We've all picked up the shore excursion booklet for our upcoming cruise and seen nothing but the same old tour options. Really, how many times can we walk through the rainforest, or take a bus tour of an island? And what is the alternative -- a shopping spree at the same stores that pay the cruise line a fee for directing passengers their way?
On my cruises, I try to spice things up in at least one port by doing something entirely different that makes the cruise unique. In my case, that might border on the extreme, if not actually cross the line, because I have always been an adrenaline junkie.
Your idea of fun might be much tamer, and that's fine. You can still add your personal signature to any cruise by doing something that's even a bit off the beaten track. This article can give you some food for thought, perhaps spark your imagination, and help you find something memorable to do on your next ship voyage.
Power in Numbers If you are traveling with your family or a few other couples, consider things everyone might like to do. There is power in numbers, so even if the ship offers an excursion of the type you'd like, you can probably do better booking it on your own. As a self-contained group, you can get a far more customized experience when you book directly with the tour provider. You'll get to do exactly what your group wants, and you won't have to worry about waiting for everyone else or accommodating the special needs of a stranger.
Try whale watching, for example. Find an excursion provider with a small boat suitable for your group and you can get a personalized experience, rather than the cookie-cutter outing the ship's tour would provide. You can even change plans on the spur of the moment. Everything moves faster, because there are fewer people and better communication within the group. You can even negotiate for special concessions with the excursion provider -- e.g., for snacks to be provided at no extra charge. The excursion provider will often be happy to negotiate because he's keeping more of the profit. You can often get a better price on the tour than you could through the ship's excursion department.
Anything can be Arranged Maybe you want to do something special that you can't find offered in any brochures. On my last trip to Hawaii I wanted to take a flight-seeing tour, but I am afraid of helicopters and prefer the relative safety of a fixed-wing aircraft -- something the cruise line didn't offer. So, I got on the web and put my researching skills to the test.
Not only did I find my fixed-wing aircraft tour, but I got to fly the plane! No, I'm not a pilot, but a flight instructor made sure I did nothing to get our happy little group killed.
I booked with an outfit called Pacific Wings for what they called a "U-Fly Tour." We flew in a small, very well maintained, four-seat Cessna. As an added benefit, I had the option of bringing along one or two guests who sat in the back seat. One was a friend who is really into digital photography; he sat back there happily snapping off photo after photo (when he wasn't retching), which we all shared later. I was able to concentrate on flying -- and trying not to upset the flight instructor with my often-foolish antics.
The U-Fly tour was a two-hour flight over Maui, Lanai, and Molokini. We took off from Maui, flew along the coastline and then landed on Lanai. After a short stop to purchase souvenirs and snacks at the small airport gift shop, we were off again to fly over Molokini. We made our final landing back at the airport on Maui. I received an "official" pilot's logbook and credit for the two-hour flight, since I was at the controls for most the time.
That wasn't the only time I set up my own excursions. If the cruise line didn't offer what I wanted to do, I arranged it myself. This includes tandem skydiving on Oahu. I made arrangements with Skydive Hawaii months before the cruise, including pick-up and return to the pier. I may have been the only passenger doing that excursion, but several of the ship's entertainers joined me. We had a great day on the North Shore, free-falling over the Pacific Ocean, watching the big waves break from 15,000 feet up. You won't get that kind of experience through the cruise line's shore excursions desk.
Another experience I arranged was scuba diving. For some reason, the ship offered no diving excursions on my 30-day Hawaii/South Pacific cruise. The shore excursion lady told me that scuba was too risky, so they didn't want to get involved.
I made my own contacts with a dive shop in Bora Bora. I asked dive instructors in my hometown for recommendations, and when the name Top Dive came up repeatedly, they were the ones I contacted. I had a great two-tank dive from a smallish dive boat, so I was able to get plenty of one-on-one attention -- something highly desirable for a relatively inexperienced diver.
The list goes on and on. Bungee jumping in Costa Rica with Tropical Bungee, flying aerobatics in Kissimmee with WarBird Adventures. All of these companies can be found on the Internet. You can seek out recommendations for appropriate outfitters from a variety of sources, including cruise message boards, tourist boards, even friends or relatives at home who have similar interests and have used these outfitters. I found a person on one message board who is much like me, and has done many "extreme" type excursions. He was able to point me in the direction of good experiences, and I have done the same for him.
