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Cruise Vacation Shore Excursions: Choose from a Package or DIY

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A special appeal of cruising comes from the ability to visit numerous ports and places but only unpack once. On a typical 7-day Carribean cruise, your floating hotel is likely to visit anywhere from 4 to 6 ports-of-call. The question here is, "how do you best use the 6-8 hours of shoretime?". Cruise lines offer an array of pre-packaged shore excursions, sorted by length, level of physical demand, and of course, price. It is also possible to get away from your cruise mates and enjoy a shore excursion of your own design. So, do you pick one of the ship's excursions? Or do you create your own? Or do you simply disembark, and wing it?

On a recent cruise to the Caribbean, we did all three. Here's what we did, and some of the pluses and minuses of each.

Ship sponsored snorkeling excursion (St. Lucia): This was a moderately priced half day excursion. Everyone signed up for the jaunt, met at the dock and were escorted to a boat which took us to a beach for snorkeling and refreshments. Snorkel gear was supplied and a rum cocktail was served on the return trip. It was a fun outing. On the plus side, this type of excursion is easy. Once we met our tour leader, there was nothing else to figure out. Everything we needed was supplied and all the participants were accommodated. The other benefit of a cruise ship sponsored excursion is that if for some reason the group is late returning to the ship, the ship waits for the group. No chance of missing the boat. For some folks, this fact alone is enough to make them choose from the cruise line's choices. And then there is safety. Cruise excursions must keep passenger safety in mind and excursions are designed to minimize risk. Now for the minuses. Ship excursions can feel pretty "cookie cutter" and doing everything with a large group can mean precious shore time spent waiting in line. This can be especially true when the group contains a wide range of ages and abilities. Also, when cruise tours descend en mass upon a shore location, it can get quite crowded.  I personally found fewer opportunities to interact with locals on a cruise ship sponsored outing. Finally, there is the predictability. For some, like families with children, this is a definite plus. Others prefer more flexibility.

Small boat day sail (St. Thomas): For this excursion we had researched opportunities to get away from our fellow passengers, but still have a structured activity planned. After researching various shore excursions and reviews on the web, we chose a small group sailing day. We spent lots of time reading past customer reviews and established good communication with the captain well in advance of our trip. When we arrived at port, we hailed a taxi and followed the instructions of where to meet the boat. Once aboard, we enjoyed the company of the captain, first mate, and the one other couple aboard. We enjoyed a lovely sail to a neighboring island, lunch on the boat, snorkeling (equipment supplied) and even got to sail the boat a bit. Back at the dock, we again hailed a cab and returned to the ship well before "all aboard" time. The first benefit of this excursion was the personalized service and flexible itinerary. With only the six of us, we felt that the ocean was ours to discover. It was a wonderful break from the cruise ship atmosphere. The cost was a factor, as well. For about the same price as a large group cruise ship outing, we had a private, first-class experience. The drawbacks of this plan are really two-fold. It takes solid research and planning to find the ideal tour guide and make all of the arrangements. The second issue is that an independently arranged excursion has an increased element of risk. If you are late arriving back, the ship will not wait. The best way to minimize risk is to employ a well-reviewed guide or company; one that is experienced in providing tours for cruise passengers. Read as many "reviews" as possible. I usually start at www.tripadvisor.com. The other important thing is to make your plan to arrive back at the ship well in advance of departure. I recommend no less than 90 minutes.

Grabbed a cab at the dock (Barbados): If you are feeling adventurous, you might simply hire a driver for a few hours and and go exploring. We told our driver what we wanted to see (nature, good views, local architecture, etc.), and he took us on a wonderful (and private) tour of his home island. We watched monkeys in a nature preserve, at sugar cane straight from the fields, and had a tour of the neighborhoods of the rich and famous. The pluses a were obvious for us. Private, personalized, and very cost effective. The possible difficulties can range from the possible need to haggle over price, finding a good and knowledgeable driver, and making it back on time. I suggest researching ahead of time and checking with cruise ship personnel to determine which islands have consistently reliable, affordable and licensed or locally regulated driver services. 

Ultimately, you need to consider your own needs and preferences when choosing shore excursions. Do you want easy and consistent? Then choose a ship excursion. But if you prefer adventure and time way from the crowds, then planning a more independent outing may be for you. Or maybe, like us, you'll try them all and then decide!

 

2 comments

Laurie Cirivello
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Posted on Dec 31, 2008
Amanda Bradbury
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Posted on Dec 31, 2008

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Laurie Cirivello

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