Greetings from hazy Ensenada! I’m enjoying a leisurely day in port with my margarita & guacamole brunch (and free AT&T wifi hotspot) before we do a bit of lazy wandering.
Every cruise I take, I’m repeatedly asked the question “which shore excursion are you taking?” – by friends before I leave as well as by my dining companions and others I meet on the cruise. And no matter what my response is, I can never predict the response my answer will get.
Because many people feel very strongly about shore excursions – that they are either an absolute necessity to properly experience a day in port or a complete waste of money. Some insist that cruise line run excursions are the only safe way to see a port. Others feel that anything but an independent guide is a waste of time and money. And others abhor any kind of organized activity, preferring to see sights on their own.
I have been known to straddle positions – on my upcoming Singapore to Bali cruise, I’ll actually exercise all three options.
Here is how I decide what is best for me for any given port:
1. Determine if there are any port restrictions that require use of a ship-run tour.
Some ports require a ship-run tour if you wish to disembark.
For example, on my upcoming cruise, Komodo Island is a tender-only port and restricted (for safety reasons) to guests on ship-led excursions. There I will book via the cruise line as it’s a “must see” stop for me.
But it’s important to clarify that it’s truly a restriction. Many cruise lines imply that St. Petersburg will only allow for disembarkation for guests with a booked shore excursion but neglect to mention that it does not have to be booked through the cruise line. I used SPB Tours in St. Petersburg and saw more sights for less cost than what counterparts who took the big ship-run shore excursions did.
2. Read port reviews.
In the weeks prior to a cruise, scour blogs and cruise-focused websites for for port information. In some ports, local authorities run free town shuttles or have attractions that are walking distance from the ship. Nothing is worse than paying for a special tour only to run into your table mates self-touring for free after you’ve paid to see the exact same things. This happened to me in Bulgaria earlier this year – I found a free walking tour with a local – others paid almost $100 for a similar tour via the ship!
3. Evaluate all options for a given port and who can provide them.
Comparison shop, because often several operators will have similar tours and the cruise line may be booking space with those local companies and marking up the price to take their cut.
If you find identical tours, consider booking directly. You may also find options the tour company may not provide due to interests or limitations.
In San Juan last year, a cooking tour caught my eye. A friend I was cruising with investigated and found a better culinary option directly through Spoon Food Tours. We ended up with a unique culinary experience that others on the ship did not enjoy!
4. Compare options, and don’t just rely on descriptions.
Sometimes the same tours really are not the same at all. As I noted above, my St. Petersburg tour was much more extensive than ship tours. I know from experience not to rely on website or brochure descriptions. Instead, I ask questions, request to see specifics (detailed itineraries, what might be included as a “snack” or “lunch”, etc.).
This is how I avoided booking a 13 hour tour to Bucharest earlier this year that included almost 7 hours of factored bus time and almost 3 hours of “special shipping villages and/or meal times. I would have been disappointed to have under 3 hours of actual sights in my day. Cruise line expedition desks have very detailed binders of information – keep asking questions until you know what you need.
If I had done this on my last snorkel trip in the Caribbean. I would have known that my 4 hour snorkel trip only included 30-45 minutes of actual in-water time and avoided that disappointment.
5. Factor your individual needs and interests.
If you have specific interests, you may be better off with a private specialty tour. Military history in a Vietnamese port, Jewish history in Europe, environmental tours, foodie tours – many individual interests can be met through specialty tour operator.
If you are traveling with small children or have mobility impairments, a smaller tour group may provide more ease with time flexibility.
Smaller or private groups also may allow you to customize to tailor your agenda. If you desire more shopping and less guided time, consider a private driver in lieu of a guide (always my preferred option in Bali, for example).
6. Have a backup plan.
Even with a tour booked, it’s good to have a “what if” plan.
Last year in one Caribbean port, we were greeted at the port by our private catamaran operator who decided the weather did not look great and wanted to refund our money for our full day charter. We reluctantly accepted and watched grimly as all the ship excursions departed. An hour later, we we happy when a massive storm rolled in. We were dry and safe on the ship (reading on a covered outdoor deck) when we watched our drenched cruise mates roll back in from their rough excursions.
Which brings me back to today.
Nothing caught my eye for shore excursions so instead I had a lazy breakfast on the ship. My sister and I wandered into town and have enjoyed free wifi and margaritas while noshing on homemade tortillas and guacamole. We’ve been able to survey other cruise mates about the best bargains (as they’ve rolled in after their early shopping time) so now we’ll stroll around town to do a bit of shopping before heading back to the ship. And because I used my six factors, I’m confident in my choices for the day!
Adios from Mexico!
I’ll see you mañana on my way home – and next week I’ll break down the Princess Cruises experience for you!