Ships to shores

The ins and outs of cruise line ex­cur­sions ver­sus in­de­pen­dent sight­see­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - CHRIS PRITCHARD

It’s less an an­gry ar­gu­ment than a forth­right ex­change of ideas. None­the­less, po­lite but raised voices en­sure ev­ery word is heard.

From my dis­creet lis­ten­ing post on the deck of Oos­ter­dam, a Hol­land Amer­ica Line ves­sel, I find merit in both pas­sen­gers’ view­points. The topic, say fre­quent cruis­ers, gets many trav­ellers hot un­der their leisurewear col­lars, spark­ing the most com­monly en­coun­tered dif­fer­ences of opin­ion afloat.

Shore ex­cur­sions? Surely not. Land­lub­bers con­sider it much ado about noth­ing. But a ship’s doc­tor tells me his daily on-deck walks re­veal strongly held views. The physi­cian over­hears more dis­cus­sions of this sub­ject than any other. Should trav­ellers tol­er­ate cruise line mark-ups for on-land di­ver­sions or shop else­where?

Mind you, cruise lines have re­acted by in­creas­ingly build­ing ex­cur­sions into head­line prices. As a rough rule of thumb, this is most com­mon at the mar­ket’s up­per end, par­tic­u­larly with small ships, river cruises and those promis­ing “ex­pe­di­tions” to far-flung ports. While big ships and mass-mar­ket cruises of­ten of­fer lower lead-in prices, they com­monly charge ex­tra for down-the-gang­plank ex­cur­sions.

Sens­ing the mood among canny trav­ellers, Sil­versea Cruises “of­fers on-shore ex­cur­sions on an all-in­clu­sive ba­sis”, says Karen Chris­tensen, sales and mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor for Aus­trala­sia. “These are led by ded­i­cated teams, which can con­sist of marine bi­ol­o­gists, ecol­o­gists, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and ge­ol­o­gists.” Pas­sen­gers en­counter these ex­perts while ex­plor­ing “the ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures of Barcelona, strolling through mar­bled lanes in Eph­e­sus [in Turkey but with an­cient Greek his­tory] or marvel­ling at dunes in Namibia”.

At Cruiseco, with its own ves­sels on Asian rivers such as the Mekong and Ir­rawaddy, sales and mar­ket­ing gen­eral man­ager Am­ber Wil­son con­firms “on­shore ex­cur­sions are in­cluded” in Myan­mar, Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam where lo­cal guides high­light lo­cal cul­ture and cus­toms at sites such as Angkor Wat’s an­cient ru­ins or his­toric build­ings and tem­ples in Yan­gon. “Guests learn from knowl­edge­able lo­cals about his­tory, peo­ple and sights.”

In­deed, on a cruise along Myan­mar’s Ir­rawaddy I find ex­cur­sions in­cluded, ex­cept for early-morn­ing bal­loon­ing over tem­ple-stud­ded Ba­gan, an op­tional ex­tra. I wan­der with guides through old Yan­gon be­fore be­ing dropped at an en­trance to Sh­wedagon Pagoda for in­de­pen­dent am­bling around a sprawl­ing Bud­dhist com­plex that’s rated one of Myan­mar’s top sights.

Ad­vance read­ing en­hances my en­joy­ment of the pagoda com­plex, though I’m given an op­tion of tag­ging along with the cruise line’s guide, whose knowl­edge has im­pressed me else­where. Solo wan­der­ing proves de­light­fully dif­fer­ent to past trips I’ve en­dured, with es­corts talk­ing non-stop as they in­ac­cu­rately re­gur­gi­tate guide­books and be­tray a fix­a­tion with for­get­table dates.

On a Mekong voy­age, I opt for a river cruise line’s delta day trip from Ho Chi Minh City in Viet­nam, but skip a city tour since it’s a place I know well. Some days later, I join a guide’s on-foot ex­plo­ration of Cam­bo­dian river­bank vil­lages and mar­kets. Ex­cur­sions are rou­tinely in­cluded on Antarc­tica and Gala­pa­gos cruises.

“Shore ex­cur­sions booked on board are usu­ally more ex­pen­sive than or­gan­is­ing your own on-land ac­tiv­i­ties,” notes Tom God­frey, spokesman for con­sumer watch­dog Choice. “While it may be con­ve­nient to book tours through cruise lines, it pays to do your re­search. In many ports you can pre-book shore ex­cur­sions with in­de­pen­dent op­er­a­tors for less as this cuts out the cruise mid­dle­man.”

