Ships to shores
The ins and outs of cruise line excursions versus independent sightseeing
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