What Should I Do in Port? – Cruise Ship Excursions

Once you’ve decided what you want to do in port, the next question is how. There are many different ways to go about visiting your chosen sights.

The easiest and most convenient way to see the sights in which you are interested is to purchase a ship excursion. Cruise lines sell shore excursion tickets online before the cruise, and from a sales desk onboard once the cruise departs. Ship excursions are convenient and easy, because there is little to no preparation involved, and you can simply put yourself into the hands of a cruise-line-approved tour guide who will get you on and off a bus, bring you to the important sights, and make sure you have a chance to empty your bladder (and empty your wallet) at the appropriate moments. You don’t have to do any work, and you don’t have to worry about any transportation. Simply show up at your designated meeting point (usually onboard the ship, or occasionally on the dock right next to the gangway where you disembark the ship) and everything will be taken care of for you. Your guide will explain the history and importance of the sights you view, and you will remain in an ‘English-speaking/Americanized bubble’ for your entire stay ashore.

The other major advantage to taking a cruise ship excursion is that the cruise line remains responsible for you. If anything happens during your tour to delay you and prevent you from returning to port on time, the ship will wait for your group. You will never be left in the lurch on shore in a foreign country.

So what are the negatives of taking a ship-sponsored shore excursion? First is that ‘bubble’ I mentioned. If you travel with a pack of tourists, you’re going to be treated like a pack of tourists. Vendors will hawk their wares, locals will exhibit a touch of disdain, and you’ll be seen as an ‘easy mark’ for scam artists. You won’t have a chance to experience the true atmosphere of the port city, or truly engage with its people and culture. To some, this is a good thing, because they are scared to step outside of their comfort zones. But if you want to see something different, to encounter a place that isn’t what you see every day at home, then a cruise ship excursion may not be for you.

Another disadvantage to a cruise ship excursion is their size. Generally, tour busses hold thirty to forty individuals, and the group moves at the speed of the slowest participant. When the tour makes a bathroom stop, every bladder must be emptied before you can proceed. If even one person is late getting back to the bus, the tour is delayed, and time at the next stop is shortened. If you are used to traveling at your own pace, this can be frustrating in the extreme. Additionally, traveling in a group this large means that you are always in a crowd. You are unlikely to get a chance to see sites without others in the way, all jostling to get the best view or picture of the sights.

On a cruise ship tour, you do not choose the itinerary. As such, the tour guide will take you to the places on their list, and you may spend less time than you wish at the places that interest you most, and/or have to endure visits to places that you would never choose to see on your own. The most infamous of these is the ‘forced shopping stop’, which every cruise ship tour seems to include. Invariably, your tour will stop at some kind of factory, plantation or massive store and be given time to ‘look around’. Don’t be fooled by the tour guide’s spiel: tour companies are given kickbacks for bringing tourists to these places, and they will do so no matter what, even at the expense of cutting short your time at the true sights.

But the primary disadvantage for most cruisers is that ship excursions are costly. The cruise ship charges you the rack rate for any excursions, plus an added markup to give them a healthy profit. When you are not onboard the ship, you are not generating any onboard revenue for the cruise line, and as such, they want to take a cut of your onshore spending if at all possible. No matter what they say, you aren’t going to be getting any ‘deals’ from a cruise line.

Generally, I prefer not to use cruise line excursions unless the places I want to visit ashore are extremely difficult to get to (such as visiting Berlin from the port of Warnemunde, or Moscow from the port of St. Petersburg), or the country itself is a place where I would feel uncomfortable traveling on my own (such as when we visited Vietnam and the port was in the middle of the countryside where no one spoke any kind of English), or if I feel the logistics of getting back to the ship on time would be difficult (such as visiting the Amalfi Coast in Italy, where traffic jams can be the stuff of legends). Cruise ship excursions can also be useful if you are taking them as you disembark the ship at the end of the cruise, and they drop you off at the airport at the end of the tour. When you factor in the cost of traveling to the airport from the cruise port, these ‘disembarkation excursions’ may be a reasonable cost and convenience.

Yet in most ports, we prefer to tour on our own. Next time, I’ll discuss different ways of touring if you don’t want to travel with a ship-sponsored excursion.

What Should I Do in Port? – Activities

While traveling on a cruise ship is fun and luxurious, in most cases people are there to travel, meaning that the whole point is to see different places. You chance to do this occurs when the cruise ship is in port, allowing you to explore a new place for a few hours. So what should you do when the ship gets into port?

Naturally, the answer varies depending upon which port you are visiting and whether or not you have been to this city before. Yet no matter the location or circumstances, a little research in advance will be extremely useful when it comes to planning your time ashore.

The first thing to do is to determine what kinds of sights there are to see in the port. These might include scenic views/tours, museums, historical sites, castles and forts, religious sites, shopping areas, sporting activities, beaches, parks and gardens, or outdoor adventures. Determine which sights most interest you, and list them in order of importance. Your goal will be to visit as many of these places/enjoy as many activities as you can during your time in port, while still gaining the fullest measure of enjoyment. Remember, the goal is not to spend five minutes at a hundred different sites, but rather to visit as many sites as you can, while spending sufficient time to fully appreciate what you are seeing. A visit to see a famous outdoor monument might well take five minutes, but a visit to a museum might take one to three hours. A tour of an important landmark or village might take the entire day.

The easiest way to find a list of such activities is to google the name of the port + tourist attractions. Another possibility is to read a guidebook on the port city or area that will be visited. If I am pressed for time, sometimes I will simply look at a cruise line’s list of excursions (more on ship-sponsored shore excursions in my next post) to get a quick idea of the various locations most cruise passengers like to visit.

Cruise websites, such as Cruise Critic, are another good source of information. Cruise passengers love to get together and talk about the places they have been and what they have seen. You will find lots of helpful information on cruise message boards around the web.

It is possible, especially if you are traveling with a large party, that not everyone in your group will want to see or do the same things. Some people may want to play golf at a local course, others may wish to shop or head to the beach, while others may want to indulge in a visit to historical sites and museums. It is okay to split your party and have everyone move in different directions. Remember, you will all meet again back on the ship at the end of the day, and you can relax over a luxurious dinner in the main dining room, telling each other of the different experiences you had that day.

Next time, I’ll discuss how to arrange your visits to these sites.