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.
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.
Do it yourself
In just about any port I’ve visited, you can easily arrange your own shore excursions. Exactly how you do it depends on the nature of the destination and your traveling party. Here are the main choices:
- Sign up for a local sightseeing tour after you hit land (for less than the cruise line charges). You almost always find such operators hanging around the cruise piers in the popular Caribbean and Mexican ports, but they might be rarer in Europe. Still, where they’re available, you’ll find the details in Frommer’s or one of the other guides.
- Hire a local cab driver to take you around the area. This way, you can custom-tailor the tour to your specific interests. Make sure to find one who speaks English if you can’t communicate in the local language.
- Rent a car for a day. Four people sharing a car will almost always pay less than the cost of four tours or even an all-day taxi excursion.
- Use local public transportation. Often, you can catch a bus, subway, or tram right at the port that will take you to the port city’s central area.
- Just walk. You can often cover a small port city on foot, at your leisure.
Your choice of option depends on where you are and what your interests are. In Dublin, for example, I’d probably opt for local transportation or a cab to the city center and for getting around inside the city.
On the other hand, there isn’t much to see and do in Cork or Le Havre, so, in those areas, I’d probably rent a car. From Le Havre, for example, you could easily drive either to the Normandy landing sites or to Giverny, depending on your interest.
Given the cost of shore excursions, pooling what four people would otherwise spend will provide significant funding for other, more efficient options. Even a couple will probably pay less doing it on their own than on any organized tours.
If your ship has a port lecturer, forget about any shopping recommendations he or she might make. There’s a good chance that those recommendations are paid commercial announcements rather than good-faith consumer advice. A good rule of thumb: Any time you see an opportunity for a kickback, there’s probably a kickback.
Along with your local excursions, also plan your shopping before you leave home. That means, first, identifying what local goods, if any, are likely to be sold in each port. Then, check to see how much you’d have to pay for those goods in an import or discount shop at home.
Cruise shopping can be a money trap. Sure, surveys show that shopping is one of the top-rated shore activities. But what the surveys don’t tell you is how much of the stuff you buy on your cruise will wind up in the attic or the trash. In my experience, you can find very few cruise-port purchases you’d really want to keep that you can’t buy at home—for a lower price and without the schlepping.