Last time, I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of taking shore excursions provided by the cruise line. This post will talk about how to do things on your own.
Depending on the port, you may be able to walk everywhere you need to go. This reduces your cost significantly, as transportation can eat into your budget in a hurry. Some cruise ships dock in the downtown area or port cities, near tourist sites. This is usually also true if you are tendered into port (the cruise ship anchors in the water and brings you to shore in smaller boats called ‘tenders’). If you disembark in the middle of everything, it is easy to get to the sites you want to see and find your way around, as long as you have a good walking map in hand. Note that you should obtain your own walking map, either onshore from a tourist office/kiosk or (preferably) online before you go. The maps handed out by the cruise ships tend to direct you to stores where the cruise line gets a ‘kickback’ for any purchases you make, and are generally not useful if you want to see tourist sites. Of course, if you have use of a smartphone (watch those international data charges) you may just prefer to navigate via an app such as Google Maps.
While some ports drop you into the middle of everything, others are a short bit away from the ‘action’. In such ports, getting to the downtown tourist areas might involve a quick taxi ride, a cruise line shuttle (which can cost extra, depending upon the cruise line) or even hopping on the local subway or bus/trolley line. Generally, public transportation that comes right up to the cruise terminal will be easy to find and use, and there should be guides there to assist you. If you have to walk some blocks away from the terminal to find the transportation, it will be more difficult to arrange and there may be language barriers. I always recommend researching ports in advance (Rick Steves and Fodor ports guides are a good choice, or the ports boards on cruisecritic.com can also be very helpful) so that you have a good understanding of what it will take to use public transportation on your own from the port.
As long as you stay in safe areas (this can vary from city to city, but tourist areas are almost always safe from anything worse than pickpockets) you should be fine moving around the port city on your own, however it helps to make an effort. If you are in a country where a non-English language is predominant, it doesn’t take much time to learn a few words of the local tongue (generally the words for ‘hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are sufficient if you remain in ‘tourist’ areas) and to obtain a map of the places you wish to go. It is also helpful to have a little local currency on hand, which can be obtained before you leave at a bank in your home country (major companies such as Wells Fargo and American Express offer foreign exchange services) or even (if you want to ‘wait and see’) at an ATM in the foreign country. Never exchange currency at an airport or cruise terminal unless you want to pay exorbitant service fees.
If you have a group of four people or more, you may find that it is easiest and cheapest to arrange a private tour guide. Since cruise ship excursions have inflated prices, the per person cost of a private guide begins to break even at about the four-person number. If you can find other passenger groups (families or friends) to join you on your private excursion, the per person cost will drop dramatically. Most private excursions will pick you up at the cruise terminal, occasionally right where the ship docks! Private guides will take care of you, creating an itinerary that covers exactly what you want to see, without including extraneous sights (or shopping stops) that are of no interest. Such guides can maneuver around the massive cruise ship tour groups, getting you in and out of major locations with a minimum of fuss. Add to this their private transportation (without you needing to worry about parking, navigating or language barriers) and a private excursion can be very appealing. While each port is different, I find that doing a Google search of ‘port-name + private cruise ship excursion’ is often enough to get you started in finding a provider. You may also find recommendations for private tour guides in certain ports through guide books or cruisecritic.com. Once you have made a booking with the guide, you will likely have to make a deposit, either via PayPal or credit card. The remainder of the tour price is paid the day of the tour, either by credit card or (more likely) in cash. Many private excursions will accept $US as final payment, although others may prefer local currency (especially in Europe).
If you are more of a ‘seat of your pants’ person who prefers spontaneity over planning, you can still arrange a private tour last minute. Taxi drivers and private tour companies often cluster around cruise terminals when a vessel docks, eager to sell their tours to people disembarking the ship. While such tours can be convenient, you will often pay a bit of a premium for waiting until the last minute. Arranging for a private day tour with a taxi driver can be a gamble in terms of quality. Taxi drivers are not licensed tour guides, and the quality of the ‘tour’ you receive can vary wildly from driver to driver. If you decide to hire a taxi driver for a day, expect transportation and basic directions; anything else will be icing on the cake.
Remember that if you are not on an official cruise line excursion, you will be responsible for getting yourself back to the cruise ship before departure. Ships do not wait for late passengers, unless they are on ship excursions. My recommendation is to always aim to be back at the ship at least an hour before the ‘all aboard’ time, to leave a cushion in case of any unforeseen delays. So if the cruise line tells you that all passengers must be aboard at 5:30, make sure you plan to be back by 4:30.
If the main attractions are far from port (such as docking in Le Havre for Paris) then there is a third option: a cruise sip ‘on your own’ tour. With these tours, you pay the cruise line for transportation only to the heart of the tourist area (usually provided by bus). Once you are dropped off, you are on your own and you may tour as your heart pleases, until it is time for your pickup to return to the ship. Such excursions are good for couples who will find it cheaper than a private tour guide, or for those who are concerned about getting back to the ship on time without cruise ship personnel to assist you.
Remember that everyone and every port is different. What is right for one cruise passenger may not be right for you. What is right for one port may not be right for another. Always research your options and weigh them well before making a decision as to how to spend your time in port.