How to save money on shore tours and time in port during your cruise.
If you take a cruise in Europe you already paid thousands of dollars just to get there, so it makes no sense to skimp at the last minute and not see the destination. However, there are ways to save money on tours, and ways not to do it.
In ports that cruise ships visit on a regular basis you can always find independent tour providers on shore who will give you the same tour at a fraction of the cost. But there are some risks to using them as well. They may have car trouble; get lost, not speak English very well, may not be very truly knowledgeable and frankly just might take you someplace and disappear.
If you are going to use independent tour providers you need to take a few precautions. First, we strongly urge you to use the Internet to find well-established tour guides. Assess their web sites and ask other cruisers for recommendations. The well-established ones depend on their reputations and will do the best job for you. They want to be recommended to your friends.
Make the arrangements with them before you arrive, but do not make full payment until the tour is complete. Use a credit card if possible. As a general rule, if your tour requires a car and guide you will save money by spitting the cost with a group of people. If you can get a van that carries seven people suddenly the price of $400/day does not seem so outrageous. This should buy you the same tour as a cruise ship might charge $150 per person.
Renting cars in various ports of call is easier than you might think, and usually fairly affordable. Once again, splitting the cost will save you a good amount of money. The only drawbacks are that you do not get a driver and tour guide. You are on your own to see what you can, and you may get caught in traffic or lost. It is up to you to weigh the pros and cons, but if you do decide to rent a car we recommend you spend a lot of time studying road maps before you go.
The golden rule of touring is that if you go on your own you are responsible for what happens. If you miss the ship at sail away time it is your own fault, even if it was because the taxi driver ran out of gas. To be sure – using the cruise ship provided tours is always the best way to make sure you will not miss the ship.
Now, I say this with one caveat. We always tell people that taking a ship-sponsored shore tour will guarantee that the ship will not leave port without you. But this only applies for as long as you follow the rules given to you by the tour guide, you cannot "disappear" for an hour and expect the ship to wait. One couple actually thought they could do exactly that, and during a shore excursion to "Atlantis" in Nassau they made a dash for the casino just before the tour guide started gathering up the rest of his flock to return to ship just before sailaway. He looked for the missing couple, keeping in contact with the ship, but after an hour he was advised to head back without them. They missed the ship – don't be "those people."
Another thing you need to watch out for is taxi drivers who take you to a remote place for one price and then try to change the cost to return to the ship. In general, it is not a good idea to rely on taxis to go to a remote or isolated beach. You have no guarantee that you will find a ride back to the ship. You can negotiate with a taxi driver to come and pick you up, but you are putting yourself at his mercy. It is a better idea to either rent a car or to stick to going to places that are well-known to taxis and tourists. Generally, there is a reason why they are popular.