Cruise line scams: Shore Excursions

Cruise line shore excursions

Going ashore can be one of the best parts of a cruise and one of the reasons many travelers choose a cruise vacation in the first place. From the comfort of your floating hotel, you can see multiple destinations but only have to unpack once. Cruise lines offer a wide variety of excursions at each port of call and encourage passengers to join. Some are over-priced but carry an implied level of safety that might not be entirely accurate.

The potential scam-like claim here is “Oh, you don’t want to go out on your own on a shore excursion. If they’re late getting you back, the ship will leave without you”

Yes, they could do that. Will they? Probably not. How likely is that to happen? Not likely at all.

Often, the same companies and people that do shore excursions for the cruise lines also do them independently. Still, the cruise lines say they do investigate and follow up on excursion providers to see how they are doing, holding them to high standards.

Alternatives to ship-sponsored excursions. Shoretrips.com, is a third-party service that provides excursions world-wide. Owners Julie and Barry from Milwaukee, Wisconsin travel to each of the destinations and insure that their tours are safe and interesting. Often, Shoretrips.com excursions are less expensive and less crowded too. Booking more than 200,000 people a year, they have yet to leave someone behind.

Let’s talk price. A pretty easy-to-compare excursion in Cozumel, Mexico, Swimming with the Dolphins is $129 for adults or children on Carnival Cruise Lines. Shoretrips.com has that dolphin swim for $79 for adults and $77 for children. That’s about 40% less than the cruise line. Prices vary among lines too. Royal Caribbean has that dolphin swim for $99. Their price is better than Carnival but not as good as Shoretrips.com.

Another option is to go with someone recommended by a trusted friend or a travel blogger you’ve come to know. Reliable independent operators know what they are competing with on the cruise line excursion offerings and almost always offer a better value. That might come in the form of a lower price or a similar price with a better experience.

Get good information. A good source for reliable travel information about specific ports of call is AOL travel guides. Good discussion and very current, personal information can be found at CruiseCritic.com. Your good travel agent/expert should have recommendations also.

I’m really not trying to talk you out of the ship-sponsored shore excursions. They’re good. Nothing wrong with them. But there are alternatives that are just as safe (or not) as third-party vendors.

Cruise lines have their share of problems with excursions.Going with the cruise line does not guarantee your safety. In 2009 18 cruise passengers were robbed at gunpoint in the Bahamas on ship-sponsored shore excursions. The passengers, sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas and Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder, were held up by masked men who demanded money, passports, cell phones, credit cards and personal items.

Just last November, masked gunmen held up guests on St Kitts on a Celebrity Cruises excursion.

Cruise lines were quick to suspend tours and worked hard to increase security and scrutiny of tour operators in those cases. But that was a couple of incidents in thousands of tours, hardly something to keep guests on the ship for safety concerns.

Cruise lines will commonly skip ports of call where there are known problems with crime like in Mexico with drug cartels. In that case, the cruise line does not charge you for the excursion you obviously can’t take. Ships any where close to Tunisia right now would have taken a close look at unrest in the area before even docking. If booking separately from the cruise line, make sure you understand the tour operator’s policy if the ship does not call at a port.

Let’s break it down. Look at it this way; cruise lines contract with local operators who run the excursions. The cruise lines have to add on something to make money. Duh. So basically, its the same people, running the same excursions, but you pay more if you get it through the ship. If that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy then buy through the ship. Most people do. If you want to save 20% to 50%, do some research first. There might be a better value out there.

Like the cruise line Booze and Beverage Packages, whether shore excursions are an evil scam plotted by the cruise lines or a reasonable value depends primarily on how you look at them.

Flickr photo by Ha-Wee

5 tips for people who really don’t want to go on a cruise

don't want to go on a cruiseMaybe hiking, biking, backpacking or pretty much any other minimizing endeavor is more what you have in mind for traveling but someone is dragging you along on a cruise. There’s just no way you’re getting out of it. Is there hope for you? Yes. A little. Not much. But some.

Pace yourself- Food will always be available 24 hours a day on board. You might not be used to that with your triathlon training and all so do some stomach stretching exercises prior to boarding. You will need the extra room. Stop pouting that there are no granola bars or energy drinks. There are. On cruises they are called “shots” and you find them at the bars. You’ll enjoy the walk to get them and recent studies suggest those extra steps will help prevent diabetes.

No barfing- You are concerned about the possibility of becoming sea sick because the little path on your normal mountain hike doesn’t really move around much. Think of it like that and yeah, you probably will be. Prepare for shooting the rapids in Colorado with somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing and you’ll be fine. It could be worse. You could have been invited along for a taping of Paris Hilton’s new reality show.

Know where you are going- Take time before the cruise to check out a travel guide on the places you will visit. Duh. Just because you don’t have any say in where the ship goes doesn’t mean you can’t meet fun and find interesting people. You probably won’t find any of them on the ship but maybe when you go ashore.

