Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cruise lines’ shore excursions

Le Truck - local transportation used to drive us around Bora Bora
Many people love to hate the shore excursions sold by the cruise lines, however I have found the excursions offered by Holland America to generally be good value. There are always exceptions, and it’s wise to be aware of what the travel market offers, but there are compelling reasons to booking shore excursions with the cruise line you are traveling with.

I always produce a travel budget for any of my trips, and when cruise lines are part of my travel arrangements, I have a line item for shore excursions. This item for my upcoming cruise to Hawaii and French Polynesia includes: snorkelling on Maui in Hawaii and snorkelling on Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Rangiroa in French Polynesia. Obviously I like to snorkel, and I find these trips often avoid the more crowded venues, where you are often contending with lots of other travellers all descending on an area at once. I have found that snorkelling is often only part of the activities on any particular tour, so I often find a good mix of experiences on these outings. That’s why I view them as offering good value.

I am not just snorkelling on this cruise. On Moorea in French Polynesia, I will be going on a photography expedition with a local professional photographer. While the ship is docked in Papeete, I will be taking a 4-wheel-drive excursion called “Off the Beaten Track” to explore the more remote interior regions of Tahiti. On my previous trip to Tahiti, I had covered the island quite thoroughly, so this fits perfectly with my criteria for doing something different this time. Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia is our last port before we sail back to San Diego. The excursion I’m taking here simply drives us around the island. Being in the Marquesas Group, we are in a more remote area of French Polynesia where this is all that is available.

The excursions in French Polynesia are expensive by any measure, however it is easy for me to rationalize this expense:

  • I won’t likely be returning to French Polynesia again.
  • It is expensive to fly in and stay in French Polynesia, so I’m actually spending significantly less by cruising through the region.
  • I traveled to French Polynesia a long time ago, and this trip very nicely fills the gaps of what I missed the last time.

Shore excursions sold by cruise lines offer other value, which is not always obvious at first glance:

  • Shore excursions can be cancelled or changed while on board the ship. You can often get a full refund if you have second thoughts about an excursion, and cancel the arrangements early enough. In the case of Holland America, an excursion can be cancelled as late as 24 hours before, and they will attempt to resell your seat, in which case you will get a refund (otherwise not).
  • The ship will not sail without you if you are late from a shore excursion when the cruise line sells the arrangements.
  • Safety and security can be a big issue at some destinations in the world.  The cruise line is very careful to choose reputable local partners to offer the best experience possible while you are ashore and in their care. Additionally, a ship’s staff member often comes along with the tour group to ensure everything goes smoothly and everyone arrives back to the ship safe and sound.
  • If you travel solo like I do, it is often cheaper and safer to book through the cruise line, since tour operators ashore operate on volume.  They want a group of people to make it worth their while to operate a particular tour or activity. As a bare minimum, they want at least one or two couples. As a single traveler, you have little bargaining power by yourself. It is also much safer to be part of a group of your fellow shipmates, rather than wandering around by yourself in a place you know little about.
  • Cruise lines tend to get the best local excursion operators, since they offer them steady business and volume. Local operators know the cruise line will ask you to evaluate their performance, so if they are careless in any way with your treatment, they know they will pay for that indiscretion in the future.

Ship's deck with Kuto Bay and Ile des Pins behind
You need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of booking excursions with your cruise line versus doing it yourself. I’m not advocating you always book shore excursions with the cruise line.  Please read my previous blog post of how I arranged for an overnight stay on the Big Island of Hawaii so I can see Mauna Kea and the observatories on the summit at night while the ship sails around the island.

It’s nice to have some ports-of-call where you have nothing planned.  You can walk ashore and just see what you encounter along the way. You can hire a taxi for a couple of hours and do exactly what you are interested in on your own time…no being herded back on the bus or van before you are ready. Go ashore and: climb the nearest hill to take in the view; lounge on a beach within walking distance of the ship; shop for local souvenirs at local vendors; have lunch at a local coffee shop; have a drink at the nearest beach bar; take the local bus to meet people and see how the locals live. All these activities cost little or nothing. Believe it or not, there are even some passengers who never leave the ship while in port.  They love having the ship to themselves, and take advantage of recreation services and the ship’s restaurants while the crowds are elsewhere.

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