  2. Limited knowledge of the area could lead you to some shady areas.Even in amazing places like New Orleans, which is perfect for exploration, it’s important to know the limits and be aware of safety. When we wandered around Nassau, we did find some great spots, but we also turned down a road that made us feel very uneasy. If you feel in your gut that an area is not safe, it’s best to listen to your intuition. Better yet, do a little bit of research ahead of time and learn about your destination if you plan to explore on your own. Talking to the locals at your hotel is also a good idea before you set off. And always know the local emergency numbers and protocol.
  3. Emergencies in a foreign land can make or break a vacation.Some friends took a cruise to Mexico some years back. Instead of booking the scheduled shore excursion, they reasoned it would be more frugal to rent a motor scooter on their own and make their way to the Mayan ruins. What originally sounded like a great idea turned into a travel nightmare. At one point, the husband lost control of the scooter and his wife’s ankle was badly injured. The scooter rental place was not merciful and took all the remaining cash they had. When they finally made their way back to the ship, they were told they could not board, for liability purposes, until a local doctor had deemed her fit to travel. With no passports, this couple knew they would be stranded in Mexico if they did not get back onto the ship in time.  It was a truly dire situation and they basically had to beg the doctor to wrap her ankle and give them permission to re-board the ship. Thankfully, they made it back onboard in time. But, I’d be willing to bed that this couple wished they’d invested in the ship’s shore excursion when all was said and done. NOTE: This is also a perfect example of the importance of preparation – having a passport and obtaining travel insurance.

In summary, every traveler is different and everyone has a preference on how they spend their time on location. Seeing as there are highs and lows with every option, the best plan is to allow your travel consultant to really get to know you and your travel style. Your consultant will actively listen and help you figure out which specific activities will bring you the most joy and the most value for your travel dollar. Because they have preferred relationships and excellent rapport with hundreds of tour companies and reputable shore excursion guides, your consultant can match you with a fabulous tour itinerary. Or, if you prefer to strike out on your own, your consultant can research the location and give you plenty of jumping off points for your personal itinerary, as well as help you best prepare for the unexpected, should it occur. And, if you’re on the fence, your consultant will be happy to give you a nice mix of both – scheduled and unscheduled activity time. At Dream Destinations Unlimited, we look forward to getting into the nuts and bolts of your vacation, to help you have the most memorable and wonderful experience possible on your dream vacation!

If you’d like to speak with a travel consultant, please reach out via Facebook or give us a call at 812-727-0234!

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