How to find a cruise excursion you’ll actually enjoy

by Сашка

Do you actually need to pay a cruise line to plan your port day? It depends.


Ben Souza has had some unforgettable shore excursions. On a cruise from Singapore to Thailand, he and his wife visited an elephant sanctuary, a high point in their dozen years of cruising. On a Caribbean voyage, he booked a tranquil day at a Bahamas resort. The property turned out to be ratty, with a trash-filled pool and a mediocre beach.

Unlike with the animal encounter in Phuket, he wishes he could wipe that outing from his memory.

“If I had been on my own private tour, I could have left and went to a better place to relax,” said Souza, the editor of Cruise Fever who has sailed on 75 ships with 18 cruise lines.

For passengers, the land is as important as the sea. Many travelers choose a voyage based on the ports. However, because shore time is limited, they must be savvy when planning their excursions.

The most convenient option is to sign up for an outing through the cruise ship. The cruise line makes the arrangements and vets the operators, which is especially important in destinations with safety concerns. Onboard credits apply to excursions. In the event of a cancellation or disruption, the cruise line will issue a refund. Most important, the captain will always wait for tour groups to return, even if they arrive past the scheduled departure time.

“Some guests value having the cruise line handle everything,” said Michael Consoli, who owns a travel agency that specializes in cruises. “So they just have to leave their house and come home.”

Booking an excursion with the cruise line comes with disadvantages. If the trip requires a minimum number of guests, the ship will cancel outings that do not meet its quota. Alternately, if too many people sign up, you may feel like a lost lamb in a flock. On a recent Royal Caribbean excursion in St. Kitts, we waited in a broiling parking lot while the guide tried to find us a spot on the packed tour bus. He finally plopped us down on a hard jump seat that blocked the exit.

Excursions organized by cruise lines can also feel like a highly touristy way to see a port destination. During our trip aboard the Margaritaville at Sea Paradise, shore excursions ranged from a $59-per-person beach day, including chair and umbrella reservations, to ethically questionable wildlife experiences, like an “Up-Close Encounter” with dolphins.

The cost is also higher than booking with a third-party operator, because cruise lines place a premium on extras. Independent travelers can save 25 to 40 percent on tours they plan themselves, according to Souza. On a Hawaii cruise, he arranged an island adventure that was nearly identical to one offered by the ship, except for the price.

“We all ended up on the same river cruise together. The only difference was we took different buses to get there, and everyone who booked through the cruise line paid double,” he said.

Organizing your own excursions has additional benefits, such as greater flexibility, a smaller group size, a wider variety of activities and a more personalized experience.

“If you want a truly unique experience while traveling,” said Souza, who organized a side trip to Capri for an upcoming Princess cruise that stops in Naples, “sometimes you just have to do your own thing.”

For advice on planning shore excursions, we spoke with cruising experts and tapped into our own seafaring adventures. Here are our top tips.

Book excursions as early as possible

Cruise lines open up reservations weeks or months before the ship’s departure date. Consoli said excursions sell out on luxury cruises that offer free shore activities, such as Regent Seven Seas and Silversea. The limited spots also fill up on mega cruise ships with thousands of passengers, such as Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas.

“When you have a ship with 7,000 passengers, it’s going to be harder to get excursions,” he said.

If you change your mind, you can often cancel without penalty, depending on the ship.

You should also plan ahead if you are booking with a local outfitter. Tours and guides can be hard to come by on busy cruise days or during peak travel periods.

Stick with cruise lines on complicated outings

When deciding between a ship’s excursion and your own, consider the complexity of the outing. If the adventure involves several modes of transportation or long distances, signing up with the cruise line is the safer bet. On the other hand, if the excursion is close by and straightforward, you can easily make your own arrangements.

“If I was going to Cozumel and I wanted to do the pyramids or ruins on the mainland, I would book a tour through the cruise line, because you’re leaving the island and you want to make sure you get back on time,” said Doug Parker, a host of “Cruise News Today.” “But in Nassau, where I can see the ships from most places on the island, I would … do something on my own.”

