Excursions Ashore - Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Excursions Ashore

Escorted tours in ports of call cost extra, but they are often the best way to get a nutshell view of a destination and make the most efficient use of your limited time ashore.

While shore excursions used to be limited to rather cheesy city tours, today’s excursions are extraordinarily varied, from crocodile hunting in the Amazon to kayaking in Alaska, and from elephant riding in Thailand, to flying over Moscow in a MiG jet. Most offer good value, but it’s easy to spend more on shore excursions on than on buying the cruise.

Shore excursions are offered by cruise lines in order to enhance a destination visit. Booking with a cruise line avoids the hassle of arranging your own excursions, and you’ll be covered by the cruise line’s insurance just in case things do go wrong. General city tours are designed to give you an overview and show you the highlights in a limited time period - typically about 3 hours. Other excursions provide a mind-boggling array of possibilities, including some that may be exclusive to a particular cruise line - even overland tours are part of the excursions available on longer cruises.

Not all tours are by bus. Some may be by bicycle, boat, car, or mini-van. Some cruise lines also offer private, tailor-made excursions to suit you, a family, or small group. A private car, with a tour guide who speaks your language, for example, may be a good way for a family to get to know a foreign destination.

To get the most out of your shore visits, doing a little research - particularly if you are visiting foreign countries - will pay dividends. Once on board, attend the shore excursion lectures, or watch destination and shore excursion videos on the television in your cabin.

Once your ship reaches a destination, it must be cleared by local officials before you are free to go ashore. In most ports, this is accomplished speedily. Meanwhile, you may be asked to assemble for your organized tours in one of the ship’s public rooms. You’ll need to carry the ship’s identification card with you (remember to take the ship’s telephone number with you, in case of emergencies), to be checked at the gangway, and for when you re-board.

A ticket to ride

Many companies with large resort ships charge extra for shuttle buses to take you from the port or other docking area to a local city or town center. The port with the highest charge is Venice, Italy, where the transport is by motorboat, between the cruise terminals and St. Mark’s Square.

How tiring are excursions?

Most tours will involve some walking; some require extensive walking. Most cruise lines grade their excursions with visual symbols to indicate the degree of fitness required.


Playing with the stingrays in Nassau.

Norwegian Cruise Line

How expensive are they?

For an average three-hour city sightseeing tour, expect to pay $40-100, and for whole-day excursions with lunch, $100-250. Flightseeing or seaplane sightseeing tours will cost $250-350, depending on the location, what is included, and how long they last - the flightseeing itself usually lasts about 30-45 minutes.

What if my first choice is sold out?

Some excursions do sell out, owing to limited space or transport, but there can be last-minute cancellations. Check with the shore excursion manager on board.

What should I take with me?

Only what’s necessary; leave any valuables aboard ship, together with any money and credit cards you do not plan to use. Groups of people are often targets for pickpockets in popular sightseeing destinations. Also, beware of excursion guides who give you a colored disk to wear for ‘identification’ - they may be marking you as a ‘rich’ tourist for local shopkeepers. It’s always prudent to wear comfortable rubber-soled shoes, particularly in older ports when there may be cobblestones or other uneven surfaces.

How can I make a booking?

Several cruise lines allow you to book shore excursions online before you cruise, which means that some popular excursions may sell out before you even get to your ship. So book early.

If you need to cancel a shore excursion, you usually need to do so at least 24 hours before its advertised departure time. Otherwise, refunds are at the discretion of the cruise line, and refunds of pre-paid tickets booked over the Internet can take a long time to make and can incur currency losses. You may be able to sell your ticket to another passenger - tickets don’t normally have names or cabin numbers on them, except those involving flights or overland arrangements - but check first with the shore excursion manager.


Shopping on a shore excursion with Norwegian Cruise Line.

Norwegian Cruise Line

How can I know which excursions are good?

If it’s your first cruise, try to attend the shore excursion briefing. Read the excursion literature and circle tours that appeal to you, then go to the shore excursion office and ask any other questions you may have before you book.

