Booking shore excursions through the cruise line can usually be the easiest and most convenient way to fill out your itinerary. However, it is not your only option. And, it is most likely one of the most expensive ways to plan shore excursions. Read on to learn how your family can save money planning independent shore excursions instead.
Advantages of Independent Shore Excursions
So, what are the main advantages of looking beyond the cruise line’s options when exploring shore excursion? You can often find better value and more flexibility as to content. Shore excursions that you plan independently usually involve smaller groups with more comfortable modes of transportation at a cheaper price. And, you control more of the schedule. This can be ideal for families traveling with children.
My family first tried planning an independent excursion as part of a mediterranean cruise several years ago. I found the company online through some research on Trip Advisor. It turned out to be the best shore excursions for the entire trip. They were able to design a tour that visited every site our group was interested in seeing. They were able to arrange for advance tickets to some popular attractions (thus avoiding a long wait in line). Plus, they provided car seats.
Our most recent success taking the independent route was this past Christmas on a cruise that visited several ports in India. After some extensive comparative shopping, we made arrangements with one tour operator who provided fantastic arrangements for each of 3 Indian ports. We saved about $1,000 for our party of 7. Plus, all arrangements consisted of private tours with our own private air-conditioned transportation (a 15-seater mini-bus) and local English speaking guide.
Potential Disadvantages of Independent Shore Excursions
So what’s the downside to striking out on your own? If you are late returning to port from your independently planned shore excursion, you may find that the ship has sailed on without you. If the ship leaves without you, you will be responsible for making your way to the next port to catch up with it at your own expense. In contrast, if excursions booked through the cruise line fall behind schedule, the ship will wait.
Although a real and legitimate concern, the risk of actually missing your ship is rather remote. Notable, larger operators have their own “guarantees.” If they fail to return you to the ship on time and it sails on, they will pay the expenses necessary to get you to the next port. Furthermore, local tour operators are typically attuned to the ships’ schedules and craft their offerings accordingly.
And, in many instances, the cruise line is contracting with those same local operators for the same tours and activities on the same schedule. In short, “missing the boat” is more of a concern when you take the winging it route than when you plan something with a reputable operator.
So, if you are willing to look beyond booking shore excursions through the cruise line, here are seven tips for planning independent shore excursions with confidence and peace of mind.
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Tips For Planning Independent Shore Excursions
1. SKIP REINVENTING THE WHEEL.
You can plan your own independent shore excursions without starting from scratch. Some folks like to start from a completely blank canvas. Pour through relevant guide books and websites to compile a list of all potential activities. Research each attraction and activity. Procure information from the local tourist bureau, and so on. If you have the time and inclination for that – Great! But many people lack the time and or confidence to proceed on that course.
Instead, an easy and comforting alternative is simply to use the cruise line’s excursion offerings as a starting point. That will give you the lay of the land. It will highlight the most popular attractions. Provide you with an idea of potential must-sees. And, provide you a basis for figuring out what appeals to your family. It will also give you a baseline for price comparisons.
When you look at highlights of what the cruise line is offering – pick the parts that you want, and discard the rest. And, if time permits, add in something special (like a nice meal at a special restaurant). Voila, your independent itinerary.
Check out our post on fun things to do in Cozumel for examples of simple activities that you can easily book on your own and avoid cruise line markups. And, as seen in our post about the Key West Cruise Port, sometimes the official excursions turn out to be more cumbersome and less convenient than the DIY approach.
2. DETERMINE YOUR INDEPENDENCE COMFORT LEVEL.
Once you have your basic ideal itinerary sketched out, you can take steps to make all of the arrangements yourself or find a local operator. Depending on where you are travelling, it may be impractical to try and arrange everything on your own. Are you arriving someplace where you feel comfortable stepping off the ship and hopping in a taxi with your own itinerary in hand? Or, would you feel more comfortable meeting up with a pre-arranged English speaking tour guide holding your name card? The answer to this may vary if you are porting in St. Thomas vs. porting in Italy or India.
One of the easiest places to plan a truly DIY excursion is the Caribbean. In most Caribbean ports, English is widely spoken. U.S. dollars are often the preferred currency. And, beautiful beaches are often only a few minutes away from where the ship docks.
Check out this article for an illustrative example of how you can plan a simple budget-friendly day all on your own in the Caribbean. Shore Excursions on a Cheap Cruise. (The author describes how he saved more than $250 on excursions on three islands for his party of three.)
In contrast, if you are arriving in a completely unfamiliar port where you do not speak the local language, you would likely be better served getting a little help.
3. START WITH YOUR TRAVEL AGENT, IF YOU HAVE ONE.
If you booked your cruise through a large travel agency, they will often have arrangements with other tour operators and will offer their own slate of options available in different ports. Your travel agent may have relationships with one of the larger companies that offer excursions all over the world. Or, your agent may have specific information and recommendations on local and regional tour companies.
