Should you pay for cruise ship port excursions, or arrange your own? Our cruise columnist Tiana Templeman weighs up the pros and cons.
There are many choices to be made on a cruise, such as which cabin to book and whether to have another slice of cake at the buffet. However, deciding whether to book a ship's shore excursion or make your own arrangements is one of the most important. Get it wrong and you could miss the ship.
It all comes down to the cruise line's shore excursion return guarantee. If a ship's tour is delayed and returns to the pier late, the captain will wait. If you book your own excursion, there is no guarantee the ship won't sail without you. However, this doesn't mean you shouldn't explore ports on your own.
While the guarantee you'll be back in time for departure sounds attractive, it comes at a price and it's usually a hefty one compared to the cost of similar tours run by independent operators. The secret is knowing when — and when not to — book a ship's shore excursion and how to head off on your own without missing the ship.
If the port is close to where you'll be visiting, it is easier to sightsee independently, especially if you're willing to get up early. On a recent Mediterranean cruise, we were some of the first passengers off the ship in Santorini and on the public bus to the famous town of Oia. Even if we got lost on the return journey, we would still be back with hours to spare.
Booking the ship's "Village of Oia On Your Own" excursion would have cost NZ$82. Each. We paid less than $50 for the three of us. Plus catching a bus filled with locals instead of fellow cruisers was a more authentic travel experience, not just a cheaper one.
If you're travelling with kids, making your own arrangements for tours generally works better than joining a ship's shore excursion as these tend to be aimed at older adults. However, this is changing.
Some lines such as Royal Caribbean offer shore excursions designed especially for families.
Exploring independently can also be a good idea if you've been to a port before. With background knowledge and a desire to explore beyond the usual tourist spots, an independent tour can be far more enjoyable. We booked a food tour in Venice instead of revisiting the major sites in peak season. After getting lost numerous times on our previous visit, we knew to leave plenty of time to get back to the ship. Half a dozen cruisers were left behind that day, even though the captain left almost an hour late.
Venice isn't the only destination that can be tricky for the over-confident or those who don't plan ahead. If a port is a long way from town or in a city renowned for its traffic, or both, such as Bangkok's Laem Chabang, which is two hours south of the capital, a cruise tour is best. If a must-see site is not easy to reach independently, such as Ephesus in Turkey, a ship's tour can be a better deal than hiring a driver.
If you don't mind spending a little extra, you can enjoy the best of both options with a private half-day or full-day tour organised by the cruise line. These tours include a guide, driver and car, or mini-van if you have a larger group and want to split the cost, and let you go as you please.
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