Shore excursions are put together for general interest. If you want to see something that isn’t described in the excursion literature, skip the excursion. Go on your own or with friends.

Brochure descriptions of shore excursions, often written by personnel who haven’t visited the ports of call, can be imprecise. All cruise lines should adopt the following definitions in their descriptive literature and for their lectures and presentations: the term ‘visit’ should mean actually entering the place or building concerned; the term ‘see’ should mean viewing from the outside - as from a bus, for example.

City excursions are basically superficial. To get to know a city intimately, go alone or with a small group. Go by taxi or bus, or explore on foot.

If you don’t want to miss the major sightseeing attractions in each port, organized shore excursions provide a good solution. They also allow you to meet fellow passengers with similar interests.

In the Caribbean, many sightseeing tours cover the same ground, regardless of the cruise line you sail with. Choose one and then do something different in the next port. The same is true of the history and archaeology excursions in the Greek islands, where the same ancient gods will put in frequent appearances.

What if I lose my ticket?

Report lost or misplaced tickets to the shore excursion manager. Aboard most ships, excursion tickets, once sold, become the sole responsibility of the buyer, and the cruise line isn’t generally able to issue replacements.

Are there private excursions?

Most cruise line-organized excursions work on the ‘one-size-fits-all’ principle. However, a more personalized alternative exists for anyone looking for privately guided tours and land experiences. Tailor-made ‘build-your-own’ excursions provide private tours of a destination and its environs, all arranged by a ‘travel concierge.’ These could include lunch or dinner in a hard-to-book top-class restaurant, a visit to a private museum, or other bespoke requirements for small groups.


White-water rafting in Costa Rica.

SeaDream Yacht Club

The right transportation and private guide will be arranged, and all arrangements taken care of - at a cost, of course. A cruise line destination ‘expert’ will plan an excursion, arrange the right transportation, and attend to all the other details that make the experience more personal. It’s all about exclusivity - at a price.

With some of the more upscale ships - for example, Hebridean Island Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Seabourn, and Silversea Cruises - shore excursions can be tailored to your specific needs. But even large resort ship lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) can book something special under its Freestyle Private Touring program.

10 destination disappointments

These destinations are lovely places, but watch out for the following nuisances.

1. Cagliari, Italy. Poor beaches and staggeringly overpriced shops.

2. Grenada. Hawkers on Grand Anse and other beaches.

3. Gibraltar. The rock’s fine, but that’s it - there’s nothing else other than duty-free liquor.

4. Naples, Italy. Trying to cross the road from the cruise terminals to town can be a nail-biting experience.

5. Cannes/Nice, France. There’s dog poop all over the sidewalks!

6. Portofino, Italy. On a summer’s day when several ships disgorge passengers onto the skinniest strip of land.

7. St. Maarten. When six large resort ships are docked at the same time.

8. Ensenada, Mexico. Poor area surrounding the cruise ship docking area.

9. Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Constant hustling to get you to buy something, and the general unsafe feeling.

10. Juneau, Alaska. The tacky souvenir shops are overwhelming.

Shopping ashore

Aboard ship, a ‘shopping lecturer’ will give a presentation about shopping in the various ports of call. Many cruise lines operating in Alaska, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and the Mexican Riviera engage an outside company that provides the services of a ‘shopping lecturer.’ Most of the talk will be about designer jewelry and watches - high ticket items that boost commissions to cruise lines. The ‘shopping lecturer’ heavily promotes ‘selected’ shops, goods, and services, fully authorized by the cruise line, which receives a commission. Shopping maps, with ‘selected’ stores highlighted, are usually placed in your cabin, and sometimes include a guarantee of satisfaction valid for 30 days. By all means take any maps, but don’t tie yourself into the ‘approved’ or ‘selected’ shops listed.

During organized shore excursions, be wary of stores recommended by tour guides - they may be receiving commissions from the merchants. Shop around before you purchase. When buying local handicrafts, make sure they have indeed been made locally. Be wary of ‘bargain-priced’ name brands, as they may be counterfeit. For watches, check the guarantee.

