A cruise vacation means sailing on a beautiful ship, with comfortable accommodations, fine cuisine and more tantalizing activities than one can possibly do in a week. It also means visiting fascinating ports of call just about every day. So, the question becomes, what’s the best way to take advantage of exploring these iconic destinations?
For veteran cruise passengers, the go-to options are shore excursions offered by cruise lines. With years of experience in organizing the most popular shore excursions and long-standing relationships with local tour guides, the cruise lines offer a practical and hassle-free way to see the sights, experience local culture, safely pursue adventure activities such as snorkeling and ziplining, and arrive at the best lounge chairs on the best beaches – icy cold rum drinks optional.
“Tours are the best way to get to know the country and its people in one day,” says Frank Boensch, director of shore excursions for Germany-based AIDA Cruises. “The choice is huge. For instance, I often recommend bike tours for our active guests because you see the sights while pedaling, providing a whole different perspective. It’s amazing how diverse our world is and it’s unbelievable what you can experience.”
Local guides add insight, and special activities add a wow factor.
The tours represent significant value, as cruise lines partner with qualified tour companies and feature transportation, expert guides, admission or activities fees and, in some cases, lunch and drinks. To prove the value proposition of their shore excursions, Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises all offer a best-price guarantee.
Peace of mind is another benefit, as cruise companies are in contact with their partner tour operators and able to track where a particular tour is, and when passengers will be returning to the ship. In the rare case of a port of call being canceled, passengers booking through the cruise line will have their shore excursions costs refunded.
Shorexes: Tips from the Pros
Cruise Passengers need to think about what they want to do. “My first question is always, ‘What do you want to see?'” says Claudio Schulze, destinations manager on the new, ultra-luxury, 600-passenger ship Seabourn Ovation.
Bus tours work well for some passengers, particularly those who want to see the top sights without extensive walking. Active tours provide even more Instagram-worthy experiences and include such options as flightseeing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking and ATV adventure, to name a few.
Culture vultures will find tours focusing on cooking classes, dance performances and local artist studios. On lines such as Holland America Line and Seabourn, there is also the option of private tours.
Consider done-for-you excursions vs. DIY. On paper, a passenger may think it’s better to go it alone; experienced travelers like to go on their own. But in some ports, key sights are a significant distance from the pier. Passengers can try their luck with a local taxi, but after dealing with issues such as language and currency exchange and event trust, they may find you don’t manger to get to all the places they’ve come to see.
Shore excursions, on the other hand, are choreographed to get passengers to the key sights in the time they have in port and are conducted by local guides who share their own stories.
“It’s far more immersive than trying to follow a map or flick through the pages of a huge guide book on your own,” says Alison Webster, a port presenter for British line P&O Cruises. “You leave the planning to someone else and spend your precious port time enjoying your chosen destination or attraction.”
Doing the research.Shore excursion experts say guests benefit from knowing at least something in advance about the destinations they will visit.
Cruise lines make it easy with websites packed with information – Holland America Line’s Hamish Gordon, senior manager of group shore excursions, says before they get to the ship, guests should download the shore excursion brochure and call the cruise line’s shore excursion desk with any questions. He also recommends a quick Google search of each port to check out the top attractions to see.
Check peer reviews.When deciding on excursions, passengers may want to read peer reviews online. Carnival Cruise Line, for instance, encourages passenger reviews and ratings (the ratings system is managed by an outside company) and lists the top five excursions in each port of call.
“All are actual passenger reviews. It tells you what your fellow passengers have done and which they have particularly enjoyed,” says Gavin Burgess, senior shore excursion manager onboard the new, 3,960-passenger Carnival Horizon. “You’ll learn, for instance, that if you go to Alaska and don’t do shore excursions into the wilderness, it’s like going to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids.”
Use onboard resources. Shipboard port presentations by destination experts provide information about each port of call, including outlining mistakes people make and how to avoid them.
It’s a good idea for cruise guests to attend these sessions, whether they are doing a shore excursion or plan to explore independently. They can also speak personally to the experts, who can share their first-hand experiences.
“It’s their job to know the places that you visit well and ensure that you get the most enjoyment from your time ashore,” says Webster of P&O Cruises.
At the new state-of-the-art Explorations Center in the Crow’s Nest lounge on select Holland America Line ships, guests can also sit down and view digital displays highlighting shore experiences.
Know your limits. It’s important that passengers read descriptions and choose tours that are right for them.
“Mobility and activity level are certainly things to be considered,” advises Rex Donasco, shore excursion manager with Princess Cruises, and currently on the Ruby Princess in Alaska.
Shore excursion brochures rank activity levels from low to high. Carnival Cruise Line, for instance, with its newly rebranded Carnival Adventures program, uses a symbol of a person, ranging from one person being minimum activity to four meaning full-on athleticism. Passengers who are unsure about where they fit into the spectrum can call ahead or simply consult with the shore excursion team onboard.
“Be assured there is something for everyone,” said Michael Mihajlov, destinations director for P&O Cruises Australia.
Budget for Excursions.This is not the time during a vacation to get hung up on price. Budgeting ahead for excursions means plenty of “wows,” say the experts. Princess Cruises’ Donasco counts on his must-do list a seaplane flight from Juneau to the Taku Lodge, which he says focuses on the best of Alaska in one excursion.
“You see miles of glacial ice from the sky before landing at a remote log cabin where you explore wilderness trails and watch for wildlife, before enjoying a delicious salmon feast,” he says. “It’s an unbelievable experience.”
Book in advance. Passengers will want to have their agents reserve those must-do shore excursions prior to departure because some popular tours, including active excursions and other small-group experiences, tend to sell out. If there is a change of mind, corrections can always be made onboard the ship.
For some specific requests, such as a need for transportation with a wheelchair lift or a food allergy, it’s advisable to alert the shore excursion team well in advance.
Read what’s on the ticket. Upon receiving shore excursion tickets on the ship, passengers should scan the specific information included about each tour. It’s important to read that information.
“You would think everyone would know to bring a swimsuit on a snorkeling tour, but they forget,” Carnival Cruise Line’s Burgess says. “When they are on vacation, some people don’t want to think. That’s fine. We’ve got you covered. We want you to have fun and not worry about anything. We spell it out for you so you have the most enjoyable time.”
Whichever shore excursions it is, passengers should plan to take lots of photos and share the experience – not only with those at home via social media posts, but also with new friends on the ship.
“Often guests on a shore excursion have such an amazing bonding experience,” says Holland America Line’s Gordon. “It’s not unusual to see them dining or having drinks together, swapping photos on their cellphones.”
More information about cruise line shore excursions: www.carnival.com