Careful with spending- The food is included in the price of your cruise but that’s about it. Beverages, both alcoholic and sodas are not included. Want a sip of water? You’ll pay $23.54 for that. This is why people smuggle booze on the ship. They do have beds so leave your sleeping bag at home with your tent. Bring your flashlight though, cruise passenger are fascinated by shiny things.

Relax. That may seem like a silly tip but you would be surprised how many people try to pack so much into every day that they need a vacation after they get back from their cruise to recuperate. Know this as a fact: There are way too many things to do and you can not possibly do them all. To be more accurate, there are too many things to do that you will think are stupid so bring a telescope and memorize the sky. Maybe you can find a 14th sign of the zodiac.

Flickr photo by Robbie Howell

Feds threaten: cruise line pollution must stop

feds threaten cruise linesNew emission rules for cruise ships and other large vessels are set to go into effect in late 2013.

A United Nations plan to control emissions from ships sailing within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. and Canadian coasts initially excluded the U.S, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico which pretty much left the Caribbean wide open for uncontrolled cruise line pollution.

Ships often use lower costing fuels with high sulphur levels outside of U.S. government jurisdiction, changing to cleaner fuels as they approach U.S. ports.

Under the plan, which would now include the U.S Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, ships would be required to use cleaner fuel or install special pollution reducing equipment to reduce air pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that asthma and cancer-causing pollutants could be cut by about 90% in a decade.

Under the plan, which needs approval from the United Nations’ London-based International Maritime Organization, EPA officials could randomly show up at ports to inspect ships and enforcement will be tough. The penalties have not yet been established, but impounding ships has been suggested as one option, said Elias Rodriguez, an EPA spokesperson.

Flickr photo by lecates

Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011

gadling favorite destinations 2011

We travel a lot, to destinations both well-known and unfamiliar. In our defense, it is our job to travel like mad, to explore the world and then write about our discoveries.

Though most travel writers find something or other of interest in most places we visit, there are always those personal favorites that rise above the rest. This year, we decided to scribble our favorites down for you. Some of these spots we’re tipping for greater coverage in 2011, while others are simply tried-and-true favorites that we can’t stop raving about to our friends and the various publications that allow us to write for them. Over the course of this week, we’ll weigh in on our favorite hotels, airlines, gadgets, apps, and websites.

So, without further ado: Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011.

Mike Barish. St. Kitts. I genuinely enjoy how locals and visitors frequent the same beach bars and restaurants. During evenings on the strip, I’d recognize staff members from my hotel doing the same thing I was doing: enjoying the ocean breeze with a cocktail and some jerk chicken.

Kraig Becker. Everest Base Camp, Nepal. For adventure travelers, a visit to Everest Base Camp is one of the best treks in the world. The 12-day hike isn’t just about the destination, however, as you walk in the shadow of the Himalaya each day, passing through sleepy mountain villages steeped in Sherpa culture along the way. The scenery, and altitude, is a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Catherine Bodry: Ko Chang, Thailand and Sayulita, Mexico.

Joel Bullock: My favorite new roller coaster of 2010 is Carowinds’ Intimidator. Carowinds is located on the border of North and South Carolina in Charlotte in the heart of NASCAR country. It was only fitting that the park design a racing-themed roller coaster that bears the nickname of racing legend Dale Earnhadt. Intimidator is an exciting ride. It’s the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the South East.

David Downie: As a general trend, I revisit places that have fallen off the tourist maps, or that have been taken for granted, and delve deeper into favorite destinations such as Paris and Rome, which are infinitely rich and fascinating and satisfying. Cities: Paris (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Rome (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Genoa (food, wine, scenic beauty, history, magically restored architecture), Bologna (food, food, food and atmosphere and architecture), Helsinki (scenic beauty, atmosphere, seafood). Countryside destinations: Burgundy (wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Massif Central (hikes, scenery), Drome-Provencal (ditto, plus truffles and wine), Tuscany (art, culture, museums, wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Italian Riviera (ditto).

Don George. (1) Peru‘s Sacred Valley. I finally made it there this year and was enchanted by scenery, history, culture, people, cuisine. Machu Picchu is of course life-transformingly amazing but the other untouted ruins all around the valley are equally amazing. (2) Kyoto, Japan. The cobbled back quarters of this ancient city are as enchanting now as they were when I first visited 30 years ago. Tiny temples, impromptu shakuhachi concerts, apprentice geisha in full splendor. (3) Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Incredible island scenery, hospitable people, stunning lagoon, peaceful and laid-back lifestyle, thriving dance, carving, and textile arts scene.

Tom Johansmeyer. If you’re a cigar smoker, nothing beats Esteli, Nicaragua. On just about any budget, you can spend a few days down there. Make a few calls in advance, and you’ll have the opportunity to tour tobacco fields and cigar factories. Even if you aren’t a smoker, it’s amazing to see such craftsmanship in action.

