Your cruise is booked ... New suitcase sorted ... Deck plans memorised ... So what about shore excursions?
On some cruises – those with companies like Regent Seven Seas, Silversea (in the Med, and on their and other expedition ships), Swan Hellenic, Voyages to Antiquity, and river cruise lines like AmaWaterways, Avalon, Viking, Emerald and Riviera Travel, shore excursions are included in the price you have paid for the cruise.
Azamara Club Cruises offer an exclusive Azamazing evening excursion during each cruise – in the past this has included a cocktail party and entertainment on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina, a three tenors style concert in the grounds of a Tuscan castle, complete with authentic local food and wine and a Burmese Festival at the People’s Park in Yangon including dancing, magic shows, cookery demonstrations and a gala dinner.
If you have booked your cruise, like many people, because it visits parts of the world you want to see, it is likely that you have a fairly good idea of where and what you want to do when your ship docks in ports – I have one client who always checks the duration of the port stays before booking so they have sufficient time to take local transport (including ferries) to meet up with friends nearby and others who opted for a cruise with a port that was close enough for them to get a taxi to visit a specific war grave of a relative.
Different cruise companies offer themed cruises geared towards specific events, for example, Star Clippers offer cruises which visit Monte Carlo at the time of the Monaco Grand Prix, Princess sails round the UK, stopping in Edinburgh for the Military Tattoo and Celebrity Cruises dock in Rio de Janeiro for Mardi Gras/Carnival. More general themes like wine tasting, opera, chocolate making or historical cruises will feature shore excursions geared specifically to the theme of the cruise. You can even go shopping with the chef on certain cruise lines. Provision is also made for the more adventurous with zip wire trips through Caribbean rain forests and rollercoaster type rides in 4x4s through the sand dunes of the Middle East.
It may be that you are prepared to be as intrepid as Nigel Marven was in his ‘Cruise Ship Adventures’ series on TV, when he sailed on the Azamara ships to well known destinations, but disembarked and journeyed off to find extraordinary creatures. Whilst it made for exhilarating viewing, his shore excursions belied the huge amount of planning and logistical awareness that must have gone into organising them and he was constantly up against time in his efforts to get back to the ship before it sailed. The ships may have waited for him, but this is not the usual rule for passengers leaving the ship under their own steam!
Regardless of whether you want to explore on your own or be part of a tour, I would recommend a bit of research, so that you can access the best options for you:
A lot of cruises have late nights or overnights in port (this is one of Azamara’s points of difference), which allow you to dine ashore or just experience the port town in the evenings – like many places, these can be more atmospheric and totally different at night, when compared to during the day. Most ships that visit St Petersburg stay at least one night, thereby allowing you to take an evening excursion to the ballet or the opera, if you choose (see later). Cruises searching for the Northern Lights will often overnight in ports north of the Arctic Circle like Tromso and Alta (Cruise & Maritime Voyages and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines for example) and many world cruises (like Cunard) have overnight stays in iconic cities like Sydney, San Francisco, Singapore, Cape Town and Hong Kong. Even Mediterranean cruises have overnight stays in ports like Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam (eg. P&O Cruises and Holland America Line). River cruises probably epitomise the ability to immerse yourself in the locality, not only because a lot of them spend nearly every night in port, but because they are moored in the centre of such fabulous cities.
My starting point if you have booked a cruise or know which cruise line you would like to travel with is to look on their websites – most of them provide information on the type of shore excursions they offer by destination and/or itinerary.
There have been times when I have looked at a certain port of call and not actually fancied anything on offer!! That is when I expand my search and perhaps use something like ‘TripAdvisor’ to get ideas of places to visit or things to see. Bear in mind that the universality of the internet means that comments are worldwide and what appeals to certain nationalities may not appeal, in the same way, to others!