4. RESEARCH INDEPENDENT EXCURSIONS WITH THE LARGE INTERNATIONAL TOUR COMPANIES.
There are several large tour companies that package excursions for cities all over the globe. For instance, one easy place to start your search is on the Viator website. Such websites can be a good place to start looking for good deals that match the itinerary you want. They may also give you ideas about what you should include in your own itinerary.
Typically, these companies offer pre-arranged packages with a fixed itinerary and that will be open for any cruiser to book. Although a larger group than a true private tour, the group will still likely be considerably smaller than the group arranged through the cruise line. And, it will usually involve more comfortable transportation. The prices for excursions comparable to ones that you may find in the cruise line brochure are usually less expensive.
Some well known companies include (in alphabetical order): Cruising Excursions, Private Shore Trips, Shore Excursions Group, Shore Excursioneer, Shore Trips, and Viator.
Notably, Shore Excursions Group, Shore Trips, Cruising Excursions and Private Shore Trips all provide explicit guarantees on returning to your cruise ship on time. In the event that you miss your ship because of the tour’s tardiness, they will pay to have you meet your ship at the next port.
5. SEEK OUT REGIONAL & LOCAL OPERATORS.
You can also seek out regional or local operators that concentrate on the geographic area that you are visiting. This route may provide you better deals, more varied itinerary options, or more cost effective private tours. A simple Google search such as “local tours” + the city you are visiting will turn up a list of potential options. (E.g. “local tours Rome” or “local tours Dubrovnik). Look for ones that have positive reviews on reputable websites such as Trip Advisor, Cruise Critic, or Cruiseline.com.
Also, keep in mind as you are looking that you do not need to narrow your search to operators who focus on cruise ship passengers. Many fantastic operators who more generally offer guides, tours, and travel packages will include picking up and dropping off at cruise ship terminal in a package upon request.
6. ALWAYS CHECK OUT EXCURSION REVIEWS ONLINE.
One potential drawback to planning independent shore excursions is that you do not necessarily have a big cruise ship operator vouching for them. In many cases, you may have some difficulty assessing quality of operators in advance. Obviously, you want to make sure that your chosen operator or vendor is reliable. You can do this by checking reviews on sites such as Viator or TripAdvisor.
You can also connect with people via “roll calls” on Cruise Critic or Facebook. (This can not only be a source of passenger reviews, but it can also be a way to meet other passengers who will be on your ship and may be interested in planning an excursion together.)
7. BE MINDFUL OF TIME CONSTRAINTS.
When you are planning independent shore excursions, you want to make sure that you plan enough time to enjoy the excursion and make it back to the ship in a timely fashion. Your ship’s itinerary will list a time that the ship is expected to arrive in port and the time it will set sail. You must keep in mind that you may have considerably less time to work with.
You May Be Delayed Getting To Shore.
Even though the ship may be scheduled to arrive at 8:00 a.m., it does not mean that passengers will be able to leave the ship at 8:00 a.m. For instance, there may be delays due to local immigration and customs protocols.
You may also face delays if you are arriving in a port where you must tender. In a tender situation, the ship drops anchor some distance from the dock and passengers take smaller water vessels the remainder of the way (either the ship’s own life craft, local ferry services, or both).
In a tender situation, you will likely not be able to leave the ship immediately once passengers are cleared to disembark. There will often be some type of a queue or ticket system for the tenders. Folks with cruise line tours will often have priority to disembark. The same is likely true for suite passengers. The takeaway here is that when you are making plans you should build in some buffer time at the beginning.
You Must Not Be Delayed Returning To The Ship.
You do not want to risk having the ship sail without you, so you should build in ample buffer time at the end of your day ashore. First, make sure you are able to stay on “ship” time. The ship may not make adjustments as it crosses time zones. So, you should not rely on your electronic devices because these will often reset to local time. Take an actual watch, or other manually set device, with you.
As you depart, there will be an “all aboard” time posted (one for crew and one for passengers). You should make sure you know it. Also, if you are at a tender port, make sure you know the time that the last tender is scheduled to return to the ship.
You should plan to be back at least ½ hour to an hour before the time everyone is instructed to return. This will give you somewhat of a buffer against unexpected traffic delays; and it may also help avoid long lines to get back on the ship. The farther away that your excursion will take you from the ship, the more buffer time you should build in.
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CLOSING THOUGHTS: Booking shore excursions through the cruise line can be extremely convenient and easy. But, you should keep in mind that shore excursions generally represent a robust profit center for cruise lines. Booking independent shore excursions can save you money, and provide a more tailored experience. All with only a modest amount of additional effort.
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