Jeremy Kressmann. Hanoi, Vietnam for its great history and architecture, awesome cuisine, and intriguing Cold War sights. Secondly, Laos. The rugged north of the country has great hikes and the buzzing cultural capital of Luang Prabang is totally worthwhile.

Grant Martin. Bogotá. Forget what you’ve heard about kidnappings, drugs and danger, Bogotá is the new cosmopolitan capital of South America. With quaint, brick streets, a buzzing commercial district and a hip, young population, there’s not much to dislike about this place. Get there before the rest of North America figures it out.

Melanie Nayer. Shanghai. The city of old and new hit a turning point when it hosted the World Expo, and set the stage for Shanghai to become one of the most talked about–and visited–cities in the world.

Sean McLachlan. Ethiopia. Friendly people, rugged scenery, historic sites, and great coffee. What more could you want? Beautiful women, good food, adventure travel? Ethiopia has all that too.

Laurel Miller. Ecuador, especially Cotopaxi National Park (see above), because it’s stunningly beautiful, uncrowded, and there are loads of outdoor recreational opportunities. Ecuador is an amazingly diverse country, kind of like a mini-Peru but with very low-key tourism. There’s also great whitewater rafting/kayaking and mountaineering, fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful colonial cities, delicious regional foods, and the people are wonderful. There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the (admittedly spectacular) Galapagos.

Meg Nesterov. Bulgaria is cheap, creative, and easy to explore. Several of my most well-traveled friends already rave about it. Go now before tourism overexposes the country.

Heather Poole. Positano, Italy. It’s just so beautiful and the food is amazing. I’m a flight attendant and I have a four year-old son, as well as a husband who travels over 100,000 miles a year for business. Our life is like a game of tag. So when it comes to vacations all we want to do is relax. I love to be able to sit on a balcony and let the vacation come to me.

McLean Robbins. Telluride. It’s not new, but as ski towns go it feels non-commercial and relatively untouched. You’ll find truly friendly people (and your fair share of under-the-radar celebrities), but also the country’s best extreme skiing. And it looks like heaven when it snows!

Annie Scott. I’m big on Vienna. It’s a magical city that embodies everything I think of when I think of Europe: culture, history, cathedrals and class. I think the Swiss Riviera may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Lake Geneva looks so pristine you could drink it, and the French influence gives everything from the dining to the shopping that elusive je ne sais quoi. Lastly, I had a marvelous trip this year in Zambia where the wildlife was rampant and the scenery was enchanting and unexpectedly dynamic: sweeping plains, dreamlike riverscapes and incredible trees. The thrill of being immersed in the bush is hard to match.

Alex Robertson Textor. Lima, Peru continues to pop. While the Inca Trail is old hat, Lima is emerging as a major destination on its own. Perhaps most notable is the Peruvian capital’s excellent restaurant scene, which is as disarmingly inexpensive as it is top-notch. I also have to mention green, rustic, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dominica as the Caribbean’s top adventure destination. Dominica has a number of fantastic eco-lodges that showcase the island’s natural beauty wonderfully and are priced reasonably.

Karen Walrond. As a diver, I love Cayman. Love it. Very touristy, but the diving is beyond anything I’ve seen, and i’ve been diving all over the world. And I’m partial to Grand Riviere in my homeland of Trinidad, which isn’t touristy at all. Between April and June, you can see Giant Leatherback turtles nesting in Grand Riviere.

[Image: Flickr | alepheli]

The world’s longest and shortest flights

Because you’re just apoplectic to find out how you can maximize your time on an airplane, right? We covered this a while back, but things keep changing: planes keep getting bigger, stronger, and faster, routes change based on demand and somehow, we keep increasing our tolerance for being locked up and pressurized like pringles in a can. Fortunately, the world’s many airline nerds have already done the technical legwork–we just had to fact check:

  • At present, the world’s longest non-stop commercial flight is Singapore Airlines SQ21 from Newark Liberty (EWR) to Singapore Changi International (SIN) clocking in at a whopping 18 hours 50 minutes! Thankfully, the huge all-business-class Airbus A340-500 and world-famous in-flight service makes the halfway-around-the-world jaunt from New Jersey quite bearable. (In that same time, you could drive from Newark to Kansas City.)
  • The world’s shortest regularly-scheduled, non-stop commercial flight is on Scotland’s Loganair, from the island of Westray (WRY) to Papa Westray (PSV) in the Orkney Islands, clocking in at a meager 2 minutes (so I’m guessing there’s no beverage service).There are plenty of other super short commercial flights all over the world, mostly inter-island and commuter connections. The Caribbean’s LIAT flight between the islands of St. Kitt’s (SKB) and Nevis (NEV) is scheduled at 15 minutes long but rarely takes more than 5 minutes from take-off to landing.

(Photo Flickr: William James Tychonievich)