There are pros and cons for taking cruise line operated shore excursions:
You tend to disembark the ship first in the ports of call and the ship will remain there until you return (even if you are delayed). When visiting sites like the Hermitage in St Petersburg or the Vatican in Rome, your excursion cost will include entry, thereby bypassing long ticket queues and trips like the St Kitts Scenic Railway can only be accessed by ship shore excursions, as cruise lines have a monopoly on the trains. Conversely, you will pay a higher price (usually) for the shore excursion than you could source independently and unless you are taking a river cruise which uses the Quietvox audio system (allowing you to wander a short way from your guide and still hear them), there will be an element of ‘herding’ involved – everybody gets off the coach at the viewing point for photographs and everybody is taken to the same carpet shop.
Talking of monopolies – other operators offer excursions as well – ‘Google’ city tours in any destination or port of call and you will be inundated with websites offering Hop On, Hop Off bus tours, small group or individual taxi tours, as well as the local Tourist Information websites. When you get off the ship there will be information available at many of the port terminals, as well as local operators offering the same (or very similar) excursions to those bookable on the ships. In many ports there is a Chef D’Equipe who will help you sort out the logistics of your trip and assign you a driver, etc. For example, when I was last in Jamaica, I decided to visit the Dunn River Falls – I negotiated a price for the taxi transfer, with the Chef D’Equipe and was taken by taxi to the Falls. I bought my own entrance ticket, agreed a pick up time with the driver, arrived before, and was also back at the ship in advance of, the formal cruise line excursion – all at a significantly lower cost.
The main concern for most people is getting back to the ship in time for departure if they opt for independent travel. In most places this is not a problem, the distance from the ship to the excursion venue is short enough to make alternative arrangements if required (in many Caribbean ports you disembark the ship and are practically in the middle of town). However, there are a few places where I would recommend cruise line shore excursions:
As well as places where there is less of interest:
If you are still unsure of the cruise line versus independent excursion debate, there is a compromise in the form of companies like: www.cruisingexcursions.com who work closely with the cruise lines in terms of departure times (so that you don’t miss the boat – literally), but offer similar excursions at a lower cost, and even discount the cost of packages of excursions for the duration of your cruise.
In many ports where the ship is moored slightly out of the town (for example larger ships moor about 3 miles out of St Petersburg in the Marine façade complex, whereas smaller ships get closer into the city, up the Neva River, docking at either the English Embankment or Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment), port shuttle buses will take you into the town or city. Sometimes these are complimentary, on other occasions their use will be chargeable or actually included in the cruise price (typically with the more luxury cruise lines and as part of P&O Cruise’s Select and Cunard’s Cunard and Early Saver fares). Of course, there will also be ports of call like Bergen, many of the Caribbean islands and river cruise ports, where you can disembark right in the middle of (or a very short walk from) the centre of town.
Embarkation and disembarkation ports typically do not offer opportunities for you to visit them. Transfers from the airport take you to the Cruise Terminal from where you board the ship and if you are not in port overnight you will simply be able to wave the place off at the Sail Away! Some disembarkation ports, particularly in North America do offer excursions on the day of disembarkation. They are usually for passengers with flights later on in the day or the evening (ideal for Transatlantic flight times) and are a way of seeing a bit more of the area and being delivered with your luggage to the airport at a slightly later time, all in one seamless trip. The other options are to have a few nights pre- or post-cruise in your embarkation or disembarkation ports. Many of the cruise lines will allow you to alter your flights to fit your holiday plans, with either no or a small admin charge (assuming there is no difference in the cost of the actual flights). Of course, you would lose the transfer element of whatever flight you have altered, but there are always alternatives, should you not want to take a local taxi either from or back to the airport.
There are even opportunities to take mid, pre or post cruise extensions allowing you to visit places like Machu Pichu (for example with Princess Cruises or Oceania) or the Taj Mahal at Agra (Holland America Line or Celebrity Cruises). Regent Seven Seas are currently offering complimentary pre or post cruise land programmes on up to 23 cruise itineraries, including 3-night pre-cruise safaris, post-cruise trips to Mount Fuji and a luxury retreat in the Australian bush.
