Advice from an experienced cruise agent
There are basically two schools of thought concerning how to book shore excursions to enjoy while on your cruise; you can book through the cruise line or
book them independently.
You will often hear people say they would only book their excursions through the cruise line and would NEVER book independent excursions. And the reason they always provide is that if you book through the cruise line, it's more secure and the cruise line will guarantee you won't miss the ship. To them, it's all about feeling safe because they don't feel comfortable doing any other way. However, these excursions are usually more expensive, more regimented, less enjoyable, and always more crowded.
If you book independently, you'll hear these same people will say it's less secure and there's no guarantees you won't miss the ship if something happens. However, there are different ways to book independently; one is to simply do your own thing - rent a car, hire a taxi, take public transportation, etc. Or you can book it with an independent shore excursion company, such as Shore Trips. (There are many other good companies, but I'm using them as an example.) Good thing about booking with a large company like this is that they guarantee you won't miss the ship and, if on the off-chance you do, they'll pay to get you to the next port of call. However, as Julie Karp, Owner and President of Shore Trips, pointed out to me with great pride, in the tens of thousands of shore excursions they've booked for people, no one has ever missed the ship - it just doesn't happen. Excursions like this are sometimes the same price, but often they're cheaper. However, they are not as regimented, more enjoyable, and always less crowded. (We've actually done some where Nancy and I have been the only two people on the excursion!) We've personally been doing them for years and in 45 cruises have never had any problems. We also have over 2700 clients around the world who have used them thousands of times and in the 11 years we've owned our own company, they have never reported any major troubles.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, you'll always hear the naysayers who say they would never book an excursion through anyone other than the cruise line
because they don't want to take a chance and miss the ship. I've had conversations with several captains on different cruise lines about this very issue
and they have all told me the same thing; they never want to leave anyone behind, but it's all about communication. If the passengers who are going to be
late are not in communication with the ship, then the captain has no alternative but to leave them. If the passengers are in contact with the ship, then
the captain will do their best to help with the problem. Obviously, they do have some constraints that will impact those actions, especially when dealing
with how much time is needed.
What they told me, which was not really a surprise, was people are NOT left behind because they were on an independent excursion. They said the overwhelming reason why people miss the ship is because they were not aware of the time! (This is why it's vitally important to make sure your watch is set to ship time, check it regularly, and know what time you have to be back on the ship.) They said a lot of these situations are caused by passengers who go to a bar, get a little drunk, party a little too much, and just forget about what time it was or what time the ship left. Of course, these reasons have to do with awareness and taking responsibility for their own actions.
This is why I always highly suggest to my clients that it is very important they take certain things with them when going into port. Among other things they may need or want, they should always take: 1) their sail-n-sign card; 2) a copy of their passport/birth certificate (not the original - leave that in their stateroom safe); 3) a cell phone; 4) credit card/cash; 5) driver's license or photo ID; 6) a watch set to the ship time and to check it regularly - do not rely on local clocks; and most important, 7) the newsletter.
The ship's daily newsletter not only has the time they need to be back on the ship, but it also has the local port authority contact information and should
something happen, they're able to get in touch with the ship.
Any reputable independent company is well aware of how to contact the ship, but it's always advisable to take a cell phone just in case you need to make the call. You may not even be on a shore excursion and just be walking down the street, trip, break an ankle, and have to go to the hospital, which could cause you to be late. So it's always good to have the information just in case.
Of course, the cruise lines encourage this fear about missing the ship, especially among first-time cruisers who don't know any better, because it's good for their profit margin. They make a lot of money on excursions. As an example, we wanted to book the motorcycle tour around a southern Caribbean island. The cruise line wanted $355 per couple; the local Harley dealer only charged $155 per couple. There were 6 couples on the tour; 4 of us booked with the dealer and two couples booked through the cruise line. We were all on the same tour together! Guess who had more fun; those who paid $155 or those who paid $355? We booked a helicopter/dog sled tour in Juneau, Alaska; we paid $125 less per person than the cruise line charged! I could give you dozens of examples and tell you many stories we've received from our clients, but you get the point.
However, I will share one experience that sums up why it's sometimes better not to do the cruise line's excursion. We were on a 14-night Greek Island cruise and made a port stop at Katakolon, Greece, which is called 'The Gateway to Olympia'. Most passengers want to see the archeological site at Olympia and book excursions through the cruise line. Cost of the excursion is about $79 per person, which allows for about an hour trip by 45-passenger bus up to Olympia, an hour tour of the site and museum, an hour for shopping, and an hour return.
