Should I book a cruise-ship shore excursion?

(Cairns Communications)

(Cairns Communications)

I recently had the good fortune to take a round-the-world trip with five middle-aged ladies.

(Hmmm .. last time I said that, I got thwacked by my wife, and my sister – but how else am I gonna describe it? We are all well over 45, the dictionary definition of middle age …)

Sigh. Take two….

I recently had the good fortune to take a round the world trip with five delightful women – my wife, my two sisters, a friend of one sister and the mother-in-law of another.

And the fulcrum at the center of that trip was a 25-night MSC cruise around the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Adriatic.

There was a week in the West Indies, shore-days in Funchal, Malaga, Mallorca, Malta, and Corfu, and then three days in the Balkans – Kotor, Dubrovnik and Koper, before we ended in Venice.

I mention this not to boast (although I DID source the cruise at  just $1400 each twin-share … with a balcony – score!)

toursI mention it, instead, to point out that we had literally dozens of occasions where we could have taken a shore excursion organised by the cruise-line. But we ended up only going on five, between the six of us – plus two more that were actually cancelled the night before.

That doesn’t mean we stayed on board on shore-days, however. In some cases we just made our own way around the port, while in others, we grabbed a cab or other transport from the wharf.

And it wasn’t just a matter of cost: In the context of a cruise, an excursion at (say) $AU60 is not a huge expense. In some cases, it was because the cruise-line excursions simply didn’t suit us.

So what are the pros, and cons, of taking a cruise-line organised tour?

The first PRO is that the cruise lines have lots of experience in setting up excursions. They have a pretty fair idea of what the average passenger wants, and cater for that. The matching CON, of course, is that the excursions tend to be very ‘cookie cutter’ – and not at all flexible.

(Graham Cairns)

(Graham Cairns)

Take our recent cruise, for example. In Barbados, our ship (the MSC Musica) offered a ‘Best of Barbados’ tour which ran for about 4 hours. Part of that tour was a visit to Orchid World – two and a half hectares of orchid gardens, with stunning photo opportunities and meandering paths.

Four of our party really wanted to see those gardens – but they realized that the visit there would be quite short, so they hired a taxi and went up to the gardens on their own. They got to spend about three hours at the gardens – watching the cruise-ship bus come, and go, in under an hour.

They then got their driver to take them to other points of interest in Barbados – all for less than they would have paid for the ‘official’ tour.

(Graham Cairns)

Meanwhile, my wife and I joined a couple from another cruise-ship that had docked at the same time as ours. We grabbed a minivan and had a driver take us to all the key points of the island – giving us running commentary as we went.

She showed us many sights, stopping to allow us to photograph anything that took our fancy, including the island’s magnificent beaches, and its expensive homes, its shanties and its churches.

(Graham Cairns

(Graham Cairns

Actually, the mention of churches does bring me to one of the CONS of choosing your own method of sightseeing.

Our driver, for whatever reason, apparently felt it was part of her job to save my immortal soul … and so for an uncomfortable 15 minutes or so she and I were involved in a to-and-fro on matters theological. In the end, she decided that my agnosticism was a stain that was too tough for her spiritual washing powder to shift, so she let it go. But I have no doubt I featured in her prayers that evening!

Now, that’s unlikely to have happened on an ‘official’ shore excursion. But since I travel to meet and be exposed to diversity, I don’t think the experience was a minus anyway 🙂

Our tour cost us €25 ($A40) each – well under half of the ‘official’ tour’s €66 ($A100). And that’s probably the biggest CON of cruise-line tours – the cost.

The cruise-line organised excursions that we DID go on cost €60 ($A93) for a snorkel-and-kayak tour in Antigua; €50 ($A80) for a trip to Champagne Reef in Dominica, the same for a visit to Hibiscus Falls on the same island (for those in our party who don’t snorkel); €53 ($A82) for a trip to Dragon’s Cave on Mallorca; and €70 ($A110) for a farm visit / wine tasting / folk dancing exhibition. And we felt we got our money’s worth, in every case.

Funchal CabsBut we duplicated many of the other excursions ourselves by getting off the ship, walking up to one of the dozens and dozens of private operators waiting for custom, and negotiating a price. In most cases, we were able to get effectively the same excursion for around 25% to 40% of the cost. In many cases, our paths crisscrossed with our fellow passengers as they visited exactly the same locations as us – but to the tour-company’s timetable, not ours.Dubrovnik Stairs

In other cases, the cruise line simply didn’t offer what we wanted to see. In Dubrovnik, for example, while my sisters and their travelling companions were off at a farm, Shirley and I (as Game of Thrones tragics) were doing an audio tour of Kings Landing – or at least, of old Dubrovnik, where most of the Kings Landing scenes are shot.

HoHo in Malta

(Shirley Cairns)

Another option is the much-maligned hop-on hop-off bus. In a number of ports, we used the HoHo to get around, choosing where and when we wanted to get off. Mallorca’s Bellver Castle was one such spot – we arrived ‘between’ tour-groups, and had a much less crowded experience 🙂

Of course, by choosing our own tours, there were a couple of drivers we got whose English was … idiosyncratic. And we’ll never know what the ‘official’ tours got to see that we didn’t. Do I care? Not much! As long as we got to see the highlights, and got back to the ship on time, we were happy.

But there is the elephant in the room .. getting back on time.

The single biggest PRO to taking an ‘official’ excursion is the security of knowing that if your bus breaks down, or there’s a traffic jam, or any other delay, the ship will wait for you. In fact, on our most recent cruise we saw just that – two busloads of ‘official tour’ passengers arriving back at the wharf 15 minutes after the official sailing time.

Now, I’ve never actually SEEN a ship sail without passengers who were delayed on ‘roll-your-own’ tours, but I am told it can, and does happen. So that’s an issue that you really should consider.

Of course, you might consider not taking shore excursions at all: we quite often just get off the ship and go for a walk around town.

So, in summary, The PROs of cruise-ship excursions: They are professional, well organised, and offer a guarantee the ship won’t go without you.

The CONs: They are significantly more expensive, they run to their timetable – not yours, and they are inflexible.

(Cairns Communications)

(Cairns Communications)

So should you take cruise-line excursions, or plan your own? I tend to agree with CruiseCritic’s Carolyn Spencer-Brown, who says you should stick with ‘official’ excursions if you are a first-time cruiser; if the port is particularly exotic (and if your language is not widely spoken); and if the port is a very long ride from the main attraction (I’m talking hours away – not 20 or 30 minutes)

Otherwise, why not strike out on your own? Travel’s meant to broaden the mind, and organizing your own excursion’s a great way to do that.

Just remember to leave yourself plenty of time to get back to port.

One thought on “Should I book a cruise-ship shore excursion?

  1. Very good article about the pros and cons of cruise ship shore excursions. As you mentioned, the biggest pro is definitely that the ship waits for you. I’ve been on a couple of those excursions that got back late and the ship had to wait. I’ve never gotten back late when not on an official excursion, but it happens to people all the time. And yes the ship does leave without them. They then have to make it to the next port on their own dime, though the ship may have people available to help with the arrangements. Two things to always do : 1. If you don’t bring your passport on shore with you, leave it in the safe in your cabin because that is where the crew will look for it if you miss the boat and in a lot of places you can’t fly to the next port without it. 2. Cruise ships all have their daily news that they leave in your cabin each night for ship happenings of the next day. On port days somewhere on the front page it will have an emergency number listed. Either bring that with you or take a photo of it so you can find the info in your camera (or on your phone) should you need it. If you get left behind you will need it.


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