Why Doesn't the Ship offer these Excursions? If an "extreme" excursion is so great, why doesn't the cruise line offer it through the shore excursion desk?
Cruise lines have strict guidelines on the types of shore excursions they offer. Obviously, they don't want their passengers to have any accidents -- especially if the line could be considered liable. One doesn't jump out of an airplane or leap off a bridge with rubber bands attached to their ankles thinking there is no chance of anything bad happening. The possibility -- hopefully only a slight one -- of injury or even death is exactly what makes these excursions fun and exciting.
Cruise lines have strict requirements about the amount of liability insurance the excursion provider must maintain. The line wants assurance from the provider that in case of an accident, the excursion provider will be able to handle the potential settlement to the passenger without the cruise line getting involved. In this litigious age, lawsuits are common. And any good lawyer will name everyone as a party to the suit.
So the cruise lines look for "indemnification" from tour providers. Many high-quality excursion providers, even those whose tours are no more dangerous than hiking over a Hawaiian lava field, do not have the resources to provide the required liability insurance. Maybe they are small providers with highly specialized tours and not part of a large tour company. So the cruise lines simply won't use them regardless of positive feedback from passengers about the provider's tours.
Shore excursions are big business in resort areas, and often it's the big fish that get the most business, not necessarily the best. There's a lot of profit-sharing in the tour industry, and excursion providers routinely pay hotels to display their brochures in the lobby -- and they pay cruise lines (in the form of reduced prices) to send business their way. Cruise lines in return will earn higher profits on each ticket sold.
The small operator can't provide the same economies of scale as large tour companies and thus can't compete for the cruise line's business. It is these same smaller providers you often see outside the cruise terminal, hawking their services at far lower prices than those charged by the cruise lines.
Practical Suggestions How do you find the right excursion with a fair price and a safe, reliable operator? Do your research in advance and decide which provider to use long before you get to the port. Check message boards such as those on CruiseMates for customer feedback about the operator's offerings. On the "Ports of Call" boards, you can post a query -- "Has anyone ever used so and so, and what did you think?" This advice, by the way, goes for any excursion -- even a totally "safe" one.
Start swapping emails early with the tour providers you are considering. If they have a toll-free number, call and speak to them. Make a list of questions ahead of time.
Make sure to put your understandings in writing and share them with the tour operator so you are both on the same page.
You'll also get good information by checking out potential tour providers' web sites. Do Google searches on them as well.
If you see a post on a message board or blog with a particularly glowing or disparaging report on a provider, try to email the poster. Most people will gladly respond to a posted request for an email and you can get a more intensive dialogue going than what you could get on a public message board. You can ask more specific questions and get a good feel for an excursion provider's business practices before you send them a deposit.
Once you book with a provider, let him know you checked him out on the Internet, including message boards. This implies that you won't hesitate to go back on those boards when you get home and relate your tale of woe if he doesn't deliver. Also let him know that if the tour is wonderful, you will get back on the boards and let others know about the great experience you had. And then don't forget to email the provider and send him a link to your post. He will appreciate the testimonial and remember how you treated him when you approach him for another tour.
Summing Up When you need a tour that is new and different, something off the beaten track, designing your own shore excursion is the perfect option.
Even if your tastes in excursions are for more "sane" things like comprehensive tours, you can often get a far better deal on your own than through the cruise line. And even if the price is not any lower, you will get a tour customized for your tastes, you'll cover more ground since you won't need to wait for stragglers, and you won't be slowed down by anyone's mobility or punctuality issues.
Setting up your own excursion gives you control over your entire cruise experience. I have a friend who loves to scuba dive, and she takes a lot of cruises with a small group of like-minded people. While the cruise is simply a run-of-the-mill Caribbean sailing, she and her group customize it by pre-arranging independent dive excursions in just about every port. Over the years, they've found their favorite operators and always contact them when their cruise is visiting that port. They may be on a mega-ship, but when it docks, they do their own thing and save money at the same time.
All it takes is a little research; the payoff for that little bit of work will be incalculable.