Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ship's Excursions Or Private Excursions?

Everyone asks all the time:

"What should we do in the ports?"
"Vickie what do you recommend for excursions?"
"Should we do ship's tours or private excursions?"

Well it isn't like you can answer these questions with a short answer and since so many ask I will try and help and answer them here.

A private tour for the four of us in St. Kitts - $20 per person

Many people cruise for different reasons, some for the vacation of just getting away, they don't care where you go. Some want excitement and want to be very active in every port and fill each minute ashore with things to do. Others just want to relax and love sea days and you have to force them off the ship when docked in port.

And all the above are great, and okay... it is your vacation and you can do whatever you want.

So when it comes to what should you do in port... well what do you want to do. You need to ask yourself, do you want to hang out at a beach all day, do you want to shop till you drop, do you want to do something physical (say hike up a volcano), or do you want to tour the port and learn all the history.

Climbing a volcano in St. Kitts, done privately, 3 in our party for $80 each,
compared to ship's excursion $99 each, and group consisted of 15.

All of these options can be had usually in one of two ways. One thru and organized excursions sponsored by the cruiseline, or secondly by arranging it yourself and doing an independent tour.

Cruiseline Sponsored Excursions:

All cruiselines will offer excursions, with Princess you will find a list of excursions for your cruise in your crusie personalizer, which typically comes available around 100 days prior to sailing depending on the itinerary.  If there is something you like you can reserve the excursion right away.  As soon as you arrive on board there will be an evenlope with your excursion tickets in it.

A ship's excursion in Skagway $75 each, group was 75

Normally when you book one of these excursions ahead of time the charge is not processed to your credit card until you have boarded the ship (but check with your cruiseline to confirm). Every excursion has a cut off date, where you must cancel the excursion prior to this to get a full refund. This information can be found at the shore excursion desk on board.

Most excursions will have a detailed description with exactly what it includes, the times, and the physical endurance needed. If you have any questions you can call the cruiseline for more details; however they never seem to know much more than the description. You can also check on online sites to see what people thought of the excursion. Once on board you can ask the shore excursion desk for more info.

Ship sponsored tour of Santo Domingo $100 each, group consisted of around 75 people. Here we have to wait over a half hour to eat as restaurant is prepared for our group even though tour company had it organized prior.

If you are not able to narrow down your options, I recommend to at least hold some spots until you decide then you can cancel before the cut off. But don't forget there are others just waiting for those spots (especially if the excursion is sold out) so don't hold on for too long once you decide.

You will be issued a voucher for your excursion that is normally delivered to your cabin once you board. Details on the date and time and location to meet will be on the ticket. Don't loose it, it proves you are booked, and if you cancel you will have to return those tickets to get a refund.

Ship tour to Santo Domingo and couldn't hear the tour guide.

Ship tours do guarantee you that you will be returned to ship on time or the ship will wait for you. Even though the ship says this, it has happened that a delayed tour has been transported to the next port because waiting for the tour would of compromised the sailing - like possibly missing another port.  I will add a note that even if you are on a private excursion, if you are not on board at the designated time the ship will wait (to the best of it's abilities) for you - as has been seen in various youtube posts of couples running down piers to get on a ship.  But don't rely on this. 

Even with ship's tours we have had numerous occasion where we have been very very rushed getting back to the ship to ensure we made it on time - it was so bad we thought we were going to die in a bus crash on the way back. I am sure the particular tour company contract would be discontinued if they did not have a very valid reason for delaying the ship.

Ship tours are often groups of around 50-75 (but not always - often they have a maximum number however there are smaller numbered tours available too, but just not that many and it will cost more that a large group). We have always experienced crowding and you are only as fast as your slowest person, so keep that in mind.

With ship tours you are also set with the tour offers and the schedule set out by the tour company with very little deviation. This can be very frustrating especially when you are forced to shop at the "designated shopping stop".

Private Excursions:

Private tour in Barbados on a 12 person catamaran - $100 each for all 
day including drinks and food.

Doing it on your own. Now I have to say I am a big advocate of doing it on your own. But it wasn't always this way. When I first started cruising as a single woman with other women I felt more comfortable and safer doing the excursions thru the ship. But as my age, my travel companion and my experience with cruising has increased I have ventured out and did my own thing in each port. Now it isn't to say I still don't book ship's excursions, we did last year in La Romana to Santo Domingo (you can read the experience by clicking this link to that blog entry). Needless to say that only reinforced why we like to do our own planning and excursions.

It starts with figuring out what you want to do and doing some research. Every port is loaded with websites with options. I usually search the port name and tours and google it and a ton of options come up. Another great source of info is and going to the boards and researching each port and finding out what others recommend.

Private tour in Skagway, we rented a van for under $100 divided among the six of us.

Normally you can book private excursions directly thru contacting the tour company via email. Some companies require a credit card or deposit or full payment. I don't normally have an issue with this especially if they have come recommended. And every company will refund your money 100% if the ship doesn't make it in to port.  Also some foreign countries may require a deposit and even sometimes your passport #.  This should be of no worries, this is common in most parts of the world. We encountered this a lot in South America.

Don't be afraid to walk out of the port area when you arrive and try and arrange your own port tour with a taxi driver, maybe hook up with others to get an even cheaper price, but always, always arrange a price before getting in. Also if all you want is to go to a specific place, set a price and stick to it, don't let them try and talk you into something else when you are in the cab, and trust me they will.

Most privately run tours will ask you what you want to do and will stay as long or as short a time as you want at each spot. This can come in handy if you want to shop and really want to explore or if you want to go to a beach and are really enjoying it and want to stay longer.

Private tour in Grenada that we organized - 
22 of us for $30 each for all day tour of the island

Private tours are often with small groups and you can move around more efficiently and often beat the larger ship planned tours to designated sites.

Private tour with a taxi in Bonnaire - $40 for 
both of us, 3 hours - also took us to snorkel site

Cost, well hands down private tours are almost always lower than ship tours. Plus if you get a group together you will often get a discounted price or a free tour for planning it.

So in the end, enjoy your cruise, do what is right for you and learn from your experience.