Cruising Without the Hassle Part 2: Like Walking on Shores

Much of the fun of a cruise can be the shore excursions. However, not every shore excursion is a good time or a good value. Here's a primer on how to evaluate your excursion options.

We believe a powerful reason people take cruises to go places. And that’s why they take shore excursions.

Shore Excursions

There are several issues about leaving the ship and going on shore. There is, of course, the additional expense if your cruise line is dragging its feet on this popular concept of making a cruise all-inclusive. We will return to that subject but first let us talk about a very well-arranged shore excursion we enjoyed on the Isle of Capri in Italy. Our family had rented four cabins with Silversea for a special grandfather birthday trip from Rome to Venice. Those two cities are delightful for first-time visitors and a pain for cruise passengers; it would be hard to find two more awkward places for transportation between airport and seaport but those glamorous cities do beckon.

The book, the face of an extraordinary physician finally at rest — and the Anderson family shore excursion revelers on Capri, pleased that things are working well.

We arranged this Capri shore excursion ourselves; or rather Michael, a young family member, did with the usual attention to detail the legal profession gives its clients. He found because so many tourists wanted to sail from the port of call, Sorrento, to the offshore island of Capri itself, the cruise line couldn’t offer those who bought its shore excursion preferential treatment in line for the local ferry. He compared prices. The individual price was much better. Finally — because some of us had read Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele about how this physician restored one of villas on Capri originally owned by the Roman Emperor Tiberius — we knew exactly what we wanted to do on the island. This would be a precise example of when a do-it-yourself-excursion works: when language is not a major issue, when the crime possibility is low, when the tourism infrastructure is well established, and when you have researched how to get around.

Moscow 10 years ago was a different story.

We went with Viking, at that time the only river boat company with access to Russia. The language and signs were incomprehensible and it was never really clear what American visitors could photograph in Russia, as we were told, in particular inside the Kremlin, photography was not allowed. But did that apply, we wondered, to the interior of its Kremlin churches, and would those naked bayonets of its sentries make the point (literally)? Discretion won — to a degree. But when our Volga River boat got to the wooden churches of Kizhi Island we were glad we were on a Viking shore excursion; we would never have been able to find them without our company guide.

Guides make a huge difference. The one we had many years ago for a Greece coach tour, Vincenzo de Michelis, was absolutely the best we’ve ever had, so good we went back to his company a year later and requested a tour with him as our guide saying “we don’t care where the coach is going as long as we have “Vincent.” With an American mother and an Italian father, he was fluent in six languages and kept the coach laughing with his impressions of a Scottish accent and an Italian who found English difficult. He took us to Northern Italy.

Fountain of Trevi Rome. Our guide Vincenzo de Michelis with us in Florence. Verona wall with tourist notes for Romeo and or Juliet. Portofino, Italy.

Italy gives us a good discussion of comparing excursions with and without guides. Once you’ve been to Rome previously you know you can easily find the Fountain of Trevi without a guide. But, without Vincenzo’s help, we would never have found the lovers’ wall in Verona where tourists seeking the courtyard below Juliet’s balcony come to add their autograph -- even though, as Vincenzo pointed out, the balcony was added to the house long after the date of the supposed courtship. The house dates from the 13th century and the Capello coat of arms can be seen on the wall but the balcony was added in the 20th century! And we don’t think we could have found the fishing village of Portofino without a shore excursion guide from Windsurf Cruises.

Mexico presents itself as a convenient destination to compare do-it-yourself shore excursions with those arranged by the ship. Long before cruise lines stopped visiting Mexico because of safety issues we went to Acapulco to interview the cliff divers. It was safe fun and we even returned again to Mexico. But the third time we went back by ship and chose a shore excursion. The ship’s guide took us to a jewelry store where those of us not interested in cheaply made baubles fretted because we knew we would not be in time for the start of the cliff diving experience. We were not. And the light was fading.