We were told in the daily newsletter than excursions would be delayed because the archeological site was closed until 2:00pm, but we were not told why. Nancy and I decided to do our own thing, so we walked through Katakolon to the train station. We waited about 20 minutes and boarded the next train. Cost was about $5 roundtrip for the two of us for the 45 minute ride on a beautiful air conditioned train. When we got to Olympia, we walked towards the archeological site to find that, in fact, it was closed until 2:00pm. Why? Because they were having the Olympic torch lighting ceremony for the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games!!
Obviously, we could not get in, so we found a wonderful Greek pub right near the City Hall that had a large screen TV. We sat, ordered some great Greek beer, and watched the entire ceremony while our fantastic Greek hosts explained to us what was happening, why it was of historical significance, and what was being said - after all, it was all Greek to us! The whole thing lasted about 90 minutes and was remarkable. Here, in the U.S., whenever they show the ceremony, it's a quick 60-second spot showing the torch lighting and that's it. We never get to see the complete ceremony and that's a shame as it is absolutely amazing. After enjoying our beer, our wonderful hosts, and sharing an amazing adventure, we stepped out on main street to watch the first torch runner coming up the road.
He ran up to City Hall, where they paid homage to the Mayor and the citizens of Olympia, passed the torch to another runner, and he continued through the streets of Olympia followed by the complete entourage. We have all this on video! After the torch left, we walked over and got our pictures taken with the first torch runner. To see the Olympic flame in person is awesome. To see the Olympic flame in person with the first torch runner in Olympia, Greece is priceless!! We then walked over to the archeological site and toured around for about an hour. As we were leaving, here came the crowded buses from the cruise line with 45 people in each one having no idea what they had just missed. They paid $79 per person and look what they got. We paid $2.50 per person and look what we got!!
As long as you take the normal precautions, you'll be fine. We've done independent excursions all over the world, including China, Japan, Taiwan, the Greek Islands, the Baltics, Russia, Tahiti, and all around Europe. We've never had any problems. We've pre-planned excursions and we've just walked off the ship and negotiated with taxis. We've booked with small local companies and big well-known companies. We've taken public transportation, including buses, trains, and subways. It's the same in the U.S. as it is in foreign ports - we do our homework, research the port/city, decide where we want to go and what we want to see, and then take normal precautions based on where we are and where we're going.
We've booked many groups over the years of varying sizes and have always found it much cheaper and easier to book independent tours for them than to book
excursions through the cruise lines. Depending on the size of the group, often the cruise lines don't offer a reduced rate or cannot handle the group as a
whole. We've never encountered a problem when booking groups with an independent company.
So don't let people scare you into thinking that taking shore excursions through the cruise line is the only safe way to go - it's just not true. There is absolutely no proof to those statements and no statistics to back up the claims. Besides, there have been many reports where thieves have specifically targeted excursions sold by the cruise lines because they know all about them; when, where, how many, and who. If people are less adventuresome and feel more comfortable paying a higher price to book a crowded excursion through the cruise line, then good for them. As for us, we much prefer to go another route so we can better experience and enjoy the local port and all it has to offer.
So, how should you book your shore excursions?
First, and most important, always book your vacation through a reputable travel agent. They represent you and should you have any problems, they will help you anyway they can. If you book directly with the cruise line, who do you think they represent? Your agent can be invaluable and they can save you time, money, and hassle. And since their services are free, it makes sense to utilize their expertise. They will normally have contracts with some of the larger shore excursion companies or will have vendors they have a working relationship with.
Second, do your homework. Research where you're going and get as much information as you can. Figure out what you want to see and where you want to go. Then decide how best to do what you want to or how best to get there. You may find you don't need any formal shore excursion. For example, you may just want to go to a nice beach for the day and it's only a short distance from the pier, so a taxi may be the way to get there.
Third, determine your budget and time. Sometimes you simply can't do what you want to do because it's too expensive or takes too long to get it done. And sometimes these factors will impact the type of transportation you can use and whether or not you have other options available to you.
Fourth, if the only way to do what you want to do is to book a formal shore excursion, then look at what the cruise line has to offer. Sometimes it may be the only way to book the excursion, such as when you're on the cruise line's private island. If that's not the case, then seek out other options and compare all the details to see what's best for you.
Finally, if you've decided to utilize an independent excursion, then research reviews. Ask for suggestions and ideas from your agent, or family and friends who have been there. Use resources, such as cruise forums and Trip Advisor. There is a wealth of information on the internet and people are very willing to share their experiences, both good and bad.
The bottom line is to enjoy your cruise. Everyone is different and as my favorite saying goes, "What one person loves, another will hate." So, deciding whether to do shore excursions or not, or how to book them is a personal choice. That's why it's important to work with an agent who can help with the process and help you decide what's in your best interest based on your specific needs.
Pete Peterson is a CruiseMates staffmember and a certified cruise counselor and seller of cruises through his own Cruise Planners franchise: www.storybookcruises.com.