A cruise vacation is my favorite type of vacation. If you want me to relax, put me on a ship where there’s little to plan other than what drink to sip poolside and whether to spend the evening playing trivia or catching a show. And those exciting ports to be visited during the cruise? I’ve always preferred to fly, skip cruise excursions, and explore places like the Cayman Islands or Cozumel on my own time – until now.
Over the course of a 10 day trip around the Caribbean, my family and I visited a total of six ports. With so many stops on the itinerary, we decided to do something new and book several excursions – an organized group tour or activity aimed at showcasing a destination – through our cruise line. Would we prefer to just show up and let our tour guide take care of our day in port? Or would our love of adventure prevail and leave us as a team to “rent a car and drive alone”?
Weeks after returning to shore I can say that there will be more excursions in the future for my family. While we’ve made memories of exploring destinations on our own (like the time my kids would see me white-knuckled holding the dash while my husband figured out how to drive across the street in Grand Cayman), The Ease of showing up and being shown around by a tour operator brought the relaxation of a cruise ship to port with us. In fact, the few off-ship stressful memories we made on the voyage all occurred on days when we were free from excursions.
What do you do on cruise excursions?
On the island of Curaçao, we spent just over $20 per person to go through caves and take a guided tour of downtown. In the Dominican Republic, we paid about $65 each to feed and interact with spider monkeys in a beautiful jungle setting. We toured Bonaire by bus, toured the island’s stunning salt flats, and stopped at a beachside restaurant for lunch and a swim. In the Bahamas, we cruised around a lagoon in a glass bottom boat and learned about the fish and plants that live beneath the surface.
At every step we were accompanied by knowledgeable guides who gave us details about their countries. Transport was a breeze and we boarded the ship each night knowing we had gotten a pretty good taste of what each port had to offer.
Gretchen Williams is the Shore Excursions Manager aboard our newest ship, Holland America Line‘s New Statendam. She says excursions are about trying every port. “Why do people travel? Because they want to know what makes their country different from another country,” Williams told Yahoo Life. “By booking an excursion, we give guests the opportunity to experience other cultures.”
“You don’t want to just come on a cruise vacation and be stuck on board the whole time,” she adds. “You come on vacation so you can go out and explore.”
How do you book cruise excursions?
While I booked some of our excursions on Holland America Line’s website prior to our vacation date, I booked others on board the ship at the shore excursion desk. One, our glass bottom boat trip in the Bahamas, we booked on board because it was a last minute decision. On another, our Bonaire bus tour, we booked a few days into our cruise because the excursion we originally chose was canceled by the tour owner and operator. (This sometimes happens, but cruise line staff are trained to help you choose the next best excursion for your needs.)
While excursions can be booked outside of your chosen cruise line (through independent tour operators) or even booked in port after you disembark, we chose to book through our cruise line for one simple reason: peace of mind.
“Booking an excursion with the cruise line gives you peace of mind,” explains Williams. “At Holland America Line, the tour operators we work with are required to have insurance. So if something should happen to our guests, they are covered during their tour.”
“We also guarantee that if you take an excursion with us, the ship will be waiting for you, even if the tour is delayed or the excursion comes back late,” she adds.
With an impromptu tour in a port, there’s always a chance that things won’t go as planned. Williams says she experienced it herself: Once on a cruise to Greece, she agreed on a price with a taxi driver, only for him to insist that she pay more once she and her guest arrived at their destination.
“When you book through the cruise line, you have the assurance that the price you pay is the price you’re billed,” says Williams.
What is it like to explore a port on your own?
We spent as much on Aruba as we did on some excursions to rent a car. While we had requested a jeep to help us navigate the rough roads, car rentals ran out and we toured the island in a tiny compact car, preventing us from reaching some of the places we were hoping to visit. We had a lovely day exploring the island but agreed we would have saved ourselves some stress by prioritizing what we wanted to see most and paying for an excursion instead.
On Grand Cayman, I researched a beach bar within walking distance of the dock where we ate conch fritters and jerk chicken under the shade of umbrellas. An idyllic way to spend the day, but we hopped back on the ship in the afternoon and felt we didn’t see much of the island. And between the cost of renting umbrellas and chairs, drinks and lunch, we spent as much as we would have spent on an organized tour.
Williams says the choice of whether or not to book an excursion comes down to what you want to accomplish in each port, adding that the shore excursions team onboard each ship should be able to help you choose which one to go to Ports that have a must-do excursion for you family and that are a little more optional.
“That’s why we’re here,” she says. “We know what options are available so we can recommend what’s best [guests]. Some like panoramic tours where you sit in a bus and don’t have to get off. Others love adventure. We have the knowledge to select the best experience for each guest’s needs.”
Book this excursion team
Excursions will definitely be part of our itinerary on future cruises. If we just compare the numbers, we spent the same amounts in ports where we went on an organized tour and ports where we did things on our own. Traveling as a family can be stressful, and having knowledgeable tour guides to help us maximize our time on each island has been invaluable to us, although my children still talk about my husband’s attempts to drive a compact across Aruba rough terrain and huge potholes to drive.
Even at our excursion ports, there was plenty of time for adventure: After our morning or early afternoon tour, we explored each port’s downtown, ate a delicious lunch, shopped for souvenirs, and saw how many Starbucks we could find so far from home.
For me, cruising is the perfect relaxed setting for making family memories, and my newfound knowledge of the value of a good outing will be a game changer for future cruises.
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https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/ive-been-on-more-than-10-cruises-and-have-never-done-organized-excursions-heres-what-changed-my-mind-and-why-i-think-theyre-worth-the-price-tag-163742972.html Are Cruise Ship Port Excursions Worth the Price?