An independent tour company now offers shore tours as an alternative to cruise line tours
One big change that the Internet brought to cruising is the freedom to fully plan what you want to do in each port of call well ahead of your actual sailing date. Today, the cruise lines offer full shore excursion information on their web sites, where you can book your tours just as soon as your cruise reservation is confirmed.
In the old days, the only way you could pre-book a shore excursion was to open the tour booklet you got in the mail along with your cruise reservations, mark the tours you wanted to buy, and mail the form back to the cruise line. It was also common for passengers to race to the shore excursions desk as soon as they boarded the ship to put their requested "tour booking forms" into the drop box ahead of everyone else - in the hope that the tours they wanted would still be available.
A few years ago, we noticed a number of people coming into our CruiseMates forums to recommend tour guides to one another. Since it is now easy to book a private tour over the internet by email and PayPal, the options for cruisers to get specialized tour services almost anywhere in the world have increased dramatically. The only drawback to hiring a private tour abroad is the lack of any kind of guarantee from the tour provider.
Booking a private tour in a faraway place often requires a leap of faith, since it is next to impossible to judge the reliability of the tour provider when you cannot meet them in person, or talk to someone who has. This is the main reason why many people have chosen to stick with tours provided by the cruise lines: You always knew you could depend on the tour guide to pick you up, conduct the tour, and get you back to the ship on time. You also knew the cruise line had pre-qualified the tour operator for a certain level of quality.
Now comes Viator, a company that has been in the business of offering specialized tours around the world for many years. Just like the cruise lines, Viator has people who travel around the world to meet tour providers and develop relationships with them. In the past, Viator mostly sold its tours to independent travelers, although a certain number of cruisers have been using them for years.
But now Viator has figured out a way to present listings of optional tours for people on specific cruises, by ship and itinerary, and guarantee that any tour they offer will be fully manageable within the schedule of the cruise. All you have to do is go to www.shoreexcursions.viator.com and click on the tab for "shore excursions." From there, you specify your cruise line and sailing date, and you can select from a list of available shore tours that are often identical to those offered by the cruise line - but at better prices.
Viator has been in this business for years, so the quality and time constraints expected by cruise passengers have already been factored into the tour selection process. In essence, Viator has made it impossible for cruise tourists to make a mistake and book the wrong tour, as long as they enter the correct cruise ship and sailing date. Viator is well aware of the itineraries of the ships they are booking, and guarantees the tours they provide will be just as "safe" for the time constraints of the cruise passenger as those provided by the cruise line itself.
How much savings can you expect from Viator? It depends on which tours you are talking about. I just compared prices for shore tours on a specific sailing on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas to the Western Caribbean. In each case, the Viator tour was cheaper, and I assume the tour is of the same quality as that offered by the cruise ship. But the savings was usually only about $10 per person, or 10 percent on average. The Atlantis submarine adventure sells for $98.99 per person of any age in Viator, while Royal Caribbean charges $109 per adult and $78 for children. The Segway tour on Viator is $61.99 per person, while Royal Caribbean charges $78.
In addition, the number of tour alternatives from Royal Caribbean was greater - the line offers 68 tours in Cozumel alone, including excursions to the excellent Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, or a trip to the Xcaret ecological park. Both of these tours are on the Mexican mainland and are highly recommended by me.
All of Viator's tours were on the island of Cozumel, about five miles from the mainland. Now, I believe Viator offers the same mainland tours as I mentioned above, but they did not offer them to Allure of the Seas cruisers. Surprisingly, Viator does not even seem to offer the very popular Chakanaab Park on Cozumel. I did see a Cozumel tour on Viator that looks very interesting -- a "mini-sub" adventure where every person gets a singular powered underwater vessel, and this is not offered by Royal Caribbean (as far as I could see).
However, Royal Caribbean does offer something called the "underwater power scooter" on Cozumel. These appear to be the same thing according to this video. The Royal Caribbean brochure price is just $49 per person, however we do not have enough information to say whether this is the same tour.
So - the bottom line is that you can save some money and find some very nice tours on Viator, but I would not recommend limiting your tour selection process to just the Viator web site. Be sure to check out the cruise lines' options as well. If the Viator tour is cheaper I would book it. Often a smaller tour provider mneans you get more time having fun and spend less time waiting for other cruisers.