While onboard, I had the opportunity to speak with a lot of people about their experiences in port. Some were similar to what I had done, others I had never
So what is the best way to see a port? Explore it on your own, take a tour with the ship or find your own tour? Some ports are great for going at it on your own, especially if transportation is good; others a guided tour may be your best bet. A lot of it depends on whether you have been to the port before, how comfortable you are exploring on your own and how easy it is to get around to the sites you want to see.
I must admit, I am a bit biased when it comes to exploring a port. I'm quite independent and so going off on my own is often the norm, especially when I have someone with me. Those Hop On Hop Off buses regularly call my name! And nothing beats just casually walking the streets, ducking into a café and observing local life. If an excursion is my best bet, I almost always go with an independent operator. In fact it has been quite some time since I have booked an excursion directly with a cruise line.
That doesn't mean one shouldn't book with the cruise line. They offer a wonderful array of options for their guests, most focused on the top sites in the area. And in some ports the only way to go is with the cruise line. But cruise excursions certainly are not the only option. Independents offer similar or better options and are competitively priced, often times less than what the cruise lines have. And here is an insider tip: Cruise lines have done a fantastic job "scaring" people into thinking that independent operators aren't safe or won't get you back to the ship in time. Yes, one needs to do some due diligence in checking credentials, but these tour companies rely heavily on cruise passengers and in a world of social media, they can't afford to offer poor service. Most are very trustworthy. Just check the reviews!
So why do I mostly explore on my own or choose an independent operator? For me its all about having the best experience. I like flexibility and I don't like crowds. Exploring on my own, with a private guide or a small group meets that criteria. When a tour is my best bet, I choose tours that have fewer than 20 people. Many excursions offered by the cruise lines are large groups - in some cases 100+... we've all seen the big coach buses that line up when the ship arrives, right? I find small groups to be far more flexible, fun, and the tour guide isn't trying to round up hundreds of people to get to the next stop in time.