God­frey urges trav­ellers to “find out about a des­ti­na­tion”. For in­stance, is the port close to main at­trac­tions? Where it isn’t, he says, it can make sense to buy the cruise line’s tour. As he points out, these come with guar­an­tees that “you won’t be left be­hind if you’re run­ning late”.

Book­ing tours in­de­pen­dently, and tai­lored to your in­ter­ests, may be less costly but there’s a risk be­cause heavy traf­fic or an ac­ci­dent could mean you lit­er­ally miss the boat.

Cruise lines re­gard marked-up ex­cur­sions as im­por­tant profit cen­tres. Still, some­times such tours are best, God­frey agrees, cit­ing Alaska and re­mote is­lands. Many cruise vet­er­ans swear by flex­i­bil­ity, buy­ing sev­eral ex­cur­sions from the ship­ping line but do­ing their own thing at se­lected ports.

I can’t help re­mem­ber­ing that on-deck ar­gu­ment upon which I eaves­dropped. “You’re on hol­i­day, for God’s sake,” thun­dered one. “Just hand over your money, even if it seems pricey, and free your­self from stress.”

Es­sen­tially, three op­tions ex­ist: cruise line ex­cur­sions, pri­vately booked tours, or nei­ther, al­low­ing in­de­pen­dent ex­plo­ration of a city (fine if a port is down­town, eas­ily reached by cab or in an in­ter­est­ing part of town).

Syd­ney is a rel­e­vant ex­am­ple. Re­search quickly re­veals the his­toric Rocks precinct is ad­ja­cent to the Over­seas Pas­sen­ger Ter­mi­nal. Cruise pas­sen­gers am­ble through the area or take 10-minute strolls to the city cen­tre. But some at­trac­tions are fur­ther away so, un­der­stand­ably, many pas­sen­gers buy cruise lines ex­cur­sions. These in­clude the scenic Blue Moun­tains (with koala­p­at­ting a prime sell­ing-point), a des­ti­na­tion more than 100km to the west.

Shun­ning such trips, ei­ther on the ves­sel’s ex­cur­sions or pri­vately bought tours, is most com­mon among pas­sen­gers who’ve pre­vi­ously vis­ited a city. They pre­fer to wan­der, rekin­dling mem­o­ries, stop­ping for cof­fee at van­tage points, vis­it­ing re­mem­bered restau­rants and tak­ing cabs (or pub­lic trans­port) to at­trac­tions. What’s more, get­ting back to the ship on time isn’t a worry.

Voy­agers favour­ing ex­cur­sions of­fered by cruise lines usu­ally men­tion these ad­van­tages: you’re on hol­i­day so let them han­dle the has­sle, the ship­ping com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion is at stake so they must deal with rep­utable op­er­a­tors who’ll have knowl­edge­able guides and up-to-date in­surance; and if you hate bus tours, many cruise lines of­fer pri­vate car-and-driver al­ter­na­tives at ex­tra cost.

Those against in­sist it’s vi­tal to re­search des­ti­na­tions thor­oughly be­fore book­ing any­thing. Hor­ror sto­ries abound: shonky op­er­a­tors fleec­ing cus­tomers who un­in­ten­tion­ally spend more than if they’d bought a cruise line tour; sus­pi­cious price hikes; unin­sured ve­hi­cles in bad con­di­tion; and rushed vis­its to at­trac­tions to max­imise time at com­mis­sion-pay­ing shops sell­ing over­priced tat.

At the very least, care­ful on­line in­ves­ti­ga­tion is needed to pick a good tour com­pany. At best, talk to a for­mer pas­sen­ger. The only dis­ad­van­tage of be­ing or­gan­ised and pre­pared is that you won’t have any hor­ror tales of a hol­i­day gone wrong with which to en­ter­tain fu­ture din­ner guests.

Some cruise com­pa­nies in­clude ex­cur­sions to the likes of Barcelona, Spain, top, and Yan­gon, Myan­mar, top left, in their fares; Antarc­tic di­ver­sions usu­ally are in­cluded, above right; some pas­sen­gers choose to or­gan­ise their own ad­ven­tures in port, above

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