I believe most passengers limit themselves by only considering excursions sold by their cruise line. If none appeal, or if they are looking to save money, they default to catching the shuttle bus or walking into the closest town centre to stroll about. When I started cruising I followed this approach. This all changed when I desperately wanted to go on a cycling tour in St. Kitts that I had read about, but was not offered as an option by the line. It led me to discovering there are many independent tour operators that run alternative programs with exciting alternatives and ways to save money.
If you only consider the shore excursions sold by your cruise line you may be missing out on saving money and discovering exciting alternatives by using independent providers. There are a number of large companies, including Triptelligent.com, ShoreTrips.com and Viator.com, that offer comprehensive programs alongside those for sale on board.
You need to make the final choice on which is right for you. The following are some factors to consider when making your decision:
Why book an excursion with your cruise line?
- They have run the tours many times and know passengers like you enjoy them.
- They have validated and verified the quality and reliability of the operator and guides.
- It is convenient and easy to book online through the cruise line’s site before the voyage or on board.
- You can apply any on-board credits you have against the cost.
- A crew member escorts the tour, in addition to the guide, for added security and reassurance in the event of issues.
- The ship guarantees to wait for your return even if it is delayed or late getting back to the ship.
Why book an excursion with an independent provider?
- They have tours not always available through the cruise line, especially when addressing special interest, hobby and sport excursions. They often provide day passes to local reports where you can use all the swimming, water sports and land-based sport facilities.
- When there are similar tours for less money.
- Tours often have less people on each tour than the cruise line equivalent.
- When the cruise line one is sold out, or you are wait listed.
- Ability to read detailed reviews and photographs from previous travellers that have done them. Cruise lines tend not to have any, or many, of these available.
- Most guarantee to get you back to the ship in time for departure, or they will fund and get you to the next stop to pick up the ship. I do, though, recommend booking excursions with third parties that provide morning departures, are due back well before your ship departs and confirm the guarantee in writing.
- Most will meet and depart from ship side, as the cruise line tours do too.
In my experience, most passengers book cruise line tours as it is the simple and easy option. However, always take a look at what independent providers are offering in your ports as you may find something that is more adventurous, unique and cheaper too.
How to find the most cost effective excursion option for you
1: Research the port
Make sure you know what the must-see sights and activities in every place you are due to visit are. This means you are able to properly assess tour options. I frequently use:
- Cruisecritic.com port guides, which are full of valuable tips and can easily be printed off,. They cover virtually every place you are likely to visit.
- Cruise and travel blogs that focus on destination tips. My own site, Tips for Travellers, has detailed destination guides and downloadable audio guides about many cruise destinations. The section in this book about Best Cruise Tips Sources lists other options.
- Guide books like DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. Many of these series feature books focused on cruise destinations.
2: Check how many ships will be in port to guide your excursion choices
Know how many ships will be in port when you are there, as this will indicate how busy it will be and can help guide you on the best activities to do. For example, I saw that in St. Thomas there was going to be seven ships and 15,000 passengers when I was last there, so I booked an all day excursion on a boat stopping at remote hideaways to avoid crowded attractions and beaches.
The best site for this is cruisetimetables.com. You select your destination and date and it provides the information.
3: Check the excursions, price and availability via your cruise line
Most cruise lines have an online cruise personaliser where you can view and book excursions from 90 days before your cruise departs. Decide if any of the cruise line excursions appeal and note the price and timing.
If there are any that you really want to do you should consider booking them before you board to ensure you get them. However, some cruise lines will require you to pay by credit card when reserving online. If you have on-board credit you will not be able to offset the cost against that if they do. If this is the case then you may want to wait until you are on the ship and book as soon as you board.
4: Compare your options on independent excursion sites
There are a number of independent providers that I often use as they are well established, proven, offer competitive prices and have detailed traveller reviews. Some make it simple by allowing me to input the cruise line, ship and departure date and then generate a list of the itinerary and excursions they offer. This makes for easy comparison and decision making. These companies are:
- Triptelligent: triptelligent.com
- Viator: shoreexcursions.viator.com
- ShoreTrips: shoretrips.com
- CruisingExcursions: cruisingexcursions.com
While I still use the cruise line option a great deal, these help me to widen my options and often save money. The savings can be significant across a cruise with many stops.
5: Explore private guides and tours
The volume of passengers visiting ports has fostered the growth of the independent guide sector. They will take individuals or small groups around the main sights and are able to tailor and build great flexibility into the day. It is important to select those that have some form of accreditation in the local market from the tourist board or local tour guide association. I recommend booking these in advance rather than negotiating with people hawking their services as you get off the ship to ensure they are reputable and trustworthy.
A good way to find one is on the discussion boards on sites like CruiseCritic.com where you can ask members for their recommendation and experiences. If you sign up to the roll call for your specific cruise you will find people looking to share a tour too. Guides can also be found by contacting the local tourist office and by searching online.
6: Check if there is a hop-on hop-off bus option
I often use the local hop-on hop-off bus tours. Virtually every port I have been to has one of these. Most seem to be run by global operators like City Sightseeing and Big Bus Tours with reliable standards, quality and good prices.
They usually stop at, or close to, the port and sell tickets as you disembark the ship. The tours provide a helpful map of the city, take you to the key sights, provide multi-lingual recorded commentary and run frequent schedules – enabling you to hop off at the sights you want to without worrying about long waits for the next bus. This makes them a good alternative to organised tours.
After following these steps you will be well informed enough to make the best choice and get the most out of your valuable time and money.
Final thought on excursions
If you are a keen photographer or video maker and want to ensure that you will have time to capture the images you want, you should avoid cruise line or independent group tours. Instead you should plan to self-tour or hire a private guide.
Scheduled port tours are designed to visit as many sights and attractions as possible in the limited time available. They want passengers to feel they have seen all the key things in that destination and leave little time at each stop to take in the scene and to frame and take photographs and video. You will be fighting with the rest of your busload of visitors to get a good position to take photographs, and they will also be cluttering up the scene. The tour guides will be hurrying you along to meet the schedule and you will have limited time to shoot the scene.
You should identify what you want to photograph or video in advance and plan self tours, like on the hop-on hop-off bus or independent guide option, briefing them in advance to plan the flow and timing of your day.
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