There are some general guidelines that I think are reasonable for cruisers to consider when deciding whether to take shore excursions offered by the cruise lines or to strike out on their own.
First, let's talk about some reasonable extremes. On the traditional Western Caribbean itinerary, a well-respected premium cruise line offers a shore excursion to Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach. It doesn't even include transportation, but does get you a lounge chair and a drink at a hotel for about $18 a person. I say it's not difficult for anyone to jump in a taxi and do this type of excursion on his own.
At the other end of the spectrum could be a call in Kusadasi, the Turkish port for a visit to the ruins of ancient Ephesus. You can't just walk off the ship and see the ruins; they are quite a distance away and there are language barriers, entrance fees, transportation issues, guides, etc. to consider. Yes, it could be done on one's own, and some people do it. But for most passengers, in this case it may be easier to let the ship handle all the details and just take the organized tour.
In any case, the best place to start is with the shore excursions guide provided by the cruise line. Nowadays this information is often conveniently displayed on the line's website. No longer do you have to wait until just before your cruise to get the book with tour descriptions. In fact, many lines now let you book tours in advance on either a deposited, paid or non-deposit basis. Check your line for the specifics. Of course, it's best if you can hold space without any sort of deposit and make your final decision on board. Radisson Seven Seas, for example, just expanded its program, after testing on Seven Seas Mariner, to Voyager, Navigator and Diamond. Request forms for shore tours are sent to guests with cruise documents; guests can then have their travel agents fax back the requests to the individual ships.
I usually use the ship's excursion list as a guide and then figure out what I'm going to do -- which is usually to tour independently. Then again, I've already been to a lot of places, so I'm not the best example. I also usually check the website of the destination to see if there are any holidays when I'll be there. (This occurred recently when I did not check, and most of the stores were closed the day I was there -- it happens, but I was on an organized shore excursion and lots of people were not happy.) If you are going to tour on your own, make sure you have the local currency and a map. English may be spoken in lots of places but the further off the beaten path you get, the deeper into trouble you can be without the necessities.
Based on the e-mails I get, it's obvious that first-timers are the ones most interested in taking ship-operated shore excursions. This is perfectly understandable. When you're going to a new place, it's a great way to get an overview. But an alternative to the traditional bus tour offered by the cruise line -- especially if there are at least three to four people in a group -- is to hire a taxi or a van for a private tour. That way you can set the number of hours, travel at your own pace, and go to the places you want. You can take food and beverage breaks when you want and avoid the seemingly mandatory shopping stop if you'd like. If you consider this, here are some important cautions: Make sure you can communicate easily with the driver (easy if it's in English, but if it's a foreign-language place, make sure he knows what you're saying); make sure in advance of the terms of deal in time and money, especially the amount per person and in total; specify that the return place is the ship; and above all, if you feel in the slightest way that you are being hustled, walk away.
There's a significant difference in touring independently in the Caribbean versus exotic destinations like Southeast Asia or Africa. It's no big deal to jump in a taxi and head off to a beach on the other side of Saint Maarten, as my friends did last year. All they needed to do was to make sure they had a taxi available to get them back to the ship before it sailed that evening. Doing that in Thailand would be a much different story.
When figuring out what to do with kids these days, many cruise lines are setting up shore excursions tailored just for them. This is becoming more and more prevalent as the lines seek out family business, even for Alaska. The on-board programs are even being expanded to take kids ashore so parents can go off on their own.
Many shore excursions are more adventurous, specialized and exotic these days. Oceania Cruises, which began sailing recently, is really working hard in this area, with epicurean excursions specializing in food and wine. The line also has been impressing guests (and journalists) with an old-fashioned thing called service: they are willing to talk to guests and offer port advice even if those guests aren't booking the ship's tours. How nice in this day and age.
I asked Kuki, CruiseMates' fun-loving Cruise director, for his thoughts on the subject of booking shore excursions on one's own. This is what he says:
Basically in the Caribbean I think it's very easy for people to do excursions on their own, with the exception perhaps being first time cruisers. The criteria should maybe be how travel-savvy people think they are.
When traveling with your own groups, like CruiseMates Group Cruises, or even your own less formal groups of friends, it's not difficult, and often more fun, to book private excursions for the group. Some examples:
- In Grand Cayman I know a lot of people will book privately with Captain Marvin for Sting Ray City.
- In Cozumel we, and many others, will book dolphin swims directly with dolphindiscoveries.com (I wrote an article a couple of years back about swimming with dolphins in various ports, and booking them direct.).
- In Alaska I know a lot of people who privately book Captain Larry's Whale Watching.
- For the CruiseMates Group Cruises, when we've included tours in the package, we use portpromotions.com, based in Plantation, Florida. The owner, Steve Leland, is a retired cruise director and a heck of a nice guy. He does the Caribbean, Alaska (where he now actually owns a lot of the tour companies), and Europe. In Europe we've used them for both group excursions and private car excursions. I mentioned his company in my Millennium Live feature that's on the site from two years ago. He did our group excursions for the Baltic ports, except Russia, on the CruiseMates Group Cruise I returned from last week, and everyone was delighted with the product.
- For Russia, we came across a company called Red October -- only three years old, but they did an amazing job for us with private tours.
There is also a company called AutoEurope.com that I've heard good things about, but I haven't personally used them. They'll do everything from private guides and drivers to arranging rental cars. _____________________________________________________________________
That's some very good advice from an expert. So just as there's a cruise that's just right for everyone, there's a shore excursion plan for everyone. But, with a little planning, independent sightseeing might add more adventure to the cruise itself.
P.S. Not all buses will have bathrooms. Plan ahead!
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