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The 10 biggest mistakes cruise ship passengers make on port days

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You can spend so much time and energy picking the right cruise itinerary, line and ship that once you’ve booked your cruise, you’re ready to be done with vacation planning. But you’re making a huge mistake if you don’t think about what you’re going to do on port days on your cruise. A little research into the destinations your ship is visiting can go a long way toward turning an average trip into a memorable adventure.

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Don’t miss out on land-based fun because you couldn’t take the time to come up with a plan. Here are the 10 biggest mistakes cruise ship passengers make on port days, so you know better and do better — and make lasting memories in the destinations you visit on your cruise.

Missing the ship

Woman standing by railing at Port of Hamburg, Germany

Let’s get this one out of the way early. The biggest mistake cruisers make on port days is not getting back to the ship on time and getting left behind. Nothing ruins a cruise vacation like paying out of pocket to fly to the next port or back home because you weren’t on the pier before your ship sailed into the sunset.

There are three key things you can do to avoid making this mistake.

Memorize the all-aboard time. This is different from the sailaway time, typically a half hour earlier. The all-aboard time is when you need to be back on the ship, and it’s posted at the gangway when you disembark and also in your daily planner.

Set your watch to ship’s time. Sometimes cruise ships don’t change their clocks to match the different time zones in port. The all-aboard time is always set to the ship’s clock, not the time in port. Make sure your smartwatch, fitness tracker or cellphone remains on ship time to avoid confusion.

Plan to return to your ship early. It’s always smart to build buffer time into your port-day plans. Don’t schedule your day to return exactly at the all-aboard time; plan to arrive an hour or two earlier. This way, you’re protected if you get lost, hit a traffic jam or get distracted by a shop along the way. If all goes well and you’re back early, there’s often shopping or dining at the port that you can enjoy before you need to board.

Winging it

It’s easy to think you’ll walk off the ship in port and make a plan on the spot. That’s fine if you want to go to the nearest beach or walk into town for some shopping. But in many ports, you can make better use of your day if you do your research in advance.

Shore excursions sell out, so if you have your heart set on a particular tour or activity, you might be out of luck if you wait until you’re on board to book. If you’re a foodie, you might want to research must-visit local restaurants in advance and make a reservation. If you love outdoor pursuits, you might want to look up hiking trails or bike rental companies before your trip.

Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions

I skipped a long line on a port call in Naples because I had previously bought museum tickets online. In France, I booked a private tour to Carcassonne not offered by the cruise line by researching options before my trip. My time in port would have been less well spent had I walked off the ship with no plan in mind.

Venturing out unprepared

Group of friends in swimwear walking along a beach boardwalk

Another mistake cruisers make is not packing a stocked day bag for their time ashore. Embrace your inner mom or boy scout and be prepared for your day off the ship.

Check the weather forecast and bring along any necessary rain gear, warm layers or sun protection. For beach days, you might want sand toys for the kids, extra sunscreen and a change of clothes. Bring a dry bag or zip-top bag to protect your electronics on a water-based tour, and cash for a visit to a local market. For any day off the ship, you’ll want a water bottle and some packaged snacks, just in case.

Related: 26 cruise packing hacks you need to know before you sail

Not protecting your belongings

Tourists worldwide are a target for pickpockets and petty thieves. You’re making a mistake if you don’t protect your belongings while exploring in port.

Carry your wallet and cellphone in a zippered purse or backpack, preferably with interior compartments where you can hide valuables. Don’t put them in your back pocket or an open bag that someone can easily reach into. Don’t leave your bags unattended, and use lockers where available. You can even buy pouches to carry cash, credit cards or your phone around your neck when swimming at the beach.

Related: Top 10 anti-theft crossbody bags, backpacks and accessories that stop pickpockets

You don’t need to bring all your cash, credit cards or even your passport when you disembark your cruise ship for the day. Take only what you need so it’s not as big of a hardship if your wallet or bag goes missing.

Sleeping in

It’s tempting to sleep in after a late night of onboard partying, but you’ll make better use of your cruise if you plan those lie-ins for sea days. You can maximize your time ashore if you get off the ship early rather than late.

