Cruise holidays encompass all of the relaxations of a luxury boutique hotel with the adventure of a multi-destination backpacking trip. Most cruises sail on a planned route, and often take in up to five port stops where guests can disembark and explore the local area.
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However, while these stops provide ample opportunity to experience new cultures, they can end up costing cruisers hundreds of pounds in additional expenses.
Speaking to Express.co.uk Adam Coulter, UK Managing Editor of Cruise Critic explained: “Shore tours vary in price, depending on the cruise line, and can run you anywhere from £40 per person for a simple beach break to hundreds of pounds each for such higher-priced options as helicopter rides, golf outings and long-day or overnight tours.”
These shore excursions are planned with the aim of enhancing the customer’s onshore experience enabling passengers to see new places, engage in new activities and immerse themselves in the local culture of the destination port they are visiting.
Most operators offer a variety of excursions, from sightseeing and walking tours to zip-wiring and dog-sledging, depending on the destination.
“Activity-based trips might feature a day at the spa or beach, a pleasure cruise on a sailboat, a wine or food tasting, a cultural performance or a visit to a museum,” says Adam.
“Sightseeing excursions are typically bus tours that take passengers to the highlights and shopping areas of the port city or nearby destinations, and they usually differ according to the particular part of the world you are visiting.”
He continues: “Cruise line tours are usually a tad more expensive than tours available ashore, so depending on what you want to do and experience and the time you have ashore, you can often save money by going it alone.”
Of course, whether the added expense is worth it is really down to the traveller.
In fact, savvy travellers could enjoy a very similar experience for a cut of the price simply by planning and researching.
“If you want to book your tours independently, then the key trick is to plan ahead. Learn about the attractions in each port and check to see how far these and key shopping outlets are from the port,” says Adam.
“If you want a relaxing beach day, find out if there are actually any good beaches nearby too.
“If all you want to do is walk around town, shop or visit the beach, then it could be much cheaper and less time-consuming to get a map and do it on your own.”
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Exploring port stops independently allows travellers to stick to their own time frame, and avoid large crowds of tourists.
Adam adds: “Although organised museum shore excursions, for example, include transportation and expedited admission, in most cases you can still go it alone and minimise hassle and wait times by planning transportation and purchasing museum tickets in advance.
“In many instances, it can be cheaper and quicker to get a cab to a certain attraction, rather than waiting for other passengers to get on and off specially-arranged tour buses.”
However, while the savings might be tempting for budget-conscious holidaymakers, there are some downsides of going it alone.
“The key potential downside of going it alone, is that while a ship will wait for any late-returning passengers on ship-sponsored tours, if your independent tour gets stuck in traffic or there are other problems and you are late returning to port, then your ship will leave without you and you will be stranded in port,” warns Adam.
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“This is more common than you’d think, so it might be advisable, for absolute peace of mind, to opt for a ship-organised tour if you plan to visit cities, such as Athens, Rome or Florence which are pretty far from the port.”
The destination should also be at the forefront when deciding if you’re going to venture off independently.
Adam explains: “It is also wiser to take a ship-sponsored shore excursion in any third-world country or in foreign ports if you don’t understand the language and customs, such the need to cover most of your body at certain religious sites, or the usual haggling practices of stallholders or taxi drivers, which can seem overly aggressive to tourists.”
What’s more, though the price tag for a cruise line excursion may seem high, the quality and content of the trip are sometimes beyond what can be planned DIY-style.
“Cruise-organised tours generally take the hassle out of arranging your own shoreside activities and will usually look after you from the moment you step off the ship, to ensure you get back onboard safely and on time,” says Adam.
“Shore excursions are generally worth it if you want to venture to attractions that are located far from the pier, learn more about an area through a guide or participate in physical activities where gear is required, such as scuba diving.
You also have the assurance that your ship-sponsored tour provider is licensed and reputable, and the ship won’t depart until all of its tour buses have returned.
“It’s also worth noting that some ship tours are exclusive to the ship only, which means you are getting a unique experience that you would not get if you go DIY.
“The knowledge and efficiency of tour operators vary, and some tour offerings are not good value for money – especially if they simply offer time-consuming bus rides with drop-offs at shopping centres. It always pays to do your research and check other cruiser reviews before you book.”
For holidaymakers who do decide to book onto the pre-arranged excursion, it is advised you do so as soon as possible, as popular excursions can fill up fast.
“If you decide to book a ship-sponsored tour, check to see how many places are available and how popular the tour is. If it’s a limited-availability excursion, or specialist must-see tour, then it is certainly worth adding this to your booking as soon as you can,” says Adam.
“Be aware, however, that some cruise lines charge penalty fees for cancelling shore excursions onboard or within 24 to 48 hours of the port call, so make sure you check the weather in-port, in advance, if you can.”
Largely, whether shelling out for a planned port excursion is down to the specific needs of the traveller.
“The answer ultimately depends on budgets, personal preferences, what’s available in port, the particular customs and language at your destination, and the distance of key activities or sites to your port,” concludes Adam.
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