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The Low Down on Shore Excursions: What You Need to Know Before Heading Off On An Ocean-Going Cruise

Cruising is, for the most part, an easy, breezy style of vacation.

Or at least that holds for the time on-board ship. But many cruisers, especially first-timers, find that shore days can be stressful. The crowds in port, the limited time, the many choices for activities and sights--it all can be overwhelming.

But it doesn’t have to be. Below are some of the major issues that confront cruisers and advice from two experts on how to tackle them.

1) Taking a tour vs. going it alone

In many ports vacationers can simply walk off the ship and either stroll to the sights, or take some form of publicly available transportation (taxis or buses) to get where they’re going. But it’s folly to assume that this type of easy access will be available. “European cruises are notorious for dumping passengers in really industrial areas,” warns Sherry Laskin, founder of “And many of the Caribbean islands have several ports. Some of these will be convenient to the beaches and sights, but others won’t.”

Laskin notes that itineraries that include stops in Kusadesi (Turkey), Livorno and Civitavecchia (Italy) and Cozumel (Mexico) can be particularly tricky for cruisers to navigate as passengers are set ashore a long way from the sights of interest (in Cozumel, there are three ports, so much depends on which your ship uses).

“What’s most important is to do advance research on the ports, whether that means talking with an experienced travel agent or getting a book on the subject,” says Fran Golden, noted cruise expert and author of Frommer’s EasyGuide to Alaskan Cruises and Ports of Call. “That way, you know what you’re getting into and you can make smart choices.”

2) Booking the Tours Offered by the Cruise Line vs. Going with a Private Label Company

This calculation comes into play when you’re in a destination where the port is far from the top sights; or when the tour offers a truly unique experience, one that an individual couldn’t recreate.

The experts are divided on this question. “My rule of thumb is the farther you go from the ship, the better off you are booking a cruise line excursion,” says Golden. “If you’re on a cruise line sponsored tour and you get back to port late, the ship will wait for you. If you go off with a private company and you miss the boat, it’s up to you to make your way to the next port and that can be a huge hassle.” She also notes that passengers often debark the ship and go with one of the local companies that troll for passengers on the docks. “That can be dangerous because you don’t know whether they have adequate liability insurance, and what their safety record is like.”

Those points are valid, Laskin admits, but she points out that the better private label companies—which include, and—will usually guarantee a timely return to port, fully vet the local companies they use, and provide insurance should you miss the boat (in general, they promise to assume the costs for your transportation to the next port).

But the appeal of the private labels goes even further. “I have done both and the main difference that I’ve noticed--and I don’t think its because of the trip that I booked--is you have less people on the private tours, which equates to a more personalized experience. Recently, I did a cave-river tubing trip with a private company in the same place where the cruise line was taking its customers.  They had a chain of people long waiting to enter the water, whereas we had only 12.”

“I’ve seen an even bigger difference in Europe with the private labels,” continues Laskin. “It’s more appealing to be in a smaller group in Europe because you get into the attractions quicker. You enter at the top of the line, rather than at the back with all the other large tour groups.”

Private label companies can also be significantly cheaper, but that may be changing. Just last month, Carnival announced it would be instituting a “Best Price Guarantee” for its excursions. If other cruise lines follow, that could mean more affordable cruise-sponsored tours. But that’s a big if, and as Laskin noted “the cruise lines have been overpricing their shore excursions for years!”

Sightseeing vs. Active Adventures vs. Cultural Experiences

Not so long ago, the typical shore excursion would involve packing 40 people into a bus and taking them to a museum. That’s changing. “People are realizing that they can likely get to the museum on their own,” says Golden. “They want adventures that they won’t have otherwise. Ziplines are popping up everywhere, as are ATV experiences, bike tours, trekking and kayaking.” Both Golden and Laskin note the culinary tours and cooking classes are also a big trend. “I just went on a fabulous food tour in Nassau, called the Bites of Nassau Food Tour by Tru Bahamian Tours,” says Golden.  “I’ve been to Nassau at least 10 times but I’d never explored the places this woman took us to. The tour was just $69 and it included all food and it was great. Tours like this one really fill a niche for the travelers who have already been there and done that.”

(Photo by El Collecionista de Instantes/Flickr)