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Avoiding Cruise Port Rip-offs

If you’re already arranged a cruise for this summer or fall—or are thinking about a cruise—you’ll be enjoying a good travel value. Prices for cruises, especially for departures within a month, remain low. In fact, base cabin rates on the mass market lines are low enough to pressure those lines into trying to fatten their thin margins by markups on just about everything they can. And getting a good deal on the cabin doesn’t mean you won’t be overcharged for something else.

The best way to protect your cruise investment is to do some good pre-departure homework. And that means finding out as much as possible about the ports you’ll be visiting—boning up on the culture, sightseeing attractions, shopping opportunities, and local transportation. That way, you can not only increase your enjoyment of each port but also decrease your chance of wasting time and being gouged. I have two specific recommendations: {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}1. Shore excursions. Avoid the cruise line’s excursions. Your cruise line will almost surely pitch its own shore excursions for each port: In fact, many lines now try to lock you in by pre-selling excursions as part of the cruise package. Unfortunately, in my experience, many cruise lines’ shore excursions suffer from two key problems. They’re usually overpriced, compared with what you can buy on your own. And they usually waste too much time in assembling and herding tour members around, especially with overly long stops at souvenir stores that give kickbacks to the cruise line or sightseeing company. Instead, I’m big on arranging your own shore excursions. You have several options:

  • Find a local sightseeing tour after you hit land (for less than the cruise line charges)—you’ll find them at most ports.
  • Pre-arrange an independent excursion through an online agency. Among the ones I know are Port Promotions, Port Compass, PortSide Tours (866-731-7193), Shore Excursions Group (866-999-6590), ShoreTrips (888-355-0220), and Viator.
  • Hire a local cabdriver to take you around the area, going where you want to go and avoiding the tourist traps.
  • Rent a car for a day—many rental companies either have port offices or meet ships.
  • Use local public transportation or just walk—at many stops, the main attractions are close to the port.

Your choice depends on where you are and what your interests are. On a Mediterranean cruise, for example, most ports enjoy easy access to local public transport. In the Caribbean, a taxi tour is probably a better bet. In Juneau or Anchorage, think first about renting a car. Your choice also depends on your travel party: Taxis and rental cars work out best when three or four people share the cost.

2. Shopping. Ignore the port lecturers’ shopping recommendations. There’s a good chance that any port lecturer’s shopping recommendation is a paid commercial announcement rather than good-faith consumer advice. Avoid the tourist traps where the official tour stops for the same reason. A good rule of thumb: Any time you see an opportunity for a kickback, there’s a kickback. And think carefully about what to buy. Even though shopping seems to be a popular port activity, my experience is that there’s hardly anything you might buy in a cruise port—which you really want to keep—that you can’t buy, for less money, at a discount store at home, without the schlepping. Research each port for any really good local deals; stick to those items and forget the straw baskets.

Port homework is easy these days. Start with one or two current cruise guidebooks: Both Fodor’s and Frommer’s publish them for the main cruising areas. Other publishers offer more specialized cruise guides—browse or a local travel bookstore. And such online forums as SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic and Cruise Reviews have lots of port information. A few dollars spent on those books—and a few hours spent online—will pay big dividends after you set sail.

What are your recommendations for avoiding cruise port rip-offs? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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