While cruise lines are offering heavily discounted cruise fares, there are a number of items which could blow out the cost of the final bill.
Aside from drinks and dining packages, shore excursions on premium and contemporary cruise lines are not included in the fare, with some activities costing hundreds of dollars.
Cruise Passenger spoke to a number of travel agents on their top tips on saving money by booking your own shore excursions.
Should you book through the cruise line or outside operators?
As to what the factors are in whether you should book a shore excursion through the cruise line or not, Sharon Summerhayes of Deluxe Travel & Cruise says it’s all about how much time you have at the port.
“If it’s a short stay of an afternoon, I’d book with the cruise line. Yes, they may be more expensive, but you’ll have peace of mind that you’ll make it back to the ship.
“If you have a full day in port, you’re docked, and your tour runs for a few hours in the morning – go for an independent excursion!”
It’s worth noting that there are often tour operators that offer a guarantee they’ll return in time for the ship to leave, but when time is sparse, it might be wiser to stick with the cruise line. Then there is yet another element of risk if you book a tour through a company that doesn’t offer one of these guarantees.
Michelle Levins of My Cruise Concierge runs through some of the deciding factors as to who you should book through.
“As a passenger myself, I don’t always use cruise shore excursions. These are some of the questions I ask myself:
- How far away is the shore excursion?
- How much time is there in port?
- Are there any major events on?
- Are there things I need to think about such as traffic, infrastructure, and accessibility for other transport options?
- Will I feel safe in this port?
“If I think the excursion I would like to do won’t return me with at least 2-3 hours to spare then I book with the ship.”
Ms Levins recalls seeing two cruise passengers running back late to watch their ship leave without them.
“I will never forget hearing a cruise line call two passengers’ names for 15 minutes over a load speaker, to then watch the cruise staff hand over the passports of those travellers to the port authority. It would have been quite a shock for the passengers watching the ship depart without them.”
Kelly Henderson from I Love Cruising says your experience in the port is also a key factor.
“Personally, I think this should come down to how confident you are as a cruise passenger and how comfortable you are at the ports you are looking at. For example, many people have done South Pacific on repeat so know the smaller ports well.
“This would make it easier to do a private or self-led tour of that port. If it’s your first cruise or the first time in that port, I would not recommend it. The last thing you want to do is get lost and miss the ship.”
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of booking your own excursions?
Ms Summerhayes says the prime advantage is definitely savings.
“The advantages are definitely the price. You can usually find a cheaper alternative booking locally, but you may not have the most reputable tour guides, transport or inclusions. Cruise lines engage well-established and credible businesses to conduct their shore excursions and have standards for their transportation and inclusions. You get what you pay for, as with most things in travel (and life).”
Ms Levins also notes that quite often a great option is no shore excursion at all.
“In some cities, particularly in Europe, we love to do our own wandering. We do love ship tours or organised tours for anything historical.”
How much can you save booking on your own?
Depending on how exactly you book your excursion, Ms Levins says cruisers can get 50% off the cruise line prices.
“When booking with other suppliers prior to going, you may save between 15-30%. Booking when you get off the ship or perhaps organising your own little jaunt around a port might save you between 30-50%.”
Ms Henderson says she’s seen hundreds saved on activities like helicopter flights over the Great Barrier Reef.
“Yes, absolutely! Depending on the tour you can save hundreds of dollars per person. An example of this is a helicopter/flight over the Great Barrier Reef. You will find booking directly with the local suppliers pre-cruise, you could save in excess of a couple of hundred dollars per person.”
Ms Summerhayes echos that you’ll see hundreds of dollars in savings if you’re smart about it. However, her advice comes with a stern warning.
“You can save quite a bit, sometimes hundreds of dollars if you’re booking for a family. You’ll need to weigh up the cost with any perceived risks of something going wrong and missing your ship.
“There is no worse feeling when you’re waiting for your promise to lift back and it seems like it’s not coming. The dread of being stranded sets in. I’ve not missed a ship yet, but I’ve cut it fine on some non-ship arranged shore excursions!”
How do you find the best tour operators?
Ms Summerhayes says there are plenty of places to go looking and a bit of comparison shopping never hurts.
“You can find tour operators on Facebook, cruise forums, a Google search, TripAdvisor etc. I do a bit of cruising, so often grab pamphlets for next time from the tourist centre.
“You need to ensure that the tour operator has great reviews, is a refundable fee in case of port schedule changes or cancellations, and if possible, has a guarantee to get you back to your ship in time for the all-aboard cut-off. You don’t want to end up on my favourite YouTube videos – Pier Runners!”
Ms Henderson echos that Facebook groups a standout.
“Check out local facebook groups, people rave about the good tour operators on these! Ask questions, see who has used what operator and what they thought of the tour”
Ms Levins says Viator is a stand-out thanks to its guarantees.
“We love Viator as an option as it offers those guarantees for tours that have Shore Excursion in the title, you should be able to see in the Overview… “Covered by Viator’s worry-free policy: guaranteed on-time return to your ship.” Other operators we like are Tours by Locals which are usually quite good for small groups and Context Travel, note that they are both showing pricing in USD.”