Is it better to book a tour through the cruise line or to explore the ports of call independently.
When a cruise ship arrives in a port of call, the majority of passengers disembark for the day in order to explore the port and/or the surrounding area. Some take a tour (also called a shore excursion) sold by the cruise line while other passengers prefer to make their own arrangements either through an independent tour operator or by simply hiring a taxi at the port gate. As discussed below, there are pluses and minuses to each approach.
Let's start with some background on shore excursions. Your cruise line will typically offer an array of shore excursions in each port where the ship calls. Shore excursions can range from sightseeing tours to adventure tours such as white water rafting to tours that involve a gourmet meal. In other words, the tours offered usually cover a wide range of activities so as to appeal to different tastes.
Although the tours are sold aboard the ship at the shore excursion desk (sometimes called “tour office”) and now often on the cruise line's website prior to the cruise, the majority of the tours are not operated by the cruise line itself but rather are conducted by unaffiliated tour operators in the ports of call. The cruise line provides information about the tours and sells tickets for the tours. On the day of the tour, the staff will organize the passengers and escort them from the ship to the bus or other vehicle that will be used for the tour. Sometimes a member of the shore excursions staff will accompany the guests on the tour. However, once you are on the tour, you are in the hands of the tour operator, not the cruise line. Moreover, the cruise line will often disclaim any legal liability for the actions of the tour operator.
Still, there are aspects of the business relationship between the cruise line and the tour operator that benefit the guests. First, the cruise lines usually do some investigation before they sell a given tour operator's tour. Armed with this knowledge, they select tour operators that they have found to be reputable and who meet local legal and licensing requirements. The thinking is that if the guests (i.e. the cruise line's customers) are unhappy with a tour, they may not buy any more shore excursions from the cruise line or worse yet, not cruise with that cruise line again. Thus, there is an economic incentive for the cruise line to deal with reputable tour operators.
Of course, this does not mean that the tour operators that the cruise line uses are the only reputable operators in the ports of call. But, booking the tour through the shore excursion office does relieve you of the burden of investigating which tour operators are reputable and who are not.
Some guests prefer not to do any investigation and simply trust that whatever guide or taxi driver they encounter after leaving the cruise terminal will provide a good tour. Perhaps surprisingly, this approach can succeed. There are many good guides and taxi drivers. Furthermore, in ports where tourism is vital to the economy, the locals do have an incentive to deliver a pleasing experience. However, this approach is a gamble and the stakes include your safety not just whether you will have a good time in that port.
Second, the tour operators used by the cruise lines have an incentive to please the cruise line. If guests return to the ship complaining about a operator's tour, the cruise line may stop selling that operator's tours.
Booking a tour through the cruise line is not a guarantee against tour operator dishonesty, however. For a port call in one Caribbean island, we booked a tour that was supposed to take guests to a local attraction and then to a specific world famous beach. The guide took us to the attraction but then to another much inferior beach. No explanation was given for this change in itinerary. Indeed, the guests were not even told that they were not at the world famous beach. Of course, the flaw in this guide's scheme was that some of the guests had been to the island before and knew that they were not getting what they had paid for.
In such situations, you can complain to the cruise line. While the cruise line is not the tour operator, it does have an ongoing business relationship with the tour operator and thus is in a position to bring pressure on the operator. In the incident described above, the cruise line gave a full refund of the excursion price. If you make your arrangements independently, your only recourse against dishonesty is the legal system in that port. You are probably not going to spend the time and money to return to that port in order to pursue your legal claim against the dishonest operator so in practical terms, you have no recourse.
Along the same lines, although it is becoming increasingly less common, some guides will add a stop to a tour where the guests can browse through a relative's souvenir shop or buy a drink at a friend's bar. This, of course, takes time away from seeing the things that you came to see. A number of cruise lines have cracked down on this practice by requiring the tour operators to adhere to a detailed schedule of what will be seen and how much time will be spent at each stop.
Passengers leaving on an amphibious duck tour in Boston.
In addition, even though the cruise lines use reputable tour operators, guides are not above telling the occasional white lie. To illustrate, on one walking tour through a European capital, the guide responded to our question about the location of a famous attraction by saying that it was “a half hour away” and thus it was impractical to go and see it. In reality, the attraction was only a few streets distant. Of course, such problems can also arise during tours booked independently.
Another reason often cited by the cruise lines for booking a tour through them is that the ship will not sail until all of the ship's shore excursions have returned. If you make independent arrangements and your bus breaks down or your taxi becomes lost so that you are not back to the ship by the time specified in the ship's daily program, the ship may well sail without you. In such instances, the passengers who are left behind have to make their way to the next port of call at their own expense.
In practice, many captains will wait a few minutes past the specified sailing time for guests who have not returned to the ship. However, such delays mean inconveniencing all of the other passengers for the sake of a few. In addition, given the high cost of fuel, there is an economic incentive not to wait so long that it would require going at a faster speed to arrive at the next port on schedule. So you cannot count on them waiting for long.
Another benefit of booking a shore excursion is that it imposes a discipline on you to go out and see the world. It is very temping when a cruise ship arrives in port to just stay aboard and utilize the ship's facilities. After all, a modern cruise ship is a floating resort and on a port day, there are fewer people making use of what the ship has to offer. While we admit still occasionally succumbing to this temptation, you do miss out on things. Since we have started a regime of signing up for a tour in each port, we have seen places and done things that we did not know that we would enjoy when we boarded the ship. Not every shore excursion is a success but they are usually at least memorable.
With regard to price, you can often explore a port more cheaply if you make your arrangements independently rather than through the cruise line. However, be sure to reach an understanding as to price before embarking on an independent tour, boarding a taxi or hiring a guide. Among other things, make certain that the price that has been quoted is the entire price and that there are no hidden fees. If there is more than one person in your party, know beforehand whether the price quoted is per person or whether it includes everyone in your party.
Going it alone does have some advantages over taking an organized tour, whether sold by the ship or by an unaffiliated tour operator. First, you can tailor your day to your own interests. Thus, if you are interested in history for example, you can just go to the historic sites rather than to a tour which may include shopping as well as historical sites. In order for this approach to work successfully, you need to do some research beforehand into what the port has to offer so you can tell your taxi driver or your guide where you want to go.
Along the same lines, if you hire a taxi or your own guide, you have more control over the pace of the day. Organized tours move along according to their schedule, not yours. Furthermore, there are often delays because someone needs a bathroom break or pauses to do some unscheduled shopping along the way or because someone has become lost.
Going ashore is an exciting part of a cruise. As discussed above, there are advantages and disadvantages to exploring the ports through tours organized by the cruise line as well as to exploring the ports independently. But an important consideration is your own lifestyle. Some people prefer the convenience of having things organized and arranged by others while other people prefer the independence of doing things their own way.
Cruise ship FAQs - - Is it better to book shore excursions or explore the ports independently?