If you have been reading me for awhile then you may remember that I try to never book an excursion with the cruise line when I am in port. There have been a few exceptions when I have had no choice – I’ll get to those later.
You may wonder why I would book non-cruise line tours. Doesn’t the cruise line try to get me paranoid about arriving at the pier late from a private excursion and standing on the dock watching the ship sail into the colorful sunset. I mean, I have heard many people tell me that if you are on a ship’s excursion and are running late then they will wait for you. Isn’t this all true? NO, it is not.
The main reason that I book private excursions is that they tend to have fewer people on them and that they are less expensive and more interesting. Do you enjoy being herded by cattle onto a bus that seats 44 people generally waiting for one or two who don’t feel that they need to be back at the same time as others on their tour? If you found something interesting, wouldn’t you like the option of staying a little longer?
I have found that when I am on a private excursion in a foreign country (and I am excluding the Caribbean countries here since most of them take the American dollar), then you can pay in local currency which may have a better exchange rate for you than paying the cruise line in US currency. Case in point: when we were in New Zealand, the excursion that I booked was $135 NZD which equalled about $83 USD. The ship was charging for a similar excursion $150 USD.
With all the cruises that I have been on as well as the number of private excursions, we have never been late to the ship, not even close. For me, I always inform my tour guide that we need to be back earlier than what we need to be. I also look around as we are leaving the port city to see if there is construction or some problem that would take extra time in returning to the ship. On one excursion a few years ago we were with passengers from another ship and we had a much earlier departure. Our tour guide called a taxi to meet us and return us to the ship so we wouldn’t be late. How is that for service!
Finally, the cruise line is not guaranteeing you that they will wait for you if you return late. They will certainly try to but it is not guaranteed because they pay for their berth at the docks. If it is too expensive to wait or if there is another ship coming in, they will leave. However, they will get you to your next port of call. If it is a large group, you all may not be able to get on the next plane; after all, most of the islands are connected by small island hopper planes. This hardly ever happens so I would not worry about it but if you are concerned, bring your passport with you and a credit card. That way if you need to get to another island, you will be able to.
Now that you have made the decision that you would like to try booking a private excursion, I’ll give you my trade secrets though they are not that secret. I simply google “shore excursions in ____”. I’ll also go to Cruise Critic and find their Ports of Call thread and look for my port of call. I’ll read what others are saying about their tours. I will also go to Cruise Critic’s Roll Call where I find my cruise line, my ship and my sailing date. Often times others in your Roll Call will organize a private excursion and are looking for others to join them.
Finally, I go to Trip Advisor and enter in the city/island that I will be visiting and then I enter “Tour Guide” or “Things To Do” in the search box. Make sure you read all the reviews. I tend to ignore the very best and the very worse and focus on what the majority are saying.
I’ll email the tour operator with any questions I may have. During the busy season, I’ll give them about 3 three days to get back to me.
I mentioned earlier that several times I have had to take the cruise lines excursions. While on Half Moon Cay, the private island that the cruise line owns, rather than just spending time at their beautiful beach, we elected to take a Tram Tour of the island. It was very interesting and something that I had never done. I saw where they kept the horses for those who wanted to go horseback riding, Sting Ray City where the passengers feed the sting rays (that was amazing), the airport on the island (actually where seaplanes land in case of emergency), where 40 staff members live, desalination plant converts salt water to drinking water, power generators and so much more. The other time I had to take a ship’s excursion was last year when we were docked in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal. The only way we could get to land was to book an excursion.
I have had fantastic experiences, met some wonderful people who happened to be my guides and have no qualms about recommending them or their tour. Everyone has different expectations of what they want on their tour and emailing your tour operator to express what you are seeking is a great way of ensuring that you have the right tour for you.
Don’t let the cruise lines get you scared or nervous. Wouldn’t you rather have a tour more geared to you and your needs than a vanilla type tour where you are just a person in a seat. A few days after I returned from my cruise I received a survey from Holland America. Some of their questions had to do with excursions and they wanted to know how many I had booked with them and how many I booked independently. they also wanted to know “why”. I think they are finally getting the idea that many of us are going the independent route. Hopefully they will make some changes but until then, I’m booking my own private tours and I hope you will consider them as well.