Cruises are great for seeing a lot of places without having to worry about getting to and from them. You just need to figure out what you’re going to do when you’re in port.
I’m not a huge fan of ship-sponsored shore excursions. I find them expensive and impersonal. I much prefer small group tours. They’re usually cheaper and you can have more control about what you do and how long you do it. My private excursions are usually the highlights of my cruises.
Before going any further, many people worry about missing the ship if they’re not on a ship-sponsored shore excursion. The ships try to scare you so you will spend money with them. For me, that’s not something I worry about. In today’s social media world, if a tour company is late getting you back to the ship, their business is through. Finished. Gone. All it takes is one negative review, so they’re going to be extra-cautious about timing.
Besides, being on a ship-sponsored tour is no guarantee the ship will wait for you. I’ve been on a cruise where the ship left several people behind due to some extenuating circumstances, but that’s another story and it ended well.
So, how do I find these great excursions with local companies? I’m glad you asked. I have a process.
- I write down the itinerary and the hours in port.
- To get an idea of an area’s highlights, I look at the shore excursions the ship offers. I also see if the ship’s tours list the local tour company providing the tour. In Hawaii, I booked directly with the helicopter company the ship used and saved more than $100 per person. The only difference was the company couldn’t pick me up at the pier, I had to meet the bus across the street. It was the exact same bus that had just picked up the ship’s tour people.
- Then I look at Trip Advisor to see if the things to see from the ship’s tours match their top things to do in a city.
- On Trip Advisor, Viator, and other web sites, I look for private or small group tours in the city I want. I only explore tours that list the tour company’s web site.
- I also Google shore excursions and the city name. I find tour companies and then look those companies up on Trip Advisor to read reviews.
- I look at the company’s web site, which often has a section for shore excursions specifically designed for people visiting for a day via ship.
- I email the company directly and ask if they have shore excursions available on the day the ship is in port. Because of time zone differences, I always make sure I give them a few days to get back to me.
When we talk back and forth via email, I can usually get a feeling if I would like doing business with the company. If they answer my questions, provide alternatives, and seem friendly, I think I would like taking a tour with them.
One thing that is difficult for me is as a writer is I need to remind myself not to judge the professionalism of a company based on grammar on the web site or in the emails as I often would in the USA. Often, foreign companies use Google translate for web site copy, which isn’t the best.
Once I decide to book, I make sure I understand a few things:
- Payment options: Is there a deposit? Can I pay by credit card? Is cash necessary on the day of the tour? If so, I make sure I have enough with me.
- Cancellation policies: What happens if the ship is late or doesn’t stop at the port?
- Meeting point: Where will the guide meet me? Sometimes, the meeting point is not at the ship because security restricts some tour operators from being pier-side. Depending on the port, a short walk might be involved.
- Meeting time: Is it immediately when the ship clears or sometime later?
- Contact information: I make sure I have the guide’s name and phone number in case I have difficulties connecting when I get off the ship.
When I find the guide, I make sure I go over the itinerary for the day and make sure they know what time I need to be back at the ship. I never assume they know the correct time since sometimes ship itineraries change. I always try to aim for 90 minutes before all-aboard time, just to account for traffic and the unexpected.
Then I get in the vehicle, relax, and enjoy the day.
How do you find your perfect shore excursion?