The Savvyseafarer’s Pros and Cons of Shore Excursions
Seeing the world by cruise ships is the most seamless way to go. You can visit dozens of different islands or cities without the hassle of repacking and boarding countless airplanes. And to make it more convenient (and add to corporate profits) cruise line offered a variety of organized shore excursions for an additional fee.
But to book a shore excursion or head off on your own, that is the question. The answer banks on your budget, inclinations and tolerance for potentially long lines, crowded busses and sometimes excruciatingly long shopping stops.
Port tours vary in price depending on cruise line and can run you anywhere from $50 and up a person for a simple snorkel or walking excursion to well over $100 each for such higher-priced options as golf, helicopter rides, seaplane rides and visits to ancient ruins. Some lines even offer overnight excursions to city hotels, or private limousine tours that can run $400 a person and up.
The bottom line is shore excursions are worth it if you want to venture to attractions located far from the pier, have easy access to historic monuments, forts, castles and learn more about an area. However if all you want to do is walk around a port town, shop or go to a beach it could be much cheaper and less time consuming to get a map and go it on your own. For instance: In most Caribbean ports shops and even some attractions are a stone’s throw from the ship, but good beaches are a cab ride away. (Although it still might be less expensive to hail a taxi to the beach than participate in tour). In St. Barths, one of the best beaches, Shell Beach, is just a stroll from the pier and the island is pretty maneuverable on foot.
In big cities it makes better sense to pop for a tour. It is also wiser to take a shore excursion in any Third World country or foreign port where language and customs present a barrier. For example in Brunei you would definitely want to take the guided tour to sites such as the biggest mosque in Asia– Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. You’d probably never find it on your own or much less pronounce the name correctly. And without guidance may not be aware that local custom mandates covering your body from head toe in long pants, long skirt, and long sleeves. More than one cruise passenger has appeared scantily clad at the mosque steps. Fortunately the locals are used to this and have robes available to drape over visitors).
Of course whether on your own or in an organized group you should dress properly where touring.
Locals operate most port tours and cruise lines are pretty much at their mercy. This can be a good thing or a bad in the case of a recent visit to Costa Rica. We were booked on a rain forest trek. Our giddy young female tour operators kept warning us that since it was late in the morning we may not spot any denizens in the area. “We don’t why they send you so late,” they moaned, “the animals are only around in the early morning.” Well one reason it was late was the ship doesn’t arrive any earlier. Which the cruise line should have thought about before adding this tour to the program. Well not only didn’t we see any creatures of the woods, we pretty much didn’t see anything but millions of ants. A spectacle that seemed to fascinate our guide who made us stop for a seeming eternity to watch them cross our path. Needless to say there were many complaints. Not the least of which was about the non-stop blabbing of our guidettes. Which may have been a good thing had it been interesting. It wasn’t.
However in French Polynesia we walked off our ship and into the arms of local tour operators who took us snorkeling, diving and to the beach at half the price charged by the cruise line.
Shore excursion comfort factors vary from ship to ship. Princess Cruises’ New Waves snorkel and scuba trips can’t be beat. Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Seabourn and Radisson Seven Seas also run a tight ship with handpicked tours that usually run smoothly.
Alas too many tours translate into lengthy bus rides, and too much time in souvenir shops. Following a long, hot, but worthwhile tour of the Acropolis outside of Athens, passengers who thought they were being driven directly back to their ship were squirreled into a tacky little shop belonging to the tour guide’s brother-in-law.
The best way to decide on a shore excursion is by reading the brochure thoroughly. Keep a look out for red flags such as: “once there you will have two hours to swim, snorkel, beach comb or just relax.” Now while that doesn’t sound so bad, we’re talking a 6-hour tour that includes two hours on a catamaran. And while champagne and drinks may be proffered (usually bad bubbly besides) do you really want to spend four hours on a boat after being on a ship! Maybe you do. But think about it. The length of the tour is always noted in the brochure deduct time spent getting there to time available once at your destination to decide if this is a good thing or not. For some reason unknown to this seafarer, shore excursions have gotten longer. On a recent cruise it was difficult to find any less than 5 hours long. A couple of hours in a cat or sailboat may not to be tough duty; the same amount of time in a bus may not be that pleasant.
Shore excursion managers are eager to please , answer questions and of course book business. So be sure to discuss the excursion in detail before you plunk down your dough. Some tours involve strenuous treks in hot, humid climes. Cruise lines are quick o point this out to avoid liability or problems. Be sure to pick tours that you can handle physically.
One final caveat: the bigger the ship, the faster shore excursions sell out, so if you still want to take an organized tour, don’t delay, book it soon after you embark or on line if the cruise line permits.
It’s also a good idea to get your hands on a few good guidebooks to learn about the ports of calls you’ll be visiting or surf the web.