Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cruising 101 - Shore Excursions

In previous Cruising 101 posts, I’ve talked about selecting and booking a cruise.
Today I’m going to talk about shore excursions. 

One of the best things about cruising is pulling into a new port each morning and setting out to explore.  How you spend your time off the ship can certainly make or break your vacation.  There are three ways to approach shore excursions.

1.  Book directly with the cruise line

Each cruise line will have a long list of excursions for each port.  Once you’ve booked your cruise, go through the list to see all of the exciting ways to spend your time on shore.  They offer a large variety at various activity levels.

There are several Pros to dealing directly with the cruise line.  Everything is planned for you.  Just show up at the assigned spot, get your numbered sticker and off you go.  You’re typically dealing with reputable tour companies that have a professional relationship with the cruise line.  In addition, if there are any problems along the way it will be handled by the cruise line.  Most importantly, if the tour is delayed the ship will wait for you to get back on board.

But, there are some Cons also.  To be honest, Matt and I often scorn the massive, shuffling groups of “paddle people.”  The groups can be very large and plodding.  The cruise excursions offered by the ships are sometimes the most expensive option.  

We rarely go this route, but the few times that we have turned out fine.  On a Caribbean cruise, we booked a last minute Dolphin Experience for my birthday which was fantastic.  On my recent MSC Cruise, I was pleasantly surprised with our city tour excursions in Genoa and Aix-en-Provence.  The groups were a comfortable size and the tour guides were terrific.  We also will sometimes use the cruise line's airport transfers for convenience.  

2.  Book with a local tour company

A little more risky, but we’ve had great results with this approach.  The biggest risk is that if you’re delayed, the cruise ship WILL leave without you.  It’s great sport on a cruise ship to head to the upper decks and watch the stragglers run for the boat as the horn blares its imminent departure.   But cruise passengers are the bed and butter for these local tour groups.  They are well informed and will get you back to the ship in plenty of time. 

We love this option for several reasons.  We’re directly supporting the local economy.  The groups are usually smaller.  With a smaller group, you are able to make the most of your time.  In fact, we often go with a private tour with just us and a guide, offering flexibility and individual attention.  You would think this option would be the most expensive, but it’s usually not.  We’ve actually saved money this way.  This is what we did in St. Petersburg, Athens and Ephesus.

I don’t recommend just walking off the ship and going off with one of the last minute operators vying for your business in the port.  It’s critical to select a reputable and professional tour company with great word of mouth referrals. is the best place to start.  We always book online well ahead of time and take advantage of the protection that comes with using a credit card.

3.  Strike out on your own. 

Depending on the port this is a pretty easy option.  But typically the ports are some distance from the city, so don’t expect to be dropped of at the city center.  It’s important to research your transportation options.  Buses or taxis will usually get you from the port to the city.  Public transport might also be an option.

This one also requires research so that you spend your time wisely and are prepared.   And keep an eye on the time.  You don’t want to arrive back at the port to see your cruise ship sailing away.  If you’re using public transport, be sure to have a Plan B.  In Stockholm, we were depending on a bus to get us back to the port only to realize that the bus didn’t run on Sundays.  That was a long (and grumpy) walk back to the ship. 

Here are some questions to consider when you’re deciding which option to go with?

What is the size of the city? 
Is it walkable? 

How usable is the public transport?

How far is the port from the city?

How safe is the city?

What’s your budget?

How big is your group?

What are the ages and activity levels of your group?

How much travel experience do you have?

How much research are you willing to do?

How much risk are you willing to accept?

Different itineraries also lend themselves to a specific option.  In the Caribbean, we usually head to a beach on our own or pre-book a water excursion.   Each stop on our Baltic Cruise was a city that we could easily explore on foot or with public transport.  (The exception was St. Petersburg where you can’t leave the ship without being part of a tour.)  Our Med cruise ended up being the most expensive because we booked excursions at almost every port. 

Two last points. 

1.  Be sure to consider the additional expense of shore excursions when budgeting for your cruise.  Costs can add up very quickly and even double the price of your cruise. 

2.  Pay attention to transfer times.  That excursion may sound wonderful but if it means three hours on a bus, you might want to pass.  Shore time is limited so make the best of it.

 So much to consider, isn’t it?  But, I promise it’s worth it.  


What about you?  How do you approach shore excursions?

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