In some countries that require tourist visas, only passengers who are touring with a licensed operator can disembark without the document. Souza discovered this arrangement on a Mediterranean cruise that stopped in Algeria and Tunisia. Consoli said China recently introduced similar restrictions.

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Research tour options before the cruise

Part of the appeal of cruising is that the company oversees every detail. However, you should still read reviews of excursions posted on Cruise Critic, Tripadvisor or reputable cruise blogs to guide your decisions.

If you strike out on your own, carefully research the guides and operators in your destination, including the ones who solicit business inside the cruise terminal. Check their credentials and ask to see pertinent licenses.

Many cruisers use the same outfitters as landlubbers, such as Viator and ToursByLocals. Shore Excursions is also popular. You may also be able to find your own activities, such as cooking classes and food tours, on Airbnb Experiences.

Parker said some excursions, such as hop-on/hop-off buses, are a set price, regardless of whether you book through the ship or the outfitter. However, if the purveyor has an online promotion, you might save a sliver of money.

If you book your cruise with a travel agency, the agent can also arrange private shore excursions. In addition to overseeing the planning, the adviser provides a safety net and can reschedule or cancel the tour on your behalf. Consoli said some planners, such as himself, do not charge for this service; they earn their commission through the cruise line and tour operators.

Look outside the terminal for better prices

Tour operators, rental agencies and taxi drivers hike up prices in cruise terminals. For lower rates, venture a short distance away from the disembarkation point.

If you take a cab to an attraction where taxis seem scarce, arrange a pickup time. Ilana Schattauer, who blogs at Life Well Cruised, recommends hiring the driver for the entire excursion.

“If I was doing something that was a little bit off the beaten path or if I wanted to go to a more secluded beach, I would have the driver stay with me,” she said. “Or I would book a tour where the tour guide and driver stay there.”

During our Margaritaville at Sea sailing, we used Google Maps to find a scooter rental company in Grand Bahama. Around 9 p.m., we called Bullseye Car Rental, a local agency with strong reviews. Despite the late time, owner Raymond Bowe answered on the second ring. He knew our cruise schedule, offered to pick us up and drop us off from port, and gave us clear instructions for where to find him when we docked. The total for the day’s rental: $49, including transfer and helmets — about half the cost of taking the cheapest shore excursion from the cruise line.

Ask locals what to do, eat and drink

If you haven’t planned your off-ship day down to the minute, talk to taxi drivers, shopkeepers and other locals to get tips. Crew members, who are often familiar with the ports, also are great resources.

In Grand Bahama, Bowe was an invaluable source of intel for how to spend our day. We’d made no plans and instead took Bowe’s suggestions for beaches and restaurants.

That’s how we ended up at Bernie’s TikiHut, where lunch for two — Bahama Mama cocktails and a fresh lobster tail fried on the spot — cost $35. We ate on the beach in front of the tiki shack, then swam in the sea before driving down to Terry’s Conch Salad Stand. Owner Terry Pratt showed us the process of breaking a live conch out of its shell and preparing it into a Bahamian ceviche. It was $11 for a bowl and far better than anything we ate on the ship.

Give yourself at least an hour for the return

If you have ever left an airport during a long layover, this rule will sound familiar: Don’t cut it close. Give yourself an hour or two before final boarding time.

“If the ship is sailing at 4, I try to be back at 3,” Parker said.

Schattauer reminds cruisers that, in some destinations, such as Caribbean islands, the small roads can get congested, especially when passengers are returning to the ships around the same time. She said that, a few years ago, she rode a shuttle to Magens Bay on St. Thomas. The trip to the beach was a quick 15 to 20 minutes. The return took an hour longer. Because she gave herself a two-hour buffer, she arrived at the terminal before the ship sailed off.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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