Cutting shore-excursion costs

AskEd & AnswerEd
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on February 1, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, cruise, Ed Perkins.

Shore excursions—an integral part of cruising—provide the opportunity to explore most of the places you stop. But those stops are sometimes only a few hours, and seldom more than a day. Virtually all cruise lines organize port tours or excursions that pick you up at the pier, take you around to the locale's high spots, and deliver you back to the pier in time for your sailing. The advantage is the efficient use of your time, plus the knowledge that you probably won't miss any "must" stops.

But these tours can be quite expensive, sometimes as high as $100 a day per person, and too rich for some travelers' budgets. As one reader recently asked, "We are cruising to England. Some of the day trips seem expensive for four of us. Do you know any companies or websites for trips off the ship in Cork, Dublin, Cornwall, and Le Havre?" The short answer is, "No, I don't know of any such companies." But I do know how to avoid outrageous excursion costs.


Do your homework

Before you start your cruise, find out as much as you can about the ports you'll be visiting. Specifically, bone up on the culture, sightseeing attractions, shopping opportunities, and local transportation. Doing your homework before you leave increases your enjoyment of each port and lowers your risk of wasting time and being gouged. Guidebooks are the best resource for this homework.

  • What to see. Start with sightseeing-oriented general guidebooks. For the ports you're visiting, you can't miss with the Michelin Green guides to Great Britain, Ireland, and Normandy, but you certainly have lots of other options. Travelers cruising in other areas will find comparably good guides just about everywhere.
  • How to see it. For details on available tourist services, you'll want to get one or more of the cruise guidebooks that highlight local tour possibilities. Among the best are Frommer's European Cruises and Ports of Call, by Fran Wenograd Golden and Jerry Brown; Cruise Guide to Europe & The Mediterranean, by Kate Poole (Editor); and Berlitz Complete Guide To Cruising & Cruise Ships, by Douglas Ward. Frommer's guide, especially, is good on low-cost alternatives to organized tours. Also, check out the websites for each destination city for additional information.

Tour travails

Your cruise line will almost surely pitch its own shore excursions for each port—in fact, it may well try to pre-sell them as part of your cruise package. My general rule is to avoid them. Unfortunately, my experience is that the cruise lines' shore excursions suffer from four key problems:

  • They're usually overpriced compared with your other options.
  • They usually waste too much time in assembling and herding tour members around—the overall pace is dictated by the group's slowest members.
  • They often spend less time than you'd like at some stops, more at others.
  • They make overly long stops at souvenir stores selected for the kickbacks they give rather than the quality of their merchandise.
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