While a cruise on the open ocean can be the perfect vacation, often the best part of your trip can be the adventures you have on land.

From swimming with dolphins in Cozumel to kayaking in Ketchikan, shore excursions can be the most memorable part of any cruise.  But high costs, a dizzying array of choices, and high-pressure sales can take all the fun out of choosing the perfect shore excursions.

The idea of vacation is to maximize the fun, and minimize the expense and the stress, so here are some tips to take the hassle, and the cost, out of making the most of your vacation.

Look for a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience.

Research: First off, do some groundwork.  When you’re checking out your options for a cruise line, a ship and an itinerary, take the time to read about what each of your destinations has to offer.  Cruise line websites outline all available shore excursions for every possible port, listing the options, restrictions and costs.

Go Big: Rather than booking something run-of-the-mill in every port, spend your money instead on one truly exceptional adventure.  There are plenty of great cheap experiences you can have on the ship, or walking around town, so put your money in one place and look for that one excursion that presents a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you love flying, take a helicopter and peek into volcanoes in Hawaii or Montserrat.  If you love to cook, learn how to use African, European and Indian cooking methods at a class in St. Kitts.

Shop Around: Once you’ve set your heart on something, go online and shop around.  Cruise lines book with contractors in port, so the prices are higher because you’re paying to cover the middleman.  With a little legwork, you may be able to find a similar shore excursion, except better and at less than half the price.

The Internet is the best thing to happen to anyone who spends a few hours doing research.  There are cruise chat groups and blog sites, all with people more than willing to share their experiences with you.  There are also great websites set up by the tourism commissions of whatever country you’re visiting, which will list all available tour operators in the area.

You may hear the line “if you’re on one of our tours, the ship won’t leave without you, but if you book your own…”.  The fact is, all tourism operators depend on good word of mouth, and no one is going to make you miss your boat. Wear a watch, keep track of time, and you’ll likely be able to afford two shore excursions for same price the cruise line is charging for one.  Just do your research and look for reputable operators with good references.

Book Early: Whether you’re going with a shore excursion through your cruise line, or an independent tour operator, if you have your heart set on an experience, book it early.  In peak cruise season, there may be several ships in the harbor, and that can add up to thousands of people in town at the same time.

Check the Requirements: Some shore excursions have age requirements, or health restrictions. Make sure you check those before you book.  And don’t forget to pack sensibly for your activity.  If you plan to spend a day hiking around the Mayan ruins at Tulum, a good pair of walking shoes will be a must.

Every shore excursion can be memorable, but with a little research and planning beforehand, you can make sure you have the adventure of a lifetime, without having to spend a lifetime paying for it.

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