Tourist or Traveler?

| Saturday, 14 Jan. 2006

There's a difference between tourists and travelers. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett defined it well in his book "A Pirate Looks at Fifty."

Tourists, he says, are the folks who want to take America with them when they travel. They want to find people who speak English, rest rooms with familiar plumbing, a McDonald's around the corner and a Hard Rock Cafe nearby. There's nothing wrong with being a tourist. Cruise ships provide the opportunity with shore excursions in port. Motorcoach packages like the upscale Tauck Tours do the same thing on land.

Many people will cruise into totally exotic locations without the first clue from their own research about what they're likely to experience there. They get on the buses and go wherever they're taken. That's O.K. And that's being a tourist, complete with video cam and English-speaking guide. You won't have much chance to exercise your individuality or free will, but you will get back to your ship, hotel or bus on time, with no hassles.

Travelers are something else again. Even if you only have a few hours in a port, you can switch from "tourist" to "traveler" by doing some advance research and being a bit flexible. You can explore on your own, finding things that are left off the well-beaten tourist path. But it does require a little advance work researching the ports on your itinerary.

There is no substitute for doing your homework before a cruise or any other trip. There is nothing more annoying than tourists complaining because they were not "told" about certain experiences that might be available. "Tourists" tend to get testy when "travelers" speak of their adventures.

Whether you're a first-time cruiser or a veteran of the high seas, the answer is at your fingertips. It's called The Internet. And if you are reading this, you probably have access.

You could hop through a bunch of generic Web sites where the proprietor simply trolls the Internet and puts up links to anything that has your port's name in it. But take reviews from such sources with a grain of sea salt. A recommendation for a "gourmet restaurant" loses its sheen when you realize that the person who recommended it tends to put ketchup on a perfectly cooked veal chop.

Recently, I saw an on-line recommendation for information that supposedly covered ports all over the world; the site name said "world-ports." Not so. Once I located a port I'd visited (Singapore), the content was nothing more than a link or two to what somebody else said about the port--and there were inaccuracies.

Instead, consider Pamda's Research Hints:

Don't forget to use the SEARCH function to see feature articles written by the CruiseMates staff about your destination and also read CruiseMates' reviews. The featured reviews are highly recommended and carefully chosen.

Then, go to the DESTINATIONS section to read and ask questions.

*Next, check the cruise line's web site. There will be some fluff and puff, but you will be able to see the ship's layout, locate your cabin (or where you would like your cabin to be) and the itinerary.

*After that, start cruising the ports on your itinerary. A GOOGLE.COM or DOGPILE.COM search will, usually, be a gold mine. "Official" sites, such as Tourist Bureaus, will also have a component of fluff and puff, putting their destinations in the best possible light.

Even though you will be on a ship, check out restaurants and hotels in the ports. Those sites give you a "feel" for the place you will be visiting. Prepare to spend some time in the exercise.

*Look for maps of the port cities or towns. And check the local weather. www.weather.com is a good bet.

*Compare the prices of the ship's own tours ("official" shore excursions) with those of local tour operators. There are plenty of companies out there offering a similar experience, often for a lot less. Two sites for this purpose are www.excursions.com and www.shoretrips.com.

*Be creative and keep an open mind. Sometimes one site will jangle a little brain bell and take you off into a direction you hadn't intended to go. GO!

*Print or "bookmark" the sites that you like so you can go back easily. Search engines can be skittish and you might not get the same results even with the same query.

*Read every review you can find, anywhere, about your ship and the ports you w ill be visiting. Evaluate the credibility of the reviewer from your own good common sense.

*Ask questions on-line, whether here at CruiseMates or anywhere else. Be wary of empty adjectives such as "horrific" or "terrific". Don't hesitate to e-mail folks who have posted reviews and ask specific questions. People usually like to be asked questions about their experiences.

*Don't forget your local library or bookstore. Even though print material may be somewhat out of date compared to the immediacy of the Internet, the publishers of the major guidebooks have high editorial standards.

*An often-missed source of information is the cruise ship staff. They have been to those ports many, many times and have probably doped out the best of everything, including the location of the nearest Internet cafe, the closest beach, and what taxi fares are. Don't hesitate to ask your cabin steward, your waiter, or anyone else on staff.

*Another great source of information might be your fellow cruisers. Though most people don't wait until the last minute to decide what to do tomorrow, there just may be a world traveler sitting next to you in the lounge, who will be happy to give you the lowdown on an experience you will never forget.

Whether your style is Timid Tourist or Fearless Freelancer, KNOW BEFORE YOU GO so you can make good choice.

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