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No cure for shore-excursion blues

Shore excursions are an integral part of cruising. Typically, your cruise ship docks at a port almost every day and stays there for up to 10 hours. Shore excursions provide a close-up look at those often-exotic ports of call. When they go well, those tours add considerably to the total cruise experience. But they can sometimes go wrong, and when they do, you can find yourself in distress.

One reader says, “I was on a Carnival cruise and bought the tour to swim with the stingrays on Grand Cayman. Unfortunately, getting off the boat, I cut a huge gash in the side of my leg and was advised not to remain in the water if I was bleeding. When I requested a refund, the tour desk was unwilling to address my concern, saying the cruise line provided the tour as a service: If I had a problem, I would have to contact the tour company directly. But when I asked, the tour desk couldn’t provide me with the name of the tour company. And Carnival never replied when I wrote to them after the cruise ended. My conclusion: Don’t expect a cruise line to help you if the tour you book from it has problems. Instead, I’ll take my chances booking side tours on my own. At least I’ll know exactly with whom I’m dealing if I should have a problem. Am I justified in taking this position?”

Basically, yes.

Cruise lines these days try to make sure operators of shore excursions are acting on their own, not as agents of the cruise line. While the cruise line almost always earns a commission or markup by selling the tour, the line does all it can to avoid responsibility for anything that goes wrong: injury, theft of personal property, failure to provide the advertised services, and such. And while the big cruise lines probably try to find reliable operators in each port they visit, they head for the hills whenever a passenger experiences a problem.

That means if you, as a cruiser, experience a problem, your recourse is to the tour operator, not the cruise line. Depending on the exact language in the brochure, you may have a shot at recovering your money from a cruise line or suing it, but the odds aren’t in your favor. And if your only recourse is to a tour operator in a far away foreign port, lots of luck in taking effective legal action.

In my experience, those packaged shore excursions leave a lot to be desired. Sure, you’re certain to visit the port’s must-see attractions. But the tour’s pace is dictated by the slowest members, you often have to keep climbing on and off tour buses (surely one of the most unfriendly devices ever foisted on hapless travelers), and you almost always have to waste time stopping off at one or more souvenir or “local craft” shops chosen for the size of the kickbacks they give the tour operator rather than the quality of their merchandise.

I’ve written separately about the available alternatives to buying a cruise line’s shore excursions. In general, I favor the do-it-yourself approach. And as to possible injuries, losses, and such, your best bet is a reasonable travel-insurance policy.

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