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.