|Planning Shore Excursions|
Many of you will pick a sailing region because you want to explore all a location has to offer, be it stunning rainforests loaded with wildlife or cultural capitals with great museums. As such, your experience on shore can make or break your cruise vacation. So planning ahead what you’re going to do at the ports of call your ship will visit is important. If your goal is sitting on a white sand beach, you want to find that white sand beach to sit on. Once your ship pulls into port, you basically have three options: staying on the ship, taking a shore excursion through the cruise line, or exploring on your own.
The Ins and Outs of Shore Excursions:
Cruise lines offer shore excursions that target popular attractions in every port. These range from short bus and walking tours to full-day options that cover a variety of activities (from eating and drinking your way through Provence to traipsing through a jungle in Mexico). In most cases the cruise lines themselves do not operate the tours, but rather rely on local operators (albeit ones they vet — an important security consideration in some destinations). But be warned, this is a profit center for the lines so there’s often a mark-up involved.
Shore excursions start around $39 per person for what’s often a snooze-fest bus tour to see an area’s top historic and natural sights, and go up to the $79 to $150 range for more exciting activities like snorkeling or bike-trekking or zip lining (where you get in a harness and zip across tree tops on a line). Prices climb even higher (to $500 or more) for an once-in-a-lifetime experience such as dog sledding on top of a glacier (worth every penny, by the way). Excursion prices are often, though not always, lower for kids. Given that your cruise is likely to make multiple stops, the cost for excursions for, say, a family of four, can add up quickly and end up representing a substantial portion of your final vacation tab.
If your Travel Agent has a relationship with a third party excursion vendor it could save you 10-60% and you will travel in a smaller more intimate group and they guarantee to get you back to the ship on time.
Or can just say no and explore on your own (see below), but there are times when shore excursions may be your best bet.
You want to go far. Sometimes the important stuff is far away from the port where your ship is docked (for example, Rome is actually a 90-minute drive from Citavecchia, the port where your ship will dock). Excursions will take you to places many miles from the pier without your having to worry about local public transportation (ferries, trains and buses) or steep cab fares.
You want to do a soft-adventure activity. Snorkeling, diving, kayaking, ATV tours, and other activities are scheduled with vendors vetted by the cruise line for safety. You’re looking for hands-on culture. Cooking classes, art lessons, private visits to museums, and folk dance performances are offered, along with an opportunity to mingle with locals.
You’re thinking once-in-a-lifetime. Most lines give passengers the opportunity to tackle a "Bucket List" experience, such as swimming with dolphins, feeding stingrays, dog sledding, hot air ballooning, flightseeing, or deep sea fishing.
You just want to relax. You want hassle-free R&R in a lounge chair on a prime beach, a scenic sail with a rum drink or two, or to space out watching fish in a glass-bottom boat.
You don’t speak the local language. In some exotic locations (Southeast Aisa comes to mind), it might be a hassle finding someone who speaks English. That said, as most lines tend to visit tourist hotpots, if the first person you come across doesn’t speak English, chances are the second or third person will.
Ordering Shore Excursions:
Popular shore excursions fill up fast, or at least that’s what the cruise lines tell you. The reality is that if there is huge interest in a particular option, the tour operator may be able to add another excursion. Even so, you are best off reviewing the excursions for your cruise and making your picks pre-cruise. Most cruise lines let you research their excursion options on their websites and book online. If you do order in advance, your tickets will either be in your cabin when you arrive or be delivered to your cabin a couple of days before your scheduled tour.
When choosing your excursions, carefully read the fine print. You may see restrictions based on age and weight, fitness level required (which the cruise lines generally do a good job of describing), and so forth. If you are physically challenged or have special needs, make sure you take that into account when planning your shore-side activities. Not all tours will be suitable.
If you don’t pre-book, you can use the order form you’ll find in your cabin (and at the purser’s or shore excursion desk). One advantage of waiting is you can attend the shore excursion lecture held the first day of the cruise and ask questions (but, again, popular tours may already be sold out by that time, so if your trip will be ruined because you didn’t get to go dog-sledding in Alaska for example, book that excursion in advance). You may be able to cancel a pre-booked reservation or switch to another tour once shipboard, but don’t count on that. Talk to the folks at the shore excursion desk if you need assistance.
On the Day of Your Tour:
Carefully look at the shore excursion tickets you receive, noting the meet-up time and location for your tour. If you’re not there at the right time, the tour may leave without you and you won’t get a refund. In your documentation you’ll also find information on what to wear and what you need to bring with you. Bringing along bottled water is a particularly good idea (especially in tropical locales or where strenuous activities are involved), but before you buy it for a steep price shipboard, ask if it’s already provided on the tour. You’ll also want to bring a few bucks to tip your tour guide; the standard range is $3 to $5 per person, or more for an adventure tour guide.
Exploring on Your Own:
You are only in each port for a set number of hours. If you have decided to go exploring on your own you’ll want to do some advance research to find out where the ship docks and what’s near the pier. In some locations you dock right in the heart of the action (Quebec City and San Diego, for example), but in many others you’ll need to take a cab, bus, or ferry to get where you want to go. Keep in mind that you may need local currency to pay the fare.
Before deciding to go off on your own look into:
All this is not to say you won’t have a good time, and you’ll probably be able to go it on your own cheaper than you would with the cruise line. But if you take the DIY approach, plan carefully and don’t miss the boat — if the ship leaves without you, it will cost a bundle to get to the next port of call.
Booking organized tours on your own:
If you like the sound of a cruise line’s tour, but the price sounds awfully steep, do some research and you may be able to book the same tour with the exact same outfitter on your own, at a cheaper price. The secret is to spend some time carefully dissecting the cruise line’s tour and the wording, and then compare it with what local operators are offering online.
Some operators have deals with the cruise lines, which preclude them from offering lower prices when a ship is in town. That doesn’t mean they always stick to them (though you may be told "shhh, don’t tell anyone what you paid," lest the cruise line find out you got a discount). If you go this route, remember it’s important to make sure the operator can get you back to the ship before sailing time.
You may also be able to book the equivalent of a cruise line’s excursion at a lower price through your travel agent it may be up to 60% lower than cruise line prices and backs that up with a lowest-price guarantee. They also guarantee to get you back to the ship on time.
A new trend in cruise travel is private shore excursions — your travel agent arranges a guide just for you and anyone else you want to bring along. It’s the best of both worlds as you get a custom-tailored tour (you can interrupt the guide to say, "Hey, that’s boring, let’s move on"). Of course, a steep price accompanies this option, and they guarantee to get you back to the ship on time.
If you have been to a port before, or many times, there’s no rule that says you have to go again. Don’t discount the joy of staying on the ship while everyone else disembarks. You won’t be the only other person to have the same idea, so the ship won’t feel totally vacant (no ghostly twins in the hallway like in Stephen King’s The Shining). And there are benefits to staying put. On a port day you are likely to find not only available timeslots, but discounts in the ship’s spa; you can zip your way through the buffet line or have a leisurely lunch in a dining room; and you’ll have no trouble finding a lounge chair at the pool.