With a full day in port, you can take a road trip to a destination or attraction that’s outside of the port city. You’ll have time to see several sites in town or get to the beach before it gets too hot or crowded. You can buy ferry or train tickets before they sell out.

Plus, if your ship has an early departure, you’ll get in a full half day rather than a couple of hours of exploration. Of course, if your ship has a late arrival planned, go ahead and enjoy that extra-long sleep.

Overdoing it

Woman in red jacket with backpack hiking in an Alaskan forest

It’s easy to go overboard when planning your day in a city or country you’ve never visited before. If you want to see all the main sights, you might cram too many activities into one day, rushing from place to place with little time to appreciate what you see — and exhausting yourself and your travel party.

Accept that you cannot see everything you want in one port call and instead focus your time on a few key attractions or activities. If you have kids, build in time for snacks or play. That way, you can fully enjoy what you do without feeling overwhelmed. If you love the place, you can always book a future trip to visit it again.

The same applies to physical activities in port. Don’t book that cycling tour if you haven’t ridden a bike in 10 years. If you have mobility issues, think twice about an excursion that involves a lot of walking on cobblestone streets. Know your limits and plan your day and your activities around them.

Skipping the local cuisine

You’ve already paid for food on your cruise ship as part of your fare, so it’s tempting to want to eat all your meals on board to maximize your investment. But it’s a mistake not to try some of the local cuisine while you’re in port.

You don’t have to book an expensive meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Trying the local ice cream, visiting a bakery or sampling a regional beer will give you a taste of the food scene and an insight into local life. It’s always fun to try something new, like conch salad in the Bahamas or a sandwich of tortilla espanola in Barcelona.

Another favorite is to find a market or grocery store near the cruise port. In Stockholm, I had a field day at the 7-Eleven buying salty licorice and other foreign candy for my family back home. In Belize, I tried all the Fanta soda flavors I’d never seen before. You don’t have to spend much money or even have a full meal to taste something new in port.

Sticking around the port

First-time cruisers often make the mistake of not leaving the port area because they’re nervous about traveling in a foreign country. You can usually find plenty of tourist attractions, such as restaurants and shops, close to your ship. But you’ll get a more in-depth and authentic feel for the port city if you venture out.

In some places, that means making your way to the city center via shuttle bus or taxi. In other ports, such as Civitavecchia or Livorno, Italy, you might need to book a tour outside the port city to places like Rome or Florence. Maybe you need to head to the other side of the island or out into the countryside to find your perfect day in port. Whether you need to book a tour or rent a car, take the opportunity to venture farther afield — as long as you have enough time in port to return before the all-aboard time.

Only taking tours

Two moms and a daughter riding horses on a tour

Another port-day mistake common among first-time cruisers is exclusively booking the ship’s tours. Maybe you feel pressure to book a tour every day, or perhaps you’re nervous about independent exploration. Shore excursions are wonderful ways to see a destination’s highlights, but they’re not the only way — and they’re not always necessary.

In some ports, you can have the perfect day wandering around town, getting lost in cute side streets, shopping for souvenirs and sampling local cuisine. In others, you need only to call a cab to experience a beautiful beach day.

In Flam, Norway, I skipped the ship’s tour to hike to a gorgeous waterfall — no guide required. In Hilo, Hawaii, my family rented a car to explore Volcanoes National Park at our own pace instead of with a group of 40 other cruisers. In these cases, my experience was enhanced by going it alone.

Related: Ship-sponsored vs. independent shore excursions on cruises: Which should you book?

Never taking tours

On the other hand, some travelers pride themselves on never taking tours and always exploring independently. It’s great to take control of your port day, but it’s a mistake to never consider a tour.

Sometimes, like at the ruins of Pompeii, a guide can enhance your experience of a place by providing context and color. In others, where you’re venturing more than an hour’s drive from the port, you’ll want the security of knowing that the ship will wait if you’re delayed in returning. A tour guide familiar with the area can handle the complicated logistics of getting from one attraction to the next or can allow your group to skip ticket or entrance lines.

Never say never, and keep an open mind to the best way to spend your day in port.

Bottom line

You book a cruise as much for the places it visits as the ship itself. Make the most of your time ashore by properly planning and preparing for your day. Don’t let silly mistakes keep you from enjoying a wonderful day off the ship.

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