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Port Stops – Cruise Ship Organized Tours or Self Arranged

I get asked a number of times as to whether or not it is better to take a ship organized shore excursion or book your own. I have no set answer. Both are good but it does depend on the individual. Your research and organizational skills along with your ability to deal with risk are key elements in your decision as to whether to organize your own shore excursion or participate in one sold through the cruise line. I personally do not believe that there is a high risk when you set about organizing a shore excursion but there are factors that you have to consider. You also have to be prepared for the consequences if things go south and you have a hiccup or two in your day. A late return to ship is one problem that immediately comes to mind. A late return from a cruise line organized shore excursion means the ship will either wait for you or cruise staff will address the problem of getting you to the next port at nor little cost to you. If you booked your own tour outside the ship and are late returning, you are on you own. That $200 saving on the excursion may turn into a $2000 expense getting to the next port stop.

If you like the security of knowing all is looked after and you have a safety net if something goes horribly wrong, book a shore excursion through your cruise line. These types of tours can be rewarding, fun and they have been vetted by the cruise staff. Consequently they tend to run fairly smoothly and efficiently.

Before people start messaging me stories about horrible shore excursions they have endured, I will point out that problems can occur on ANY shore excursion be it one organized by the ship or an individual and yes I have been the victim of one or two brutal shore excursions so I can relate. What I am essentially saying is that most of the time, a ship organized shore excursion is generally a risk free way to go and they tend to run fairly efficiently. They always tie into the most popular activities in a port so you can be assured that if something is the place to see, or thing do, the ship will offer a tour of that activity.

I do organize a lot of shore excursions because I like to control where I go and how long I spend in one place. If I am enjoying a specific stop, I don’t need to hurry up and get back to a bus where 40 people are waiting. I like smaller groups and more importantly, I like saving money. Organizing my own tour almost always results in a cost saving.

What is the upside to organizing your own shore excursion? Well in the preceding paragraph I mentioned the four key ones: destination selection, stop duration, groups size and cost savings. One other key element is the ability to pick and choose who joins you on a shore excursion. I can be assured that I won’t get stuck with someone who makes the shore excursion painful. I have learned through experience on both ship organized, and privately booked tours, that the people with whom you travel are very important. On one ship organized tour, the entire bus was privy to the continuous complaints of a woman who was loud and relentlessly bellicose. At the end of the tour, 39 relieved people got off the bus, thankful the tour was at an end. A sign of how bad it was is in the memory of the day. I can’t recall the country we were in or the tour but I will never forget the woman. Even though we did not share so much as a word with each other, the memory of her shrill voice ranting on about this and that can still produce a shudder.

I also have a memory regarding the perils of a self-organized tour with a person who was, to be kind, best described as challenging. During a rather difficult cruise, wherein I organized a few shore excursions, I was stuck with someone on those tours who was the catalyst for my decision to be more selective about the company I keep. This individual started worrying about returning to the ship before we even left the dock. She also sulked over some perceived slight and passed on seeing places of interest. I believe this person was the reason others missed out on seeing, or spending the time to enjoy, the sights around them. Failing to take in the sights that might be a once in a lifetime opportunity, boggles the mind and I no longer include people who exhibit traits that make them unsuitable for any private shore excursion that I organize.

Normally I attempt to marry up the participants and activities. I try and temper what we do with the physical abilities of the participants in my group. For example, on one particular cruise, my husband had recent knee surgery consequently all of our shore excursions were arranged with his walking ability in mind.

Ship organized tours do something similar by designating shore excursions by activity level but those are subject to how an individual views them self. The walker using, oxygen toting individual may think they are fit enough for the shore excursion designated "moderate difficulty" when in fact a "light activity" labeled tour would better suit their needs.

I try to organize my private shore excursions by what my husband and I want to see and do. We go with the attitude that we may not make it back to any given area and as such, the goal is to see as much as we can and enjoy every minute. If others are aligned with our itinerary, then we welcome them to join us, if not, then they should seek out a shore excursion that better suits their needs. Obviously, If I am organizing for a group, this position changes. I always tailor the activities to the wants of the group.

This seems an opportune time to take a moment to revisit the down side of a self-organized shore excursion. In my next book, Sleeping in a life jacket, I have a chapter entitled “The Runners” and tell the story about two of my friends who almost missed the boat. To read about that incident you have to read the book but I for now I will speak of a situation wherein someone did miss the boat.

In response to questions I am asked as to whether a ship will leave without you, the answer is yes. On a recent sailing, I met a woman named Florence and we had the opportunity to chat a bit. Florence and her husband have three adult children, one of whom suffered a catastrophic brain injury when at the age of 18, she was struck by a car. Now wheelchair bound, unable to walk and non-verbal, she requires constant care. Her family are her primary care givers and take her on cruises as ships are handicap friendly and have medical facilities onboard to make the vacations easier and generally stress free.

On one trip they took a private shore excursion in Dubrovnik and ran into problems on their return to the ship. As they arrived at the dock around the scheduled departure time, they struggled to get the wheelchair out of the vehicle and down to the ship. The ship’s gangplank was raised as they were making their way toward the ship and as they reached the point where the gangplank had been, they could physically reach out and touch the ship. But it was too late. The gang-plank had been raised and the ship soon departed. They had been left behind. Their family was soon joined by another couple who were also delayed and who likewise, had been left behind. To compound the horror of the situation, they had been traveling with an elderly relative who had elected to stay on board when they went ashore. This individual was now on the ship, alone and worrying as to what had happened to her family.

They had to secure their own transportation to the next port which was in another country. It was quite the journey both in expense and emotion. A situation like this highlights the fact that when ships are due to leave a port, they often cannot, or will not, wait for passengers who have not returned on time.

Here are thirteen things to keep in mind when booking private of ship shore excursions:

  1. Research what you want to see and do. A good way to do this is to look to see what the cruise ship is offering as the cruise line will have set their shore excursions to encompass the most popular things to see and do;

  2. Examine costs such as what the cruise ship is charging. If you are satisfied with what is on offer and the price, book it or research private excursion prices to see if you can get a better deal;

  3. Get quotes from reputable companies and make sure if the ship does not make the port stop due to any reason, that you are not charged;

  4. Verify when possible, the reputation of the company or individual operating the private tour;

  5. Set a time schedule that will allow for hiccups such as traffic accidents, vehicle breakdowns or delays;

  6. Know, or try to get a sense of the people with whom you will be travelling (this is particularly important if you are opening up your private tour to other cruisers through a social media site);

  7. Decide how payment will be made and be clear. Collect the money before the start of the tour;

  8. If a tour company wants full payment up front, before you even arrive in port, decide if that is a risk you want to take or not. This is something I rarely do;

  9. If you are the tour organizer be clear where to meet up prior to the start of the shore excursion;

  10. Set ground rules for members of your group when it comes to times to meet during the tour. For example, if you all go your separate ways to go shopping, be clear on a time and place to meet. If someone does not make the meeting time, be prepared to leave them;

  11. Talk about tipping expectations. Do you want to tip as a group or separately;

  12. Always check the tour vehicle after the private tour is over; and

  13. Give feed-back to either the ship if it was a tour through the cruise line or to the tour operator and/or a social media site if it was a private tour.

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