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

One great cruise port: Ocho Rios, Jamaica

OCHO RIOS JAMAICAIn the Caribbean, many ports of call feature turquoise-blue water, sandy beaches and a year-round temperature that makes traveling there attractive, especially in the Winter months from cold-weather climates. Some islands are better than others for scuba-diving or snorkeling, some have more history-related features than others and some are known for specific attractions that only they have. Ocho Rios, Jamaica is one of those ports that has it all.

Starting with Ferngully, the rainforest within driving range of the cruise port, Ocho Rios has some of the most lush, tropical foliage of any island. Jamaica has more than 500 species of ferns. 300 of them can bee seen in Ferngully, the dark and shaded gorge that is about 3 miles long.

It’s on Jamaica that we’ll find Dunns River Falls, one of the signature Caribbean attractions. Many visitors climb the waterfalls from the beach to the top stopping along the way to enjoy one of the plunge pools that form naturally in the surrounding rock.

Repeat visitors know that one of the best parts of doing Jamaica is doing nothing at all. A fortunate few are able to kick back and enjoy the island lifestyle. Cruise passengers often miss that part by taking busy shore excursions. While safety is a concern and ship-sponsored shore excursions are a smart bet to effectively keep you out of trouble, other independent tour options are available that can make for a truly memorable on-shore experience.

A private tour by cab is a popular and cost-effective option that allows customization if time ashore is short. Tip: Don’t go home without some Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, available at most gift shops on the island.

Yes, you can fish on your cruise

you can fish on your cruiseNo, not over the side of the ship.

It might be time to add some new items to your cruise vacation packng list though. Princess Cruises recently announced that fishing would be not only allowed but encouraged on a new Alaska cruisetour option.

“Fishing is such an iconic part of the Alaska experience, that it made sense to offer a special tour especially for those who want to focus their time on the sport,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises executive vice president. “We include a variety of fishing experiences so our passengers can get a taste of the array of fishing opportunities found throughout the state.”

Such excursion titles as “Alaska Sportfishing Expedition” or “Kenai Upper River Sportfishing” have anglers excited about infusing their sport with a cruise vacation. Alaska offers trophy-class King Salmon and Halibut, some weighing over 70 pounds.

While fishing licenses are not included in the package prices, guests can buy them on location or directly from the Alaska Fish and Game Commision in advance of sailing.

Now all you have to do is figure out how to get your fishing stuff past TSA and on the plane.

Flickr photo by Alaskan Dude

Find your door easily on a cruise ship – Cruise tip

On cruise ships, most hallways and doors look alike — especially after a few drinks.

To help identify your room, bring along a picture of something familiar, like the family dog — but NO personal pictures, for safety reasons — and tape it to your door along with a BIG stick-on Christmas bow, glittery streamers, or other eye-catching, but easily removable object.

No mistaking your room now! Plus, you’re frequently reminded of your great dogs, waiting for you back home.

Purchase your excursions onboard – Cruise tip

When preparing for a cruise, there are a couple of advanced purchasing options that travelers have including ticketing, accommodations (drink tickets, suite size, etc.), and shore excursions.

It may be tempting to pre-purchase shore excursions, but there’s no need to be hasty. Shore excursions are fun, desirable, and an important component in the cruiser’s experience. However, unforeseen circumstances can arise during a cruise (a late night, for instance, or horrid weather), and once purchased, these tickets can be difficult to refund or exchange.

In many cases, excursions can be purchased on board, so waiting until you’re aboard can potentially save time and money.

Related: Research, and get off the beaten (excursion) path – Cruise tip