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Saving on local sightseeing

SmarterTravel

I receive quite a few questions about local sightseeing—especially how to arrange it and how to keep the costs low. I recently dealt with shore excursions, and I have a few follow-up questions there, but some of you are more concerned with local sightseeing or independent travel or package tours.

Locating the tour

One reader asked about finding local tours in Egypt, starting from a base in Cairo. Whether for half-day sightseeing or overnight excursions, I have four general suggestions for finding local tours in major cities overseas:

  • Check after you arrive. Whether you’re in Cairo, London, Tokyo, or just about anywhere else, you’ll find lots of opportunities to arrange tours and excursions. Travel agencies in and around the main visitor centers almost always highlight their offerings—usually in big posters or signs in their windows. And you’ll also find plenty of brochures at your hotel’s front desk or concierge desk.
  • If you want to pre-book, I located only one large U.S.-based website that specializes in local tours. Viator claims to be the largest online specialist in destination activities, with tours in more than 450 cities in more than 75 countries around the world. I found a few other sites that featured such tours, but all were “powered” by Viator, so you might as well deal direct. As usual with sites that are new to me, I can’t vouch for Viator, but it at least claims to fill an important niche in the travel marketplace.
  • If you’d prefer to deal with a more-or-less known quantity, you can always access the website for the local American Express or affiliate office in any city you’re planning to visit.
  • Many destination web pages include links to local sightseeing providers. Look up the destination’s homepage on a gateway site such as Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory or just Google it.

More on shore excursions

Several readers have raised questions on, or reported about, the do-it-yourself approach I recommend for most shore excursions.

  • One reader—who usually arranges his own shore excursions—noted a potential risk: If something happens to delay an excursion sponsored by a cruise line, the cruise line normally holds the sailing for the excursion to return. But if you’re going off on your own and miss the sailing, that’s your problem. Agreed; you have to be careful, but in most cases, the risk is small.
  • Another reported on a semi-scam. He arranged an independent excursion on a Caribbean island for his travel party, including renting a car. But when they arrived at an important commercial visitor attraction, the ticket agent there refused admittance to his party. The visitors were fully prepared to pay the posted admission price, but it was still no-go. The agent told them that the cruise line demanded he not allow any independent arrivals into the facility as long as the cruise ship was in port, and he couldn’t afford to risk loss of the cruise line’s official excursion business. I have no idea how prevalent this sort of anti-competitive arrangement might be, but I suspect you will encounter them occasionally.
  • A third—who usually does his own excursions—suggested sticking to cruise line’s excursions in port cities where personal security may be a problem. I think I’d agree with that suggestion, although I’d be even more inclined to avoid any such destination entirely.

“Help, I’m trapped in the store”

Although it doesn’t seem to target Americans—yet—I couldn’t resist reporting on this new scam. According to press reports, a few local excursion operators in China and Hong Kong feature “free” or highly “discounted” local tours, with the expectation that they’ll recover the lost revenue through kickbacks from the operators of the stores where the tours stop for shopping. But when a group of tightwad tourists fails to spend enough at the store, the tour director may take off in the bus, leaving the hapless shoppers stranded.

Talk about “there is no such thing as a free lunch!” If you ever wondered whether tour operators or guides receive kickbacks from those interminable souvenir shopping stops, wonder no longer. Obviously, the lesson here is to beware of any tour that looks too cheap to be true: You’ll either pay, one way or another, or walk back to your hotel.

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