Considerations when booking your port excursions. My Holland America cruise dilemma!

Holland America Amsterdam Cruise Ship by Andrew W Sieber

Holland America Amsterdam Cruise Ship by Andrew W Sieber

In my last post about the countdown to my October cruise with Holland America on the MS Nieuw Amsterdam, I mentioned that I was looking at the excursions.

I find selecting excursions takes some time as I think when cruising you need to consider these factors:

  • How scheduled do I want my cruise to be before I go?
    • The risk of not booking is that tours you want to do will get sold out. The danger of booking trips everyday is that you may find your vacation is not a vacation at all, as you have to rise early every day, charge around and come back from your cruise feeling a bit like you have been on a route march.
  • How much time should I allow to spend on the ship on port days?
    • Port days usually mean the ship is quiet and it is a great time to book spa treatments or other activities. Often cruise lines will have port day promotions as services are often underutilized. If the weather is good it usually means nice and quiet decks and pools. It is also a great time to workout, lay about and for me to do things like video the ship. This is why so many of my ship tour videos have so few people in them! It is a great time for exploring the ship and using the features like water slides, crazy golf or tennis courts if the ship has them.
  • How much do I want to spend in addition to my cruise fare?
    • Most cruise lines do not include excursions in the price of the fare. Doing excursions in every port can add quite a bit of cost to your vacation. The price of excursions can easily average $100 per person per port. So of you have 5 ports of call in 7 days that can be as much as $1,000 or more per couple.
    • Some will provide free transfers into the town if the docking point is not within walking distance, although many charge a fee for the service.
    • I tend to do a mix of excursions and self exploration on every cruise I do to balance out time and cost. If the ship docks right in a major city I often will take the regular tourist hop-on hop-off bus. This gets you around all the main sights and can be less costly.
    • I then splash out on the excursions that fit one of these criteria:
      • further afield,
      • adventure in style (e.g. RIB speed boats),
      • special local travel styles (e.g. ancient railways or cable cars) or
      • special interest (e.g. tours of vineyards or battle grounds).
    • I tend to book excursions through the cruise line, although there are other providers that may do them for less or offer options the cruise line does not. (Read my article “Tips for finding more choice and cheaper cruise excursions” where I look at the pros and cons of booking via cruise lines and other providers)
  • Is the port of call more of a commercial harbor rather than a real destination of interest?
    • A number of ports, especially in Europe and parts of Asia, are commercial harbors that are gateways to major cities. The cities can be up to 2 or more hours away by car or coach. Examples in Europe of this are Livorno for Pisa and Florence and Cititavecchia for Rome.
    • The place you call in can be unattractive and not worth exploring and if you stay on board you may be looking at containers and cranes.
    • I still though often avoid the excursions into the main cities as they will be 9 hours long with up to 4 or 5 hours being the transfer there and back. I only go if they are places I think I am unlikely to visit on land based holidays flying there direct. As I have seen many of the cities in Europe before I find places or excursions closer to the port to visit so I am spending less time on coaches. However, on a big Asia cruise I am doing next year I am doing the long trek into the cities so I do get to see places like Ho Chi Minh city and Kuala Lumpur even though they are 2 hours each way from the port of docking.

So based on this thought process, here are the excursions I am going to do on the Mediterranean cruise on the Holland America MS Nieuw Amsterdam:

  1. Palermo Sicily: “A taste of Sicily: A Cooking Lesson”. This 6,5 hour excursion tours the countryside before visiting the home of Baroness Di Salvo where she gives a cooking lesson of traditional Sicilian dishes that you then get to eat.
  2. Naples: “The Ruins of Pompeii” . This 4 hour excursion will take me (finally!) to see Pompeii. I have wanted to see this since I was a small boy and read about them. I have been to Naples before on a cruise but the group I was traveling with went to the Island of Capri. So finally I get to see the place I have always wanted to see.
  3. Civitavecchia (for Rome). Self exploring the town. I have decided not to spend the time traveling into Rome and am going to explore the small town itself. I once went there on a cruise and am going to explore and find tips for travellers visiting this port who want to stay local and not go on any excursion. It is a very common stop on Mediterranean cruises and I think there is an opportunity to give a good way to spend the day there for those who want a break in excursions during the cruise. Just as I will be doing!
  4. Livorno (for Florence & Pisa). “Lucca and Pisa” . I wrestled with this one for a while and decided ti stay fairly local to the port. It is a 5 hour tour visiting the 2 cities. I have been to Florence before, which is stunning (and can be very busy). This appealed as took me to a place I have never been, and probably never will again, and the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa. So I can get a good standard trophy shot that everyone needs to have in their travel photo collection!
  5. Toulon, France. “Le Castellet & Wine Tasting” 4 Hours. Both because the cruise I have been invited on has a food spin but also because France and food and wine are so intertwined, I felt I had to do this. So instead of venturing further afield to Marseille, I will explore the vineyard region near Toulon, visit some of the ancient towns before visiting a Provencal winery and see how wine is made and taste it. I do not bring alcohol but felt France and wine are so important I just had to do this. I have taste buds and look forward to the swilling, describing and spitting that wine tasting involves.

Any thoughts and suggestions?

How do you go about deciding how many and what excursions you do on a cruise?


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Disclaimer: Holland America invited me to travel as their guest on the 7-Night Mediterranean Adventure cruise.


Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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