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  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:

  • What’s      with­in walk­ing dis­tance of the ship?
  • How easy      is it to find a cab, bus, scoot­er or rental car, and how re­li­able is      the trans­porta­tion (and is driv­ing on the right or left)?
  • How much      do at­trac­tions and/or beach-en­try fees cost?
  • Does the      ac­tiv­ity you want to do re­quire ad­vance reser­va­tions?
  • At a      beach, will you be able to rent a lounger and/or um­brel­la and how much      do they cost?
  • Are rental      cars avail­able near the ship pier and do they need to be booked in ad­vance      – both for sav­ings and to as­sure avail­abil­ity?

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.

Pri­vate ex­cur­sions:

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.

Stay­ing Ship­board:

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.