It’s a situation that happens to nearly all cruisers at some point: They begin to consider branching out from the cruise line-offered shore excursions in favor of local options booked independently from the cruise line’s shorex department.
Done right, an independent excursion can be a fantastic way to enrich your cruise vacation and better indulge in your own unique interests. But poorly planned, an independent excursion can work against you in ways that might not immediately be apparent.
We’re not here to say you absolutely must book your excursion with the cruise lines, though there are certain guarantees and protections that come with doing that. But if you are feeling more adventurous and confident in your travel skills, independent excursions become a viable and attractive option.
Some things to consider when booking an independent excursion:
It May Not Be Colossally Less Expensive
The traditional case for booking an independent excursion away from the cruise lines is that it will be less expensive, with untold savings available at every turn. While some excursions might be cheaper if they are booked independently with the same tour operator, most will be very close to the price charged by the cruise lines.
Price alone isn’t a good reason for booking an independent excursion; saving $10 per person may not turn out to be worth it, particularly if the event below happens to you.
The Ship Can Leave Without You
It starts out like a bad grade school math problem: You are stuck in traffic. You are crawling along at 10 miles per hour. You are 50 miles from the pier. Your ship sails in 30 minutes. Will you make it?
On excursions purchased through the ship’s shore excursions department, this sort of scenario is covered: The ship will wait for you and the busload of other guests who are also at-risk of missing the ship.
But, if you are on an independent tour, the cruise line is under no obligation to wait for you should you be delayed in returning to the ship. We’ve seen it happen on many cruises, and usually it’s something as simple as a traffic snarl-up that results in guests running frantically down a finger pier while their ship undocks and moves away.
Now, that’s not to say that you can’t book an independent excursion – you most certainly can. But be mindful of your ship’s departure time and give yourself at least two hours before that as rough time to be back onboard. If things work perfectly, you can have a cocktail by the pool. But if things go poorly, you’ll have a buffer of time to play with – and that can make all the difference.
You Can Go Where Ship Guests Can’t
The one true benefit of booking an independent shore excursion is that you can find something that suits your own tastes and interests. On past cruises, we’ve taken independent excursions in order to go horseback riding in Reykjavik, Iceland; toured all of Northern Ireland on a day call to Belfast; and explored Castries and Soufriere on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.It can be particularly useful to “do your own thing” on routes that you’ve been on before, in order to add some more variety. After all, there’s only so many times you can go to a Salmon Bake in Alaska before you just want to hire a local guide and go out on a wilderness glacier trek.
Your Mileage May Vary
As with anything, it’s always important to note that age-old corollary: Your mileage may vary. Much like shore excursions booked through the ship, independent tours can have a hit-and-miss quality to them. The big difference here is that the cruise line has taken the time to vet each tour operator and develop a working relationship with them. Cruise lines also monitor the excursions they offer on a per-voyage basis, which means disappointing or under performing excursions tend to be cut from the list.When booking an independent excursion, referrals or testimonials are worth their weight in gold. The more research you can do on your chosen tour operator and their excursions, the better the chance that you will have an enjoyable experience.
No matter which tour you take, it is essential to ensure that the operator knows exactly when your ship will leave. A good tour operator should return you to the ship well in advance of the posted “all aboard” time.
It’s also a good idea to take a copy of the shipboard Daily Program with you. No matter what cruise line you are on, the Daily Program always has the all-aboard time published, along with the docking location, the telephone number and address for the local ship’s agent, and sometimes even the telephone number for the ship itself. If you find yourself delayed, call the ship’s agent immediately – they may be able to work with the ship and port authorities in the event that you are unable to return to the vessel before sailing.
But regardless of whether you will book your excursion through your cruise ship or through an independent operator, the most important thing is to pick something you are interested in, and to go and have fun.