The Long View: Shore Excursions - My Family Travels

FTF's cruise expert examines the whole business of shore excursions, and if your days in port by escort are worth their cost.

Just as there are people who cruise and people who don’t, a subset also exists of people who take prepackaged shore excursions and those who prefer to go it alone. Because cruise passengers are typically only at a port for one day or, in some cases, for less time than that – I figure you only get one shot at having a good time. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to explore the advantages and disadvantages of both points of view.

The anti-shore excursion group, typified by a well traveled friend of mind who cruises regularly with her brood to the Caribbean, points out correctly that shore excursions are expensive. They are. Figure on paying anywhere from $40 per person for adults (and be sure to read the fine print: 10-year-olds pay the adult rate on some cruise lines) to well over $100, depending on the nature of the experience. If all you really want to do is doze on the beach or spend the day at an aquarium, doesn’t it make sense to hop in a taxi rather than pay top dollar to ride in a bus with dozens of your fellow cruise passengers intent on the same pursuit?

In a word, yes. “Especially for one-stop locations, it’s much cheaper and more flexible to take a cab or use a local operator,” says my fellow traveler Cathy Phillips of Norwell, Massachusetts. “This has worked well for us in St. Thomas (Coral World), St. Maarten (beaches), Grand Cayman (Stingray City and snorkeling), and Cozumel (Chankanaab National Park),” she reports.

In Costa Maya, however, Cathy booked a snorkeling trip with a local operator who left her family out in the ocean “for far too long” while they went back to shore to fill another boat with people. “With kids, it bordered on a scary experience,” she says.

If you do decide to venture of the boat with an independent tour operator, be sure to do your homework. Before you book, ask about their cancellation policy. In the event that your ship is running late or is forced to bypass the port due to unexpected circumstances, you don’t want to get strapped with the full bill or a hefty cancellation fee.

This brings us to one of the most compelling arguments for the other camp, the pro-shore excursion group. Simply put, the cruise lines work hard to find the best tour operators available at each port, and some of the experiences they can offer – from swimming in a remote hot springs on Hawaii ‘s Big Island and “flightseeing” over Alaska, to whisking you ahead of the lines into Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David — are hard to duplicate on your own when time is short.

Keep in mind also that not all excursions are via large motor coach with a guide carrying a lollipop sign. More intimate, off-the-beaten-track excursions are increasingly available where transportation is by van or boat and where passengers travel in smaller groups.

Just try to book your excursions before your cruise because there tends to be limited availability. Onboard rates are usually not any cheaper than the ones your travel agent provides and you’ll be guaranteed a spot on even the most popular excursion.

And, while you may pay a little more, you can be reasonably assured of your safety — and you know the guides will get you back to the ship on time.

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