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Should I Buy the Cruise Line’s Shore Excursions?

With spring and summer coming up, lots of you are planning cruises—still among the very best buys in travel these days. But you know that, on many lines, today’s good cabin rates come with a catch: nickel-and-diming you on other stuff. One reader asked:

“I’ve heard that cruise lines’ shore excursions can be expensive. Can I avoid overpaying?”

The short answer is, “Yes, you can—but with some risks involved.” You actually have several alternatives to the options your cruise line is selling. It has been three years since I last addressed this topic, so an update is in order.

As an example of typical pricing, I checked out some optional prices for what is probably the most popular excursion in Juneau Alaska, a prime summer-season port: Downtown sightseeing plus a trip to the local must-see feature, the Mendenhall Glacier.

The Cruise Line’s Price

The big cruise lines typically sell this excursion starting at about $60 per person, or $120 for a couple. Of course, you can spend lots more for helicopter trips or such, but this excursion is about the least you’d want to do during a short visit to Juneau. You can book it before you leave or onboard before you arrive. Sometimes, popular shore excursions sell out before the ship docks, but I suspect that doesn’t happen very often, anywhere.

Obviously, the cruise line doesn’t actually operate the excursion; it contracts with a local “receptive tour operator.” Equally obviously, the cruise line marks up the tour operator’s price.

Book Your Own Tour in Advance

You can easily book what amounts to the same excursion directly with a local tour operator and avoid the cruise line’s “middleman” profit. I know of at least four online sites that specialize in advance booking of shore excursions: PortPromotions, PortCompass, ToursPortSide Tours, and Shore Trips. All four offer an equivalent excursion for $44 per person; $88 for a couple. The $32 difference would cover the costs of quite a few souvenirs or other purchases.

Negotiate a Tour at the Dock

You often find hungry tour operators scouting for customers on the dock just after your ship arrives. Presumably, at that time, the cost is a matter of making a good bargain, but it certainly shouldn’t be more than the advance price. The risk, of course, is that you won’t find anyone to sell you a tour when you arrive.

Build Your Own “Private” Tour

In many places, you can make a deal with a local cab driver to hit the main high spots. This is often less expensive than an organized tour for a couple, and usually a lot less expensive for three or four people traveling together.

This sort of arrangement is especially advantageous if you plan on hanging out at one spot during your shore visit. Typical examples would include spending the day on a Caribbean beach, where two quick carbides would almost surely cost less than an all-day beach “tour.”

Whether in a beach or visiting a glacier, hiring a cab provides one more benefit—at least to some of you. With a cab, you can avoid the almost-mandatory stop most group tours make at a souvenir shop—one that almost surely gives the tour guide or driver a kickback on what you buy.

I’ve heard of an unusual potential risk here: Apparently, at least a few private tourist attractions in the Caribbean do not admit independent travelers who don’t arrive in an organized group. Another case of “your kickback dollars at work.”

Rent a Car

If some of the main attractions in a port city are some distance from the dock, consider renting a car and driving around to the places you want to see. I’ve done that in several areas and paid a lot less than the shore excursion prices.

I rented a car for the glacier and a few other stops the last time my wife and I were in Juneau. Even though rental rates are up sharply this year, you can still rent an economy car there for about $60 a day, including all the fees and taxes, and Juneau is so compact that you can’t use up much gas.

Use Public Transportation

In many ports around the world, you can easily catch a bus, tram, or metro to the main visitor center or centers. Clearly, this technique requires that you know what you’re doing and feel comfortable using public transport. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to use public transport anywhere in Europe and in many big Asian cities, but I might be a bit more wary elsewhere—and I’d probably try something else in those countries where locals pile on top of the bus or train.

In Juneau, a public bus runs between downtown and a stop near the glacier every half hour, and the fare is $1.50. That’s $6 round-trip for a couple—a pretty good deal, through you do have to walk a bit at the glacier end.

Stick Around the Port

In many ports—especially where cruise tourism is critical to the local economy—you can get a pretty good feel for the local scene by just walking around a few blocks. You’ll certainly find more than enough shopping that way, and some ports sadly offer not much beyond shopping.

Many smaller ports, too, ranging from Ketchikan to Ensenada, are easily accessible by foot, and just about anything you’d want to see is close to the dock area.

The big risk—delay

Doing anything other than taking the cruise line’s “official” shore excursion runs one major risk: If you’re unexpectedly delayed when you’re returning to the ship, the ship won’t wait for you. Typically, unless the situation is very unusual, a cruise line will delay departure, at least a bit, if one of its own excursions is late returning. But if you do something on your own, for getting back to the ship on time, you’re strictly on your own.

Homework is Essential

If you do anything other than take the cruise line’s offerings, you really need to do some advance research. Fortunately, several guidebooks have zeroed in on port activities, including alternative to the cruise lines’ packages. Among the best:

  • Frommer’s publishers four different “Cruises and ports of call” guides: Complete, and Alaska, Europe for 2010, and the Caribbean for 2008.
  • Fodor’s publishes three ports of call guised: Alaska and Caribbean for 2010; Europe for 2008.

Several other books focus more closely on individual areas. They’re available from major online booksellers and retail travel bookstores.

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