Weighing Port Excursions Against Going It Alone
Many people like the convenience of a ship sponsored tour, but we are just not “guided tour” enthusiasts, even as we’ve taken on a fair number of them. To begin with, there are some land tours that just make sense under some circumstances. First is where there is someplace you really want to see and even the ship sponsored bus tour is on a very tight schedule based on the time in port. The one thing you can be sure of, if you are on a ship sponsored tour, the ship isn’t going to sail without you, which is not the case if you are out on your own. And yes, we have seen people left behind by not being back on board when required. We have also taken a number of tours because the cost was just too good to ignore. Sometimes that is because we have onboard credits that we just need to spend and others have been provided by our travel agency as a perk.
From our point of view the biggest problem we have with guided tours is that you become a prisoner of the tour. It is common for us to get stuck visiting some place that we are just not interested in. Why do we have to spend forty-five minutes at a chocolate factory or a nut packer? Sure the tour operator is being paid to deliver people to that business but we resent paying for that visit. The other case is visiting a location where we could spend hours and are informed we have to be back on the bus in a half hour. Going it on our own eliminates those problems.
There is also the issue of cost. If you understand your options, often you will see that the ships tour will cost you significantly more money. A few examples:
Cozumel Chankanaab National Park – When you get down to it, this is a day at the beach. The park is equipped with bars, restaurant, along with beach and snorkel rental options. A taxi ride will cost between US$10 and US$20 each way (make sure you have plenty of singles as drivers don’t offer change) and park admission is about US$21. A recent tour booked through the cruise ship cost $69 per person. That’s $138 for what would have cost $62 for two people going on their own.
Mendenhall Glacier Alaska – This is a national park outside of Juneau Alaska. The park is serviced by a bus route from the historic downtown area near the ship docks with round-trip fare being $31. Add to that the admission to the park (NPS standard fees) $20 which totals $51 ($31 if you have a NPS Golden Eagle Senior Park Pass). The basic cruise tours usually start around $75. They often will add in a salmon bake for an extra $20 to $30. For more on Mendenhall CLICK HERE.
Rome from the Port of Civitavecchia – On our first cruise stop in Civitavecchia we booked the “Rome On Your Own” tour at a cost of $98 each which included a bus ride in to Vatican City and back to the ship. Six blocks from the Civitavecchia port is the train station and for as little as US$12 you can get a round-trip ticket to the St. Peters station with trains running about every half hour. For two that’s a savings of $172 and the trip in and back on the train is actually much faster.
Another interesting tour comparison is a trip into Monte Carlo from the popular cruise port of call Villefranche-sur-Mer. Most cruise sponsored tours start at $75 per person. Monte Carlo is a beautiful but compact city and going on your own simply requires walking seven or eight blocks from the cruise tender dock to the train station and buying a US$12 round trip ticket. It’s only a short twenty minute train trip to Monte Carlo and once there buy a Hop-On-Hop-Off Monte Carlo bus tour for under US$30.
In order to head off on your own and save money you do have to be a bit adventurous. We are pretty independent and are usually comfortable using local buses and trains as we travel. With our biggest fear being missing the ships departure we always build in a good time allowance as we make our plasn. We are also good at doing research on our destinations and have a good idea of what we want to see and how to do it before we even leave on a trip.
A Few Ship Sponsored Tours That Are Must
On the other side of the discussion there are a few examples of ship tours that we thought were well worth the cost and why:
The Golden Triangle Iceland – This tour was a bit pricy but so were the local tour companies. The reason we selected this tour is because our ship docked in the afternoon and sailed shortly after noon the next day disqualifying local tours. We also considered renting a car but again were concerned about the times. The tour itself was great. We probably traveled over a hundred miles and saw thermal fields, waterfalls(!!) and Icelands rift valley where the earths crust is pulling apart. No shopping stops or misspent time. If you are going to Iceland don’t miss the Golden Triangle.
Ephesus Turkey – The ancient city of Ephesus, located near the Aegean Sea in modern day Turkey, was one of the great cities of the Greeks and later the Romans in Asia Minor and home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today, the ruins of Ephesus are a major attraction located some distance from the port. Again not inexpensive but a great experience (it did include a stop at a rug showroom). We might be adventurous but there was no way I was going to rent a car for half a day in Turkey and I still am not aware of any convenient public transportation.
Bangkok’s port is Laem Chabang and it’s well over an hour drive from the city. Attempting to use public buses is a serious challenge, especially on a tight time schedule. If this is a first visit to Thailand do not pass up a day or two in Bangkok.
Wine & Food Tours
Wine and food tours are a staple of ship sponsored excursins and often are reasonably priced. We take advantage of these at times because they provide a good way to see the city or countryside and sample local fare.
A Wine & Tapas Tour in Palma – This one wasn’t that expensive and included nice stops at three different tapas bars and free time in an in-town shopping area. The drive back to the pier included brief stops at the castle overlook above town and a drive along the coast. A good answer to filling an afternoon in Mallorca. For more information CLICK HERE.
Jerusalem – Regardless of where your ship docks, Jerusalem is at least an hours trip away. The city is also huge with streets and alleys that present as a never ending maze. To really see Jerusalem in a short time, a guide is almost a must. The convenience and the time you save makes a ships shore excursion worth the cost.
Ports With Great Public Transportation For Exploring On Your Own
Singapore – While there are several cruise docks in Singapore, the nearest Metro Station is only a few blocks walk from each. The Singapore Metro system is clean, well marked and best of all the signage is in English. CLICK HERE for specific information.
Amsterdam – The center of Amsterdam is focused on the Central Train Station that can be reached in a short seven to ten block walk from the ships pier. A series of tram routes fan out from the train station and The Amsterdam City Card allows you to travel on Amsterdam’s GVB-trams, buses, and metros. This popular one-, two-, three or four day pass also provides free or discounted access to many of the city’s museums and attractions. A one-hour canal cruise by boat is also included with the pass.
Sydney – Cruise ships dock at a pier next to Sydney’s historic Rocks area with only a short walk to Circular Quay where you can catch ferries around the harbour, pick up a bus or a light rail. Ask about the Opal Card which gives you easy system access for a very reasonable price. MORE HERE.
Hong Kong – Like Singapore, Hong Kong has a very modern and inexpensive metro system with easy to use ticket vending machines and route information in English. It is also common for there to be free bus service that will take you from the cruise pier to a number of destinations. MORE HERE.
Athens – Piraeus is the seaport for the city of Athens and while a bit out of the city, the cruise ships dock less than a mile from a metro station. Easy to get to by just following the water front. Fare is only a couple of Euros and the Thissio stop on the green line from Piraeus is only a short walk to the Temple of Hephaestus and the Acropolis is less than a half mile away. An easy trip on your own representing a major saving.