You have booked your cruise and now the cruise liner is sending you email reminders about booking your shore excursions with them. You take a look at the prices, count the number of people in your party, and almost faint. Your fantastic cruise deal that you couldn’t walk away from is starting to look a lot less amazing. You don’t want to stay on board at these incredible ports. You are dying to explore and learn about the places where you are going. That’s one of the reasons why you decided to take this cruise.
What do you do? Bite the bullet and book your shore excursions through the cruise liner? Or find some other way to explore or fill your time at port?
Shore Excursions: What are Your Options?
When you reach a port, there are five options. You can:
- Stay on board;
- Stay at the Port;
- Explore on your own;
- Take cruise sponsored shore excursions; or
- Book your own shore excursions through local tour operators.
Stay On Board
Some people love to remain on board when they reach a port. They do so for two main reasons.
First, they like the relative peace and quiet of the cruise ship once most passengers leave. They also like to use all of the on-board amenities without the craziness of a fully packed cruise.
Second, they don’t feel like the hassle of getting on and off the cruise ship. Cruise ships are enormous with a lot of people on it. Depending on the port and the passport or visa requirements of the country that you are visiting, there might be a lot of lining up and waiting to get on or off the boat. The cruise ships are pretty good at minimizing this, but if you are on a lengthy cruise, there just might be days that you decide you can’t bear to go through that.
Most of the time, I can’t wait to get off the cruise ship. However, I do understand both of these sentiments. I have returned early from shore excursions and enjoyed spending time on the ship with plenty of space to myself. I have also wanted to avoid the process of getting on and off the boat.
Stay At The Port
This option is really only relevant for Caribbean cruises. In many ports, the port is nice and inviting with lots of amenities. You don’t have to leave it to go shopping, or find restaurants and bars. In other ports, there are a good selection of shops and restaurants just outside the port. Without too much effort, you can go for a casual walk, have a drink or a meal and entertain yourself for a bit. Of course, what you are going to get is a very touristy experience. The merchandise for sale will be overpriced and lack originality. The restaurants in and around the port will also be expensive and cater to tourists. It will not likely offer authentic food from the area. However, this is an option.
In Europe, most ports are working ports. When you disembark, there is nothing pretty or inviting about them. Ships are being loaded or unloaded with cargo. It is much more difficult, if not impossible, to hang out at an European port and enjoy it.
Explore On Your Own
Another option is to arrive at a port and go off on your own. This seemed to happen more often on our European cruises, but of course, this can be done anywhere. In Europe, cruise ships normally (but not always) dock near the city that you want to explore. Public transportation is usually very easy to access from the port.
Some people make a plan on where they want to go, how they will do it, and how best to manage their time. Others might only wish to see one particular site and feel comfortable taking the day to find it and explore. While others want nothing more than to shop, walk or find a terrific restaurant in the centre of the city without anything truly organized or nailed down. Normally, these people have been to the area before and feel quite comfortable finding their way, or are seasoned travellers confident in their abilities.
This option is not for everyone, but is quite achievable for those who are good with maps and have an adventurous spirit.
Cruise Sponsored Shore Excursions
These are the ones organized by and offered through the cruise ship. There are usually a diverse range of activities to appeal to many different interests. These range from spending the day at an all inclusive beach or water park to touring ancient or historical sites.
There are many advantages of choosing to do one of the shore excursions offered by your cruise ship.
- Like a cruise ship experience, everything is taken care of. You are told to meet at a certain time and place, and everything is organized for you – transportation, guides, and timing. It is effortless.
- The cruise ship normally schedules its own shore excursions to have an early departure time or a more stream-lined exit procedure so that you avoid the hassle of disembarking with everyone else.
- You do not have to be stressed about being late and the cruise ship leaving without you. A cruise ship has a very strict schedule. If you do not return to the boat by the designated time, the cruise ship will simply leave without you. However, if you book an excursion offered by the cruise, and for some reason the excursion becomes delayed, then the cruise ship will wait for you.
- Shore excursions will be vetted by the cruise line and be of a similar standard as your cruise ship experience. The guides will likely be very professional and good at what they do. Further, the transportation to and from and the activity itself would likely have similar safety guidelines as North America.
- The cruise ship knows the ports of calls and the order in which it visits them. It also knows the age and demographics of its passengers. Consequently, a cruise liner normally provides a package of shore excursions that satisfies most passengers’ interests.
- Ship sponsored shore excursions can be easily adapted in the event of a late arrival to the port or bad weather. This might be far more difficult to accomplish, if at all, if you have booked your own independent shore excursions.
Why I book Our Own Shore Excursions
Nonetheless, I prefer to book our own shore excursions with outside tour operators. Why?
- Typically, the cost of shore excursions offered by the cruise ship is exponentially more than the amount charged by local independent tour operators. When you are a family of six, the difference in price becomes significant.
- The cruise ship usually organizes shore excursions that maximizes participation. Accordingly, dozens and dozens of people from the cruise can and normally do register for them. This might not make much of a difference if you are heading to a large beach for a few hours. You can all spread out and enjoy the peace and quiet. However, a large crowd could impact a smaller beach or other types of excursions, such as visiting historical or cultural sites.
- A small group or private tour allows participants the ability to ask questions. You may also be able to adapt the itinerary to meet the needs of you and your family.
- Cruises are normally jammed pack with people. I enjoy having time away from the other passengers and from the cruise ship experience.
- I like to take excursions that allow me to see a new destination as genuinely as possible. I’d rather get away from the crowds and visit a remote beach or park, or try and understand a local culture by visiting something off the beaten path, than flock to standard tourist destinations. Generally, cruise ships offer excursions that appeal to as many passengers as possible. It is in their interests to make sure their excursions are sold out, not only for financial reasons but also to keep the majority of passengers happy. Accordingly, I am not interested in most excursions offered by cruise ships.
- Most local tour operators catering to shore excursions organize them so that it is easy to meet your driver or guide at the port. It might seem overwhelming to receive instructions to walk through the port and exit at a certain place to find your car, driver or guide. However, the reality is most local tour operators have made it as simple as possible for their clients. This is one of the ways they stay in business.
- Most local tour operators catering to shore excursions also understand the importance of returning their clients to the ship on time. I have never been on one that did not have a schedule and was not strictly followed.
When a cruise ship reaches a port, passengers have many options about how they want to use their time. What you choose to do is a very personal decision. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. For me and my family, we prefer shore excursions that are with local tour operators that offer private or small group tours. We like shore excursions that are off the beaten track, and are less expensive than the cruise sponsored ones. That is what works best for our family.
However, this is not always possible or desirable. I have booked cruise sponsored shore excursions when I wanted to see or do something hours away from the port. I did not want to worry about traffic problems that could impact a timely return to the boat. Once, we explored a European city on our own that was close to the port because there wasn’t a lot of time. We also didn’t want to see or experience any one thing on a tour. And as mentioned above, a couple of times we arrived back early to our cruise ship and enjoyed our time there without the crowds and noise. Each experience was enjoyable, rewarding and had its purpose.
For other articles about taking a cruise, please refer to the following:
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