A cruise vacation is a lot like dining at a buffet. You get to sample what you like- and you’ve got numerous choices laid out before you- far more than if you’re ordering a la carte. The same traveling principle applies when you’re cruising. You’ve got your time on-board filled with seemingly endless options for dining, entertainment, activities and leisure. But when that ship pulls into port, your options multiply with excursions. While waiting until you dock for inspiration to strike may appeal to your sense of vacation leisure, planning ahead around your excursion time will only maximize the fun factor, namely by helping you choose planned excursions that meet your needs or deciding to tour on your own.
1. Know What’s Out There
While you are no doubt aware of your ship’s itinerary, what do you know about the ports? Where is the port located in the city in relation to some of the attractions that are of interest to you? Is it a safe area to wander? What is the climate like? What currency(ies) is accepted? Your cruise line will offer and/or endorse lots of excursions. They tend to be a little bit pricier than independent touring, but take a lot of the guesswork out of planning your time ashore, by organizing your time, providing your transportation and considering all of the individual details in a given port.
2. DIY Tour?
Maybe you’re just interested in wandering and seeing where the day takes you. Or maybe you feel like you know enough about a given location to make your own arrangements. Take some time to determine what specific activities you might be interested in and what some of the details are surrounding the port that you’re visiting. Where is the port in relation to downtown and/or points of interest? Is the city that you are visiting safe to wander around on your own? Are there attractions that you might have to line up for an extended period of time if you’re not part of a group? Are you looking simply for a stretch of beach to catch some rays for a few hours? Maybe you want to go for a snorkel or a sail? Perhaps you have very specific interests in the area that would be better addressed by an individual guide. In all of these instances, it may behoove you to organize your own cruise excursion then to hook in with your ship-sponsored tour.
3. Organized Tour
There are certain circumstances in which it is a particularly good idea to book your excursion through an organized tour company- either through a ship sponsored tour or through a reputable travel company. For instance- if you are a first time cruiser, you would likely benefit from the support that an organized tour can provide. There are often excursions crafted to give you a flavour of your destination, which is appropriate to the small window of time that you’re spending in port. If you are travelling in a port where you feel that you might encounter language or safety issues, you may want to take advantage of having strength in numbers as well. If your cruise line specializes in a certain area or activity, you could benefit from their niche knowledge to really enhance your experience.
4. Read the Fine Print
When booking an organized excursion, make sure you read through the tour description thoroughly. How long can you expect to spend on a bus shuttling to and fro? What is the weather policy (rain or shine)? Is the excursion a full day or a half day? How many activities should you expect in the duration of the tour? Is there free time to wander, or is every minute accounted for? Are you the appropriate audience for the tour (i.e. family friendly, romance, ecoadventure, etc.)? Is food and/or drink included with your tour? For all-inclusive tours (i.e. a pass for the day to a hotel or attraction, are there hours of use limitation- especially when it comes to food and drink availability. Most cruise excursions are non-refundable, so make sure you fully understand what you are signing up for.
5. Walkathon or Chill Out?
What is the level of activity involved with going on a particular tour? While some tours may more obviously advertise the level and type of activity involved (ziplining, hike in the volcano, trek through the rainforest, etc etc.) but be aware that some tours might require physical endurance that is less obvious. For instance, a walking tour of the city seems harmless enough, but what kind of terrain are you going to cover? Cobblestone or uneven streets? How hilly is the area? It’s no fun to be huffing and puffing when you’ve planned another experience altogether- at least in your mind.
6. Tap Into Resources
You can scour the internet for excursion reviews and check out advertised ship sponsored excursions, but some of your most knowledgeable resources will be on board your ship. Your cruise ship will have excursion specialists that can help you determine which excursions are best suited to you, as well as likely provide first-hand knowledge from their own experiences. Other ship staff can probably provide you with reliable first-hand tips as well, particularly if you are hunting out “best-kept-secret” type spots. Chat them up.
7. Pack Smart
You will have spent a great deal of time planning your packing for the duration of your vacation, including your luggage and a carry-on for when you embark the cruise. Use the same detailed focus to pack a carry bag for your excursion. Remember essentials like sunscreen, bottled water, a small umbrella, camera, small snacks (if you’ve got access to them) like granola bars and small bills in the locally accepted currency for tips. Depending on where you are traveling, bring a bathing suit and towel- and a good beach read. You may find yourself near a beach with a few minutes to spare, and will be glad to have these extras.
There are a couple of areas to budget when planning cruise excursions: money and time. With ship sponsored excursions, you are going to pay more- but you are essentially paying for reputation and transportation, as well as the activity(ies) itself. One decided benefit with ship sponsored excursions is that they guarantee arrival back at the ship before departure. If you are going on your own- either for a wander through the port or with a local travel company for your excursion, make sure that you budget your time accordingly. More than one cruiser has been left stranded on the dock watching their ship sail off into the sunset because they were running late during their tour.