Cliff diving, Acapulco

We remember another cruise down the Mexican Riviera where we bought the ship shore excursion because it included Las Hadas which once claimed to be the most expensive resort ever made. It was a magnificent white wedding cake Moorish-style resort once owned by Atenor Patino, a Bolivian millionaire tin magnate who also owned the Manzanillo airport and the only airline that flew to it. We had once arranged to fly there but in true Mexico fashion, the hotel booked our flight for a week where it had no hotel room availability and arranged a room a week later where there were no seats in flights coming in to Manzanillo during that week. A Canadian couple at our ship’s table had arranged to go with another couple around the village in a taxi with a local driver. They spoke no Spanish. We played it safe; we went with the shore excursion: we really wanted to see Las Hadas.

Las Hadas, like a wedding cake

At least when our short shore excursion got back to the boat there was still time to wander the boardwalk.

That evening at dinner we compared stories. Our bus drove around and stopped for a few minutes at an overlook where the guide pointed out the glistening white resort on the coast. Their taxi driver spoke some English and told them he knew the concierge at Las Hadas and could arrange for a day to be spent at the resort with pool and beach privileges and they could get lunch too. A small amount of money exchanged hands. They showed us their gorgeous photographs which reminded us of Santorini in Greece. It hurt to smile!

Crime in Mexico that might impact American cruise passengers seems to be less of a problem now. And a walk around Cabo has returned as a charm.

Loreto. Los Mochis.

Other coastal towns like Loreto and Los Mochis seem to be safer now, too. To us the problem isn’t so much crime but rather the inability of Mexican organizations to get their act together. We have attended Mexican government tourist functions in San Diego where our letters and emails were lost and never answered. We were once invited down to La Paz to interview the Minister of Tourism for Baja. He sent us our flight tickets, arranged airport transportation and a hotel room for three nights but when we arrived we got a note saying, “Gone fishing. Enjoy the Hotel stay!” What an incredible way of doing business.

We would be inclined to use a ship shore excursion for local entertainment as here in Mazatlan. How would a normal passenger know what was worth watching in town or be able to get seats with as good a view as the cruise line?

Who wants to go on a cruise and be consumed with saving money! The shore excursion cost is a small part of the total price of a cruise…

…and there really were a lot of shore excursions laid on by the ship at Cabo. Insert: Christy.

Travel agents like Christy who specialize in cruises can often also offer shore excursions from a company separate from the cruise ship. The company she uses may have smaller groups, use local guides, and be less expensive and still offer a “back to ship in time guarantee.” She does warn that if you are taking a cruise specifically because of a ship's specially featured shore excursion and that’s the reason you are booking that cruise, you should probably book that one with the cruise line and book it very early in case it sells out. Sometimes a cruise line is able to offer a unique experience like a cooking lesson or a visit to a rural home and such may be better arranged through the cruise line.

In addition, be aware that some cruises, such as Alaska, sell out quickly. They seem to be on everyone’s bucket list, so if you want to do a whale watching shore excursion, or a helicopter landing on a glacier, or even just hold a Huskie puppy at a large breeding kennel, make your travel agent or the cruise line aware early you want that option.

Although there are some ports of call where you might walk off the ship without anything arranged and still be able to enjoy that port, sometimes in the Third World the shore may be an ugly industrial port and you will regret you have nothing arranged. “Numerous clients,” says Christy, “tell me they wish they had booked excursions especially if they come back from the Caribbean and say, ‘there was nothing there but fudge shops, jewelry and popcorn.’” Says Christy: “Some young entry-level passengers come without a plan and the first bar that gets ‘em, gets ‘em completely and they don't get to experience the actual port."

Shore excursions run by the ship get you back before the ship leaves. True, but most professionally arranged local trips can give you that guarantee too. Local trips arranged online may be cheap but not give value. As an example Christy compares a $50 ship-arranged Scuba trip with a $15 one bought online at the dock. The more expensive one might offer fruit snacks, and shoot your picture and take you to several dive locations. She remembers one in Belize where the dive boat was able to hold off the ship’s tenders briefly until it picked up its divers. The more expensive option was the better value. How do you know if you are getting value? You don’t. It comes with knowledge and trust and experience and maybe it comes with using a travel agent.

Photography by Authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.