Should you book your shore excursions independently of your cruise line, and save a few bucks, or is it better to take those tours offered through your ship?
The question we posed above is one of the most commonly asked by cruise travelers, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. It all depends — not just on circumstances but also on the ports of call and the travelers’ own desire (or lack thereof) for independent travel.
Cruise lines do charge more than local operators so they make a commission for the handling of the same tour. Shore excursions are profit centers for the cruise lines, but you can consider the extra you pay as a kind of insurance. Cruise lines hold tour operators responsible for quality control as well as make sure that all necessities — liability insurance, registration and other areas of compliance, are complete. Plus, they guarantee that the ship will not leave before participants on a ship-sponsored tour are back aboard.
New types of tours being offered by cruise lines range from cycling trips through European cities to cooking classes in Alaska and private after-hours tours at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. It would be next to impossible to put together these same tours on your own.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice to escape the large group tours for more intimate explorations with just your friends and family. Plan a day on your own, and you’ll see the sights you want to see and at your pace, rather than some prearranged plan by the provided tour guides. And saving money is a huge consideration when you’re looking at flightseeing tours or other pricey expeditions that cost hundreds of dollars a person. If you trust the company and know you won’t miss the ship, it certainly makes sense to pay less by booking independently a tour you could pay more for on board.
Shore excursions can be booked weeks, sometimes months, in advance of your sailing date by going online to your cruise line’s website. That means that spots on prime excursions are already spoken for, leaving guests who wait until embarkation to book their own adventures ashore left in the cold.
This isn’t the case for every shore excursion. There are some very distinct advantages to taking control of your cruise vacation and booking your shore excursions online directly or through your travel consultant if part of a group. Following is a set of rough rules that will help you decide between touring independently or booking cruise line travel.
Good Times to Book Cruise Line-Organized Tours
You’re a first-time cruiser. Visiting a port of call on a one-day visit to a foreign place presents a real deadline — that ship very well may not wait if you get lost and are a few minutes late. (And meeting up with the ship in the next port is on your dime.) It’s worth the extra money to book a few ship’s tours until you know how things are in each port.
The port is particularly exotic. On a cruise to the Middle East, a place foreign in culture and language that most have not traveled, the comfort of the tours arranged by the cruise line are indisputable, especially in challenging places such as Yemen’s Aden and Oman’s Salalah. We recommend using cruise line excursions in other ports on Asian itineraries, in South Africa, South America (particularly in the Amazon) and in Russia’s St. Petersburg.
The port is a long ride from the main attraction. This applies particularly in Europe, where some of the most important destinations; for example, Paris, Rome, Florence, Berlin and London, are miles and miles (and 1.5 to 3 hours away) from where the ship actually docks. In many cases, ships will arrange two types of outing. One is for independent-minded folks who want the ease of being transported — and then want to venture out on their own. Their only deadline is meeting the bus (or train) for the return journey in this traffic-congested part of the world. Or, you can opt for a variety of city tours. Similarly, in some parts of the world nature experiences can require quite a journey.
The cruise line specializes in a particular area. In some cases, cruise lines really go to a lot of effort to offer special shore excursions and tour opportunities. Want to learn to scuba dive in Costa Rica? Windstar’s dive program is second to none, offering not only ship-conducted dive trips, but also different certifications (PADI) and specialties, everything from Discover Scuba to Advanced.” Norwegian, on the Pride of America, offers golfing on several islands as a package.
It’s a high-risk trip. When taking a tour that involves traveling on helicopters, planes, parasails and even boats, the extra protection provided by the cruise line is really key. It’s also even more important that such operators are properly vetted for safety issues. (However, for shorter trips like helicopter rides in Alaska, you could certainly do your own research — or find out which companies the cruise line uses and see if you can book them independently.)
Good Times To Tour Independently
The port is located close to downtown. Whether you’re visiting San Francisco or Barcelona, these cities are so conveniently situated to cruise terminals that it couldn’t be easier to get around via a short walk or taxi ride or try the “hop on, hop off” bus options for sightseeing — they’re a great way to get around and get your bearings. Other easy urban ports are Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Nice, Cannes, Venice, Dubrovnik, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Auckland, Quebec City, Montreal, Honolulu, Seattle, Vancouver, Tampa, New Orleans and Philadelphia — to name just a few.
You want a simple beach break. While cruise lines often offer beach “tours,” particularly in the very well-known beach destinations of the Caribbean, it really is more cost effective — and more freeing, frankly — to simply hop into a safari bus for the ride to the beach. We wouldn’t hesitate to do so at St. Thomas’ Magen’s Bay, Virgin Gorda’s The Rocks, Grenada’s Grande Anse, St. Lucia’s Rodney Bay, and Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach. They offer major services (including eateries) and cab drivers flock there so you’ll be assured a ride back to the ship. Where you need to be a bit more careful is with off-the-track beaches.
You want personal attention and in-depth information. In St. Petersburg, Russia, through Red October, a tour agency, you can arrange for a private guide and driver; the experience is superb, and you will never be rushed and will see a lot more. So in places that are particularly significant in an historic or cultural sense, a private guide can make the experience. Do serious homework on sites such as Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic and make sure guides are properly accredited. In some cases — mostly on luxury lines, cruise lines will provide concierge services on board that can book a guide for you.
You want to shop. Do a little homework before you leave home to map out the types of shops that interest you, and their locales … and then just go. Note: Cruise ship staffers can be a great source of tips. Cruise lines provide a local map with recommended stores shown of the port upon disembarking.
Snorkeling, sailing and scuba are the order of the day. As long as you check out operators — check with Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic — snorkeling, sailing and scuba diving expeditions in major water sports ports such as St. Thomas or Grand Cayman are good bets for independent booking.
You’re traveling in a pack. If you’re cruising with a large group of friends or family, it may be more cost effective for you to hire a tour guide, rent a car or take a taxi tour than to book sightseeing excursions through the cruise line. You’ll have more control over where you go and the timing of the day. Traveling on your own and want to connect with others to form a tour group? Find the Cruise Critic Roll Call forum for your cruise, where you can meet other people on your sailing and arrange to tour together. It’s easy for a solo traveler to grab that last-minute space on a shore excursion once on board. It’s a lot harder, however, for that family of four – or a group of six friends. A good rule of thumb: the more people that are in your party, the earlier you should be booking your shore excursion experience to avoid disappointment. This is particularly true for big-ticket experiences like Swimming with the Dolphins, Ziplining, or flightseeing tours in Alaska.
Of course, you can always elect to book excursions through a third party tour operator that’s not affiliated with the cruise line, or tour independently on your own. But if you’re planning to book an excursion through the cruise line, planning ahead is always a good course of action. We at Getaway Dreams Come True Travel will assist you in deciding whether you should book with the cruise line or independently. Please schedule your Vacation Planning Session by calling 724.752.2655.
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