Some of the world’s shopping havens put serious temptation in the way of cruise passengers. Top of the list are Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai (especially in the Mall of the Emirates - a shopping resort rather than a mall - and the Dubai Mall, with over 1,200 shops, including the only Bloomingdale’s outside the US).

A few shopping tips

Know in advance just what you are looking for, especially if your time is limited. If time is no problem, browsing can be fun.

When shopping time is included in shore excursions, be careful of stores repeatedly recommended by tour guides; the guides are likely to be receiving commissions from the merchants.

Shop around and compare prices before you buy. Good shopping hints and recommendations are often given in the cruise director’s port lecture at the start of your cruise. If you notice cruise directors ‘pushing’ certain stores, it is likely that they, too, are on commission.

When shopping for local handicrafts, make sure they have indeed been made locally. It can happen that a so-called local product has in fact been made in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or another Far Eastern country. It pays to check.

Be wary of ‘bargain priced’ name brands such as Gucci bags and Rolex or Omega watches, as they may well be counterfeit. For watches, check the guarantee. If you have specific questions, ask the cruise director or shore excursion manager.

Remember that the ship’s shops are also duty-free, and, for the most part, competitive in price. The shops on board are closed while in port, however, due to international customs regulations. Worthwhile discounts are often offered on the last day of the cruise.


Shore excursion to Ephesus, Turkey.

Silversea Cruises

Going ashore independently - and safely

The major advantage of going independently is that you do so at your own pace and see the sights you want to see. If you hire a taxi for sightseeing, negotiate the price in advance, and don’t pay until you get back to the ship or to your destination. If you are with friends, hiring a taxi for a full- or half-day sightseeing trip can often work out far cheaper than renting a car - and it’s probably safer and more relaxing. Try to find a driver who speaks your language.

Exploring independently is quite straightforward in the major cruise ports of the Aegean, Alaska, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera, the Canary Islands, the Mediterranean, and the South Pacific’s islands. If you don’t speak the local language, carry some identification (but not your actual passport, unless required - keep a photocopy with you instead), the name of your ship (and its telephone number, for emergencies), and the area in which it is docked. If the ship is anchored and you take a launch tender ashore, observe landmarks near the landing place, and write down the location. This will help if you get lost and need to take a taxi back to the launch.

Some small ships provide an identification tag or boarding pass at the reception desk, to be handed in each time you return to the ship. Remember that ships have schedules - and sometimes tides - to meet, and they won’t wait for you if you return late. If you are in a launch port in a tropical area and the weather changes for the worse, the ship’s captain could well make a decision to depart early to avoid being hemmed in by an approaching storm; although this is rare, it has happened, especially in the Caribbean. If it does, locate the ship’s agent in the port - he’s likely to be carrying a walkie-talkie - who will try to get you back.

Planning on going to a quiet, secluded beach to swim? First check with the shore excursion manager, as certain beaches may be considered off-limits because of a dangerous undertow, drug pushers, or persistent hawkers. And don’t even think of going diving alone - even if you know the area well.

If you explore independently and need medical help, you could risk missing the ship when it sails. Unless the destination is a familiar one, first-time cruisers are probably safer booking excursions organized by the ship and vetted by the cruise line. Also, if you have a problem during a tour, the cruise line should be able to sort it out on the spot.

The downside of going it alone is the possibility of delay. If your chosen transport has a problem, you could miss the ship as a result. In such a case (it does happen), you are responsible for getting yourself and other members of your party to the ship. This may not be so easy if the next port of call is in another country, and you don’t have your passport. You should also be aware that cruise lines do change itineraries occasionally, due to weather, or political or other factors. In this scenario, you could lose out, big time.

If you do book your own tours, and it’s a tender port where the ship has to remain at anchor offshore, you will need to wait until passengers on the ship’s organized tours have been offloaded. This can take two or more hours aboard some of the large resort ships.

If you do go it alone, always take the ship’s port agent and telephone numbers with you, in case of emergencies (they are normally printed in the Daily Program). Allow plenty of time to get back to your ship before sailing time - the ship won’t wait. Make sure your travel insurance covers you fully.