Myth - Excursions are limited to those the Cruise Line offers.

When a cruise ship spends the day docked at one of its ports of call, this is an opportunity to go ashore and see the sights, explore the city, do some shopping, hit the beach, etc. The cruise line makes this very easy and convenient for you by arranging with local vendors and operators all sorts of activities.  Of course, the types of activities will depend on the location but there’s always lots to choose from.

As an example, when in Jamaica Lyn and I spent the morning touring what was once a large coffee plantation that had been worked by as many as three thousand slaves.  From there we went to a beach club and hung out in our own cabana with a cooler full of wine and soft drinks.

At one of our Alaskan ports of call we took a fantastic jeep caravan tour.  Every couple or family was given their own jeep to drive.  Each was equipped with a CB radio (breaker-one-nine).  We all followed our tour guide as we crossed the border into Canada and spent the next four hours driving into the mountains of the Yukon territory where we saw terrain unlike anywhere else we had ever been.  Another memorable Alaskan excursion was when we were helicoptered onto a glacier and were allowed to roam around after a guided tour.

When in Haiti, Lyn and I were with our favorite fellow cruise travelers Howard & Gail.  We split up as the girls wanted to do a little beach-side souvenir shopping while Howard and I wanted to do something a bit more adventurous.  So we signed up to take a jet ski tour which was a bit like the jeep caravan tour but instead of a jeep each of us were on our own jet ski.  We all met up later at a beautiful lagoon-side beach club.

While in one of our many memorable Mexican ports of call, Lyn and I were transported to a beautiful beach resort where we (and about 70 of our fellow passengers) had a blast learning how to make salsa, dance the Salsa, and make an authentic Mexican margarita (all you can drink, by the way).

In Belize we chose to take a boat ride up a jungle river to tour an ancient Mayan city.  Not just a temple like you see on TV.  This was an entire city with roads and shops and stadiums.  We even saw where they performed rituals including human sacrifice (ugh!).

These (and many others that we’ve taken over the years) were all excursions made available to us in a simple catalog-style menu.  Each came with a clear description of the activity, its start-time and duration, a price per person, and any appropriate warnings such as “requires uphill hiking over uneven terrain” or “not for wheelchairs as tour includes stairs”.  This made it incredibly convenient to plan our days when in a port. We usually picked our excursions a couple of months before the cruise. Just a point-and-click and we were all set.  We weren’t billed until the end of the cruise.  Easy-peasy.

The above diatribe was intended to tell you that the easiest, fastest, and most convenient way to set up your shore excursions is through the cruise line’s pre-arranged menu.  However, some people assume that this is the only choice. Far from it.  You can research the area surrounding the port and make your own arrangements.  You might rent a car and do your own sightseeing.  Perhaps take a cab to a particular shopping district you’ve discovered or just go into town for a lunch with the locals. Maybe arrange to play golf at a local course (most have clubs you can rent). The possibilities are endless.  Some people think they can save money by bypassing the cruise line and booking the same excursions directly. Keep in mind that many of these tours are set up by the cruise lines (some are even owned by the cruise line) and thus cannot be booked any other way.   However, there are plenty of tours and activities that you can arrange on your own.  It just takes a bit of legwork (mostly internet searches, emails, and phone calls).

Now that I’ve cleared up the myth, allow me to give you fair warning.  If you are new to cruising, don’t set up tours by yourself in areas you aren’t familiar with, especially in a foreign country.  Something could easily go wrong because you simply were not aware.  I’ll give you a couple of examples.

I met a nice elderly couple (American) on one of our European cruises.  They had taken one prior cruise back home the year before, loved it, and decided to cross the pond for a Mediterranean cruise.   Rome was one of the ports of call where they wanted to visit a few specific museums.  The cruise line’s extensive menus of excursions didn’t have one that worked for them so they decided to make their own arrangements.  They knew enough to secure a tour guide in each of the museums.

Many museums and historic places have their own in-house tour guides and don’t allow outside tour guides. If caught they could be thrown out and banned for life.  Coincidentally, we learned this on our own first trip to Rome when the guide we hired to take us around the city brought us to the Vatican gates only to inform us that he couldn’t guide us when we entered. For that we’d have to arrange for one of the Vatican’s own guides. Now you tell us? But I digress.

Anyway, back to the couple.  As they exited the ship and bypassed all of the buses, vans, and sedans that were just outside the ship loading passengers for their excursions, what the couple didn’t plan on was the mile-long walk from the ship to the port’s gate, where they assumed there would be a line of taxis waiting to be hired.

The temperature was in the mid nineties that day. By the time they exited the port’s gate they were drenched in sweat and exhausted.  To make matters worse there was no line of taxis waiting to be hired.  They eventually found someone to call a taxi for them.  By the time the taxi showed up they were already very late for their appointment to meet the guide at the first museum which meant they had to cut that tour short in order to make the next one (sorry, no refunds).  They admitted to me that it ruined their day.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they could have arranged for a golf cart to pick them up at the bottom of the gangway and drive them to the port gates.  Instead, I suggested that next time they wanted to set up a custom tour they should just have their travel agent do it for them.  A professional agent likely would have known to make the arrangements properly, including having a car waiting for them at the bottom of the ship's gangway.  It’s also probable that the agent would have gotten them a better price on their tours.