Around the World: Making the Best of Shore Excursions
Cruise ships’ onboard amenities can be so satisfying that you may be tempted to hang out onboard rather than go ashore and explore. It can be difficult to prompt yourself to leave your comfortable deck chair and good book behind for the day, or miss the next round of games staged by the onboard bridge club you’ve joined, or to tear yourself away from the delicious and constantly replenished onboard cuisine.
Fortunately, most ships are staffed with enthusiastic and well informed shore excursion directors who are skilled at booking you on local land tours that are varied enough to appeal to everyone’s inner explorer.
Descriptions of day tours are presented at orientation meetings at the beginning of every cruise, usually shortly after the mandatory safety drill. And, there are usually follow up presentations before the ship arrives in each port of call. And, you’ll find reminders about the shore excursions in the daily schedules delivered to your cabin.
Even if you don’t want to book one of the ship’s organized land tours, you should attend the shore excursion orientation meetings just to get an idea of what’s available in every port of call. Better yet, do your own research before your embarkation by reading up on the ports of call and figuring out what you’d most like to see or do. You can easily find information on the internet, browsing websites belonging to the cruise line and to local tourist boards.
Organized tours offered by cruise lines usually focus on each port’s most popular tourist attractions – the monuments, historic and government buildings, cathedrals and other important houses of worship, parks, fountains, corporate headquarters or factories, historic sites and scenic panoramas. These are highlights, but there are also special interest offerings that take you off the beaten path.
If you’re visiting a port for the first time, you’’ get a great overview by signing up for a half day bus tour that takes you on a whirlwind round of sightseeing and introduces you to the best of the destination. These bus tours take you to see everything. But, you don’t stop anywhere for more than photo op – and that is, most of the time, through the window of the bus. There may be one or two ten-minute stops for taking photos, and one restroom stop. But, that’s it. So, opt fprthe morning bus tour, so if you find one of the featured attractions particularly interesting, you can return for a closer look in the afternoon -- after the tour bus has returned you to the ship.
Sometimes the sightseeing bus tour takes a full day, depending upon how far the city’s attractions are from the port. If you’re cruising around Italy and want to see Rome, you’ll have an hour and a half bus ride to get there from the port at Citavecchia. In that situation, the ship’s shore excursion is probably your best bet for both time and value.
The cruise lines have contracts with local tour operators, most often opting for the best the port has to offer. If you’re in a big European port such as Copenhagen or Venice, you can expect sleek busses with comfortable sets, air conditioning and loudspeakers. If you’re on a small island in the South Pacific, don’t be surprised to find yourself aboard a rattling school bus with bench seats, open windows and a lot of personality.
Guides on board the busses chat about local history, culture and lore – and the quality of their commentary varies greatly. Some are well informed and serious in their presentations, others are annoyingly superfluous and inject a stream of silly jokes. Unfortunately you have no control over who you get as a guide. You just have to go with the flow. But if you want to know more about the sites you’re passing, bring along a guide book with which to supplement the guide’s commentary.
If you’re interested in a more interactive shore experience, opt for an excursion that engages you in a local adventure of some sort – such as a day trek through a national park, snorkeling or scuba diving on a coral reef, snowmobiling on a glacier, biking up a volcano, learning about flora and fauna in a rain forest, big game fishing, enjoying a lobster bake on a remote beach or dining at a glorious local bistro of note, taking a guided walking tour of the inner city or old town, or of the town’s top museums or historical sites, or playing the links of a famous golf course. These are among the many shore excursions offered to cruise passengers.
Tour excursions vary widely in price. The standard sightseeing bus tour costs around $49 per person, plus the $5 to $10 tip you’re expected to give the guide. Other sorts of excursions range from about $85 to $200 per person, or more for excursions that involve helicopter or private limousine transfers, yacht rentals, fees for admission to exclusive clubs, gourmet dining and other such adventures.
It’s best to budget for shore tours as ‘extras’ and know beforehand that they can add substantially to your onboard tab, especially if you’re traveling with a family of four. Before booking, do the math to avoid credit card shock.
An alternative – that may or may not be less expensive – is to book shore excursions on your own. If you like the ship’s tour’s itinerary, you might be able to book it directly with the local tour operator at a cost that’s less than what the ship charges. To do this, go on line to search for tour operators at your destination, then browe their websites for the itinerary that’s closest to the ship’s shore excursions. You can reserve a wide range of shore excursions around the world at Viatour (http://www.Viatour.com) and other specialty online travel agents.
Or, you can hire a local guide through the local tourist board, either before sailing or when you get to the destination. Tourist boards usually have an office or representative in the vicinity of the port.
In some destinations, guide services have standard fees per hour. In other places, you’ll have to negotiate the fees – and always do so before setting out on your tour.
Or you can really design your own tour by making a list of the sights you’d like to see, hailing a taxi and visiting them one by one, guidebook in hand. In cities like Copenhagen or Vancouver there’s no need for concern about heading out on your own in a taxi. The cabs are metered, and drivers are licensed. The taxi tour might not be such a good idea in ports where there is a higher crime rate or political unrest.
Another option is just getting off the ship and walking around, especially when you’ve docked in or near the center of town. Grab a map and a bottle of drinking water, and have an adventure. Bring along some local currency, in case you see some souvenirs you’d like to buy or decide to take a cab or bus to get to another part of town.
Before deciding which approach to take to shore excursions, find out how far the tourist attractions are from the port and what’s located near the dock, and whether cabs, busses and rental cars are available nearby. Find out the cost of admission to attractions and whether you need reservations to get in.
If you’re going off on your own, be sure to keep track of time. One of the best things about going on a shore excursion booked through the ship is that you know you’ll get back to the ship before it departs. If you’re on your own adventure and miss the ship’s departure, you’re going to have to catch up with the vessel at the next port – and that’s going to cost you a fortune.
Picking the right shore excursions is really just a matter of common sense, of knowing what you best like to do and finding the most convenient and least expensive way to do it. But anyway you organize and book your shore experiences, it does make good sense to tour your ports of call, and not just hangout aboard the ship – no matter how comfortable your deck chair may be.