Choosing shore excursions to suit each and every family member can be tricky. Some cruise lines like Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Thomson will advertise shore excursions specifically for families. With Disney Cruise Line, children can sometimes do a bit of sightseeing before joining Youth Counsellors from the ship for some other activity, while parents have free time to explore the city or shop on their own. With others it is more a matter of noting the descriptions and reading between the lines – children may enjoy shore excursions that include a visit where animals are involved (to a zoo, aquarium or bird reserve), or to a theme park or beach. Teenagers may prefer something a bit more ‘hands on’ like snorkelling or scuba diving, cooking or zip wiring. Hard core ‘adults only’ excursions including lots of time on a coach sightseeing, non child friendly museums, shopping and ‘Sunset’ cruises where alcohol is involved, should generally be avoided, if you have children in tow.
If you are travelling with cruise lines like Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, Croisi-Europe, A-Rosa or Amadeus, all of which do not have English as a first language on board, check that they offer appropriately translated shore excursions and whether these only operate dependent on numbers booked.
There are not many cruise lines that allow parents to leave their children on board in the Children’s Clubs, whilst they go ashore (especially if they are under 16 years of age), but this information is constantly changing and being updated: currently, Disney Cruise Line will look after children on board, but only at Castaway Cay, P&O Cruises will not look after under 16s, whilst NCL and Holland America Line do not restrict the ports where they will look after (any aged) children. They provide parents with emergency pagers, but a lot of cruise review sites discuss this, with regular postings warning about emergencies and trying to get back to the ship in time, should there be the necessity to do so.
So, you have booked your cruise and have your booking reference – now is the time to start booking your shore excursions. Most cruise line websites are moving towards offering a seamless system where you can personalise your cruise experience by booking and paying for all add ons before your cruise – things like shore excursions, speciality dining, spa treatments and drinks packages. Do check the T&Cs for your cruise line to check payment terms, cancellation periods and the booking times (these can sometimes be as late as up to 24 hours before the excursion runs, so possibly even when you are actually on the ship). Cruise lines like Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines still send out shore excursion brochures, as well as offering the same facility online, but you may have to mail or call to pay for your excursions. With P&O Cruises you can access online information 12 weeks prior to your cruise and they will also send you a brochure 8 weeks before, as long as you have booked a Select or Early Saver Fare.
The luxury cruise lines open times for booking of shore excursions dependent on your cabin category, with higher category suites being given preferential dates. This is true for cruise lines like Viking (Ocean) Cruises and Regent Seven Seas. Regent take bookings 240 days before the cruise sails for their Concierge guests and 180 days for all other guests. However, they close bookings 7 days prior to departure. Be aware just because shore excursions are included in the cost of your cruise, doesn’t mean you don’t have to book them!
Some of the River cruise lines will only let you book excursions once you are on board (although Croisi-Europe offer discounts for packages of excursions purchased at the time of booking the cruise) and of course shore excursions on Expedition ships tend to be in the hands of the respective experts on board and are very fluid.
Shore excursions are an important source of revenue for the cruise lines. They are all chargeable, apart from visits to the cruise lines own Caribbean desert islands like Princess Cay (Princess Cruises), Labadee (Royal Caribbean), Half Moon Cay (Holland America Line) and Great Stirrup Cay (NCL) where you would only pay for the water sports and other activities. I would suggest budgeting £15-20 per person per hour for a scenic coach drive type of experience and considerably more for those excursions requiring greater effort on your part, eg. diving, driving or zip wiring.
Shore excursions – per se - are being targeted by certain cruise lines as they allow them to develop a point of difference between themselves and some of their competitors. For example Celebrity Cruises have recently opened a dedicated website, just featuring their shore excursions. They have divided them into 4 categories: Uniquely Celebrity (authentic experiences in ports of call including global events, even family tour challenges, all of which can be tailor made), Culture and Locale (capturing ‘must see’ sights, as well as local culture and cuisine. Some of these could involve multi day trips), Lifestyle & Wellness (from late morning tours for those wanting a lie in to adventure style activities, with local spa and spiritual experiences in between) and Family (does what it says on the tin).
Taking shore excursions as part of your cruise does allow you to tick off places that may be on your ‘bucket list’ as well as opening up the potential and opportunities to do things you either never thought you would or had never actually considered, before your cruise. All in all, they can significantly enhance your trip, turning it into the holiday of a lifetime.