You sail into port and see the beautiful turquoise waters. You’re excited to explore this new port or to visit areas that you didn’t see your last time there. The cruise line has many excursions for you to choose from and yet you have heard that friends of yours do private excursions because they are less expensive and fewer people on the buses. You are under the strong impression that if you take the ship sponsored excursion and it runs late, the ship will not leave without you. What do you do?
This is a very personal decision and it depends on how comfortable you are in being a little independent. For me, we almost always use a private tour company and do not book any of the ship’s excursions and I have always felt very comfortable in doing so.
HOW TO FIND A TOUR OPERATOR – I feel that the key to doing this is doing your homework – at least some of the time. I begin finding tour operators by googling “shore excursions in XXXXX”. Many tour operator’s web sites will come up and I read them and their reviews written by those who have taken their tours. I then go to Trip Advisor to see how they are rated and what is written about them. Finally, I go to the cruise critic website and go to their Ports of Call thread and read what is written about the port and what tour companies people have used. Blogger Hubby will sometimes write to the Chamber of Commerce to get names of reputable tour operators. At that point, once I find a tour operator I email them for more information.
In my email I let them know what ship I will be on, the date and time that it arrives in port and when I needed to be back. You can find the latter information on your itinerary where it will list when you leave port. I always tell them that I need to be back about 30 minutes before I need to be – it gives me a cushion.
If I am not back, most likely the ship will leave unless there are a lot of passengers who have not returned either. There are times when, even if you are on a ship sponsored excursion and they are back late, they will leave without you. Ships pay to dock and if another ship is scheduled to come into port or if the extra expense of waiting for you is not worth it, then the ship will leave you behind. If on a ship sponsored excursion, the cruise line will make sure you get to the next port of call. You are on your own when you book a private tour. I will say, having taken private excursions for many, many years never have I been late for a ship nor have I heard of anyone arriving late on a private tour. It is a risk that I am willing to assume and don’t give it a moments thought.
BENEFITS – what I love about private tours, especially when prebooked, is that you can suggest to the tour operator what you would like to see. On the ones that I have organized we have been in clean mini-buses with about 10 people. We are never in a commercial bus seating 44 people always waiting for that person who thinks that the time to come back applies to them. I have felt very herded at times on the larger buses. These experiences have led me to find private excursions.
PRE-BOOKING A PRIVATE EXCURSION AND GETTING OTHER PASSENGERS – I enjoy planning what I want to see when there is so much to choose from. Some operators will solicit passengers for an excursion and just fill up the seats with people you may not know. I have been very happy with that but there is a better way, in my opinion. When I am going somewhere like Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia or anywhere that I do not know much about then I will see about booking the entire van. I have not put any money down but told the operator that I would try to fill it myself. I then go back to Cruise Critic (love that site) to my Roll Call. The Roll Call is where you find your cruise line, find your ship and then find your sailing. You’ll get to meet and converse with others on your sailing. I will announce that I have booked an excursion, what we are seeing and how long we will be out, what the cost is and how much it costs. Others will join is – trust me they will. Some people are planners and some are not. Before you know it, you have the van filled. When in Dunedin, New Zealand I worked with Chris of Back to Nature Tours, custom designed our excursion including a box lunch that we would eat while out. The tour cost about $135 NZD, not unusual for this part of the world and a great conversion rate. This tour was so popular that I filled two vans and Chris showed his appreciation to me by not charging me for my tour. This was filled by people that I got to know over the weeks and months we that we communicated on the Roll Call. Another great benefit to doing it this way is that you are paying in local currency which could give you a great conversion rate.
In setting up this excursion rules are set that if they cancelled and did not find a replacement within a few weeks before sailing, then they still needed to pay. Many times you book the van for a set dollar and not a per person charge and if they cancelled then our per person charge would change as well. I had one experience where someone did not come due to illness and her spouse paid for her to keep our per person rate the same. In setting it ip I assign people to a van (van #1 or van #2) in the order that they signed up and brought that list to me as well as sending it to our tour operator. It was as smooth as could be, we had a great tour and it was much more comfortable and less expensive and we saw more than what the cruise line was offering.
TOUR OPERATOR ON THE DOCK – since we had booked this cruise about a week before sailing, I didn’t have time to prebook or correspond with any tour operator. I decided that I would take my chances with some of the tour operators who are on the docks looking for passengers. We did this twice on our cruise. Our first time was in Curacao and we were promised a two hour tour for $20 – not bad. We did have to wait for them to fill up the mini bus of about 16 people. The tour was just what we wanted and we saw what we could in two hours. We did ask that we be dropped off downtown so that we could walk around and then walk back to the ship.
Our second experience of getting on a tour from the docks was in Cartagena, Columbia. We were offered 3 1/2 hours for $20. I believe that we were little impacted by he fact that it was a Sunday morning; our ship docked at 7AM and we were leaving at 1 PM. Not much time in this port. After we walked through the cruise terminal and past the small little free zoo we went by all the independent tour operators offering this tour. There was 17 of us in a minibus when we left the dock. We saw many sights, did some shopping, went to an emerald museum (Blogger Hubby – I didn’t buy any), walked along the wall surrounding the old part of the city,bought coffee at an outdoor market, viewed colonial architecture, went souvenir shopping and for some, visiting a bar on the beach. Personally I think we spent too much time “shopping” but for $20 for 3 1/2 hours, I think that I got what I paid for and I was happy with it.
Overall, I had and would have no problem with booking an inexpensive tour from the docks
Final Thoughts – These independent tour operators know that we rate them and write about them. this is their livelihood and they are not going to risk you being late for your cruise. I think they are just as good, and sometimes better than a cruise sponsored excursion. I would never hesitate to either pre-book or book while at the docks.
Side note – on this cruise I spoke with a woman who was so upset with her cruise sponsored excursion that she complained about it to the Shore Excursion desk while on board and she, and everyone else on her bus, received a complete refund.
What have you done for excursions on a cruise ship?