Cruise Ship Excursions
You gotta know when to hold em, and when to fold ’em
For those that cruise, one of the biggest reasons they like to cruise is the opportunity to visit so many places over a short period of time. The challenge with this can be that while you will certainly arrive in port, what you make of your time and what kind of experience you have is largely left to your discretion.
If you’ve traveled a ton and know exactly what makes you happy on a trip, this can be a plus as you have a lot of control over designing your adventures. But if like many cruisers you are newer to travel, or haven’t been to that part of the world before, having someone share 100 options with you for an 8-hour day in port can be wayyyyyyyyyy past overwhelming. Total analysis paralysis. Next thing you know you’re wandering aimlessly around the port gift shop trying to figure out what went wrong.
People who cruise can have strong feelings about lots of things, from buffets to check-in times to their pillow preferences. How you choose to experience the ports you visit while cruising is often on that list — you will talk to folks who would ONLY use a cruise ship excursion and others who would NEVER DO SUCH A THING! Well like most things in life, the reality is probably somewhere in the middle.
To help both those newer to planning as well as the pros, I wanted to do two articles that will talk about your options, and why one in any particular circumstance once might make more sense to you over another. To give the cruise lines a fair shake, I’m going to start with this article on 5 times when you might want to book your excursions through the ship, and then my next article will talk about when you might want to venture out on your own. So let’s get started, shall we?
The first two reasons go back to the quandaries above — sometimes there are just too many choices and it can be overwhelming.
So the first reason you might want to go with the ship’s options is that you are not working with a travel agent — no worries, I’m not that kind of sensitive. Part of what a travel agent will/should do when working with you is to help you to narrow down your choices based on what they know about how you like to experience a place, provide you with recommendations and potentially assist with booking your selections. I’ll talk more about this in the next article, so hang tight. If you aren’t working with a travel agent and you don’t want to put your happiness in the hands of the wonderful but random World Wide Web, go with the ship’s options.
The second but related reason is that it’s a port that you’ve never traveled to before. The ship often has excursions that cover whatever the main points of interest are in that port (in Rome, the Vatican; in Grand Cayman, snorkeling; in Australia, well you get my drift). So if you don’t want to do something esoteric but want to visit those postcard spots, booking a ship excursion can be an easy win.
While the first two reasons are about choices and deciding what you want to do, the next three reasons are more practical, more about logistics, and covering your bases. If you know me, you know I’m a belt and suspenders kind of lady. In other words, I always have a Plan B, definitely, got Plan C covered and am hiding Plan D in my back pocket waiting for the need to arise :)
My own personal number 1 reason to use a ship excursion is when the time in port is tight, or where we want to go is far. The very simple reason for this is that if you take a ship excursion, they have to wait for you. Bus gets caught in traffic, the ship waits. Bus gets a flat tire, the ship waits. Driver gets lost or totally messes up local time vs. ship time, the ship waits. I cannot stress enough how reassuring this can be. Let’s go back to that Rome example for a minute. So if you go to Rome on a cruise, you port in Civitavecchia, which is about 90 minutes from ROME! So let’s say you have a 6-hour port time — 3 of that is back and forth. One false move or traffic jam and you’re toast. So whenever I want to do something that I think has the potential for drama, I go with the ship. We have an inside joke in our family — when you are on a ship excursion you have to wear a numbered sticker all day long, usually, it’s a circle and the whole city knows you are on bus 31. We affectionately call that the safety sticker, because you know when the ship leaves port you’ll be on it.
The next reason is also kind of logistical in nature. You may or may not know that a ship can, at any time, change the itinerary of your cruise. This means it could change 6 months out, 6 days out or 6 hours out. A recent example of this was a ship that just last week was not able to port in Labadee because of weather. Their passengers ended up with an extra day on the cruise line’s private island, and the cruise line refunded all excursions that had been booked with them for Labadee. With late changes like this, your private excursion may or may not be so accommodating. When the ship makes a change they automatically issue the refund, you don’t even have to trek down to guest services to ask about it. So while this is not the biggest issue in the world, or even my top reason for using ship excursions, let’s call it a nice feature, an added plus.
You will notice that I’ve only got one reason left to share at this point, so let’s deal with the elephant on the pool deck. Your ship excursion is very likely NOT going to be less expensive than booking something independently. So if you’ve been waiting for that shoe, it’s not dropping here. Ship excursions are usually a bit, to quite a bit, more. That said, for the reasons above and the final reason (drum roll) there are lots of times it can make sense.
Having a great experience on an excursion requires a few different stars to align. When all goes well, it leaves on time, goes to the places you were expecting, gives you the experience you were hoping for, and comes with a great guide to boot. Let’s take a recent example from a cruise we took this year that had a stop in Scotland. The port was Greenock, and we wanted to go to Glasgow, which was more than an hour away. So you guessed it — ship excursion for us! The bus left on time, and we (with a little traffic) pretty much got where we needed to be on time (think castle, Crown Jewels, you know).
Where things started to go off the rails was when we got off the bus. The guide ran (literally) ahead to “get the tickets” so that we could enter the castle. The only problem with that was he left about half the group behind in the process. Being a tour guide means you follow the military motto “no [person] left behind”, so this was a problem. We caught up and managed to get our tickets, but part of the group never found him as he kind of disappeared once he felt he had dispensed enough tickets. We went into the castle, wandered around, and saw the fancy stuff, but it wasn’t really guided since all he did was get the tickets. The tour carried on pretty much like this for the rest of the day. So yes the transportation worked out, we pretty much saw what we thought we would, but the guide was a real bust and folks were pretty steamed. If this happens to you on a tour you purchase on your own, you are not likely to get much response. You can leave a bad review, but the tour operators are all subcontractors to whoever you probably purchased from (Viator, GetYourGuide, etc.) and they don’t do a whole lot so long as the excursion actually happens.
Which leads me to my final reason — the ship will. As I said, some folks were pretty steamed, and apparently, word got back to the cruise line — I’m guessing at least a few folks made a beeline for the shore excursions desk when we got back from our adventure. While we did not, that night a refund of our excursion amount showed up on our shipboard account. The cruise line didn’t just refund the folks who complained — they proactively refunded the entire bus of people. So while I wouldn’t make a habit of trying to get a refund after every excursion, it is nice to know that when things aren’t up to snuff they go for the simple solution — $$$.
I think these are all pretty good reasons why you might sometimes want to use a ship excursion vs. booking separately, but there are always two sides to every coin, and my next article will look at excursions from the other side.