Shore excursions are (choose one) either: a) competitively priced activities that allow cruisers otherwise unavailable opportunities to see the best features and places in the countries they are visiting with a minimum of fuss; or: b) badly organized, shabby tourist rip-offs that are in effect highway robbery practiced legally on the uninformed.
I wish I had the correct answer to that, but you will hear variations of both spoken with a fair amount of warmth by cruisers everywhere. In fact, I have experienced both ends of what is really a shore excursion spectrum of quality. Some tours are rather shabby and tired -- though most of those are priced accordingly, and the market presumably would tend to weed them out (the cruise line also has a stake in shore excursion quality, as it reflects on the cruise). Other shore excursions are a good value and really fun. It is unlikely that most cruisers, for example, would have time to independently rent a boat; pick up gear; travel to the best site; and spend several hours snorkeling during the time typically allotted for shore excursions. So stepping off the ship and almost immediately onto a snorkeling shore excursion boat, then motoring to one of the choice spots on the island (and being served lunch on the way back), is worth thirty or forty dollars to me. On the other hand, I wouldn't step on a bus to go look at Aruba's famous natural bridge if you paid me.
There are several things that cruisers should do to ensure that they get good value and have a good time on shore excursions. Many of these tips also apply if you simply walk or tender off the ship and independently pillage the stores in St. Thomas.
The first tip has to do with the law of supply and demand. If you intend to rent that expensive four wheel drive jeep in Aruba or go scuba diving in Curacao, sign up the first night aboard ship. If you wait, these popular excursions will sell out. They often do so the first evening, in fact. So make your choices for the entire cruise the first night and reserve your spaces. Sometimes you can do this from your cabin, through touch screen technology with the television. Often you can make your choices on a form and drop it off the first night in a box at the shore excursion desk. If you do this early enough, there are two benefits: you'll probably get a reservation for the shore excursion you really want; and you'll avoid standing in one of those endless conga lines in front of the shore excursion desk. Don't you have better things to do on a cruise? You can stand in line back home when you're buying groceries.
The next tip actually involves several discrete suggestions, all of them having to do with a dictum I believe in while vacationing: prepare thyself. The only people who have a truly horrible time on vacation are those who haven't done their homework, don't know what they're doing, and don't come equipped for the activities. (All right, sometimes you can do all of those things and still have the cruise from hell, but that is rare.)
How do cruisers gather information about shore excursions? There should be a number of web sites that can assist you; however, most of the cruise lines haven't figured out how to make use of the 'Net, and I became pretty frustrated trying to track down shore excursions at their web sites [you can find all of the cruise line web sites in the LINKS section of the Sealetter]. Let's start with the best:
Royal Caribbean International's web site has an excellent, well-detailed summary of available shore excursions for all their cruises, and provides a model that other cruise lines should truly consider emulating: http://www.rccl.com/1.2/1.2.2/1.2.2fr.html.
Celebrity claims to have information regarding shore excursions at their web site; however, I couldn't locate it. Give this a try, and perhaps you'll have better luck than I: http://www.celebrity-cruises.com/destinations/. As there is a link for shore excursions on the main menu, one would think that eventually some information will be forthcoming.
Holland America's web site is pretty limited. Princess (as of the date of this publication) doesn't really have a web site -- or should I say, they have a site, but they don't have anything to speak of on it, except a virtual tour of the Grand Princess. Get with it, Princess!
If you're in the middle of a chess game, and waiting hours for your opponent to make a move, consider loading Norwegian's page. It is graphics-intensive, so be prepared to wait awhile. If they've got information on shore excursions, I can't find it.
If at first you don't succeed, try paper. Fodor's Worldwide Cruises and Ports of Call -- an annually-updated publication -- summarizes all of the available shore excursions at each port of call. Their information may not be totally accurate (shore excursions can change frequently), but they also have sections on coming ashore, getting around, beaches, dining, currency, and other useful information for both packaged and independent shore excursions. I have found this the single most useful overall resource for a wide array of ports of call. You can often get more detailed information from your TA, or by requesting it directly from the cruise line. Most destinations or countries also have a chamber of commerce or national tourist office (often with U.S. offices). Writing to them and requesting information will get a good response.
The third tip involves equipment. Remember that you will be venturing out from your plush accommodations aboard and experiencing facilities somewhat less grand (OK, sometimes really substandard). But that is where the adventure arises. If you prepare yourself, you can have a good time anywhere. Here are some things to remember:
The fourth and final tip involves time. Port calls are often too short, and you will almost never see everything the port has to offer in the time allotted. So don't even try! You can always come back, and if you fall in love with a particular city or port, you might even return for one of those four letter vacations beginning with "L" (land) and spend a week there.
In addition, don't expect the ship to wait for you if you are late. Unless you have booked a shore excursion through the ship's excursion desk, and the entire group tour is late, you'll find yourself looking at the aft end of a ship headed to sea. According to my friend and fellow columnist Alan Walker, it is possible to rent a boat and catch up with the ship, but one should not expect the ship's officers to be amused by this turn of events.
The last word on shore excursions will be your own. They're really rather like caviar or cheap red wine. You either like them or you don't. Just be an informed consumer, pack the right gear, and bring along an extra supply of tolerance and good cheer.
Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children. This article is his latest in his SeaLetter "The Complete Cruiser" series.
Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Brent Betit" as your search phrase.
Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.
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