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Booking Shore Excursions on Your Cruise

Advice from the Shore Excursions Manager of the Caribbean Princess

Taking a cruise for the first time is like visiting a restaurant in a foreign country. You think you understand the way things work - how to order, which utensils to use and how to tip - and you don't know how wrong you are until you make your first mistake. On a shore excursion, that mistake can cost you a whole day (if the excursion is nothing like you expected) or put a serious dent in your vacation budget (if you miss your ship and need to fly to the next port on your own dime).  

El Yunque Falls, San JuanMeet Bryan Attree, Shore Excursion Manager for the Caribbean Princess. He sat with me while we sailed from Aruba to Puerto Rico to share some tricks that will make booking your shore excursions much easier.

Do your homework before you cruise

"You'd be amazed at the amount of people who come aboard with no idea what islands they're visiting," says Bryan. "They spend a lot of time in line at the shore excursions desk and they're often disappointed because others booked online and there's no space left."

FodorsLonely Planet and Cruise Critic are my favs for getting an overview of each island. Visiting their online forums gives me a chance to ask questions from the experts as well as others with first-hand insights. Once you know the must-sees on each island, it's easy to eliminate tourist-trap excursions.

Understand cruise line lingo

Dominica's Trafalgar FallsShore excursions are a revenue stream for cruise lines and descriptions are written to entice you. ""Words like "highlights, taste of, essence, sense of and best of" denotes mild adventures that cover multiple points on the island," says Bryan. "These tend to be mild, vehicle-based excursions that give people a tour of the island - rather than an adventure."

We booked a tour in Dominica that was described as "Dominica's Ultimate Adventure Tour" with snorkeling, hiking and swimming at the base of two waterfalls. It turned out to be 4 hours in a tour bus that zigzagged across the island. Had I looked closer at the wording, I would have chosen another adventure that involved more hands-on action.

Know your limitations

If you like getting outside to enjoy the natural beauty of the islands but you're not in great physical shape, pay attention to the symbols beside the descriptions.

"Physically match up to what you want to do with what you can do. You might want to climb Machu Pichu, but if you can't do it you aren't going to enjoy it," says Bryan.  "I would rather match up physical needs and wants before looking at the price. If you sell someone based on price you've caused a problem for the passenger, the cruise line and the tour operator."

If you're not satisfied, speak up

Cruising allows you to visit many countriesBryan encourages passengers to speak up if an excursion doesn't meet expectations. Princess closely inspects the bus, the safety, the security, food - everything and anything that comes into contact with the passengers," says Bryan. "Everything has to meet Princess standards." They send out mechanics to review equipment, chefs to review food safety, and they will frequently spot-audit shore excursions.

Before you speak up, be prepared to communicate what exactly troubled you and why. If a vehicle has a flat tire during your excursion but you were able to do everything anyway, should the cruise line compensate you? If you were only allowed ½ hour of snorkel time instead of an hour, does that warrant a full or partial refund - or none at all?

Use common sense and understand where the cruise line or tour operator failed to deliver - and when complaining is appropriate and when it's just whining.

Book through the cruise line

Some of my cruising friends tell me they never book through the cruise line because it's a money grab. Other friends only book through the cruise line because it gives them peace of mind. I do a bit of both.

Magens Bay Beach, USVIIf I'm touring not far from my ship (within an hour's drive) and the tour I want to take isn't offered, I'll go on my own. Or if I'm hitting a beach and just need to a cab ride back and forth - doing it without a safety net works for me.

My risk level allows me to consider a day trip around Aruba cabbing or enjoying an excursion non-cruise organized. It's a small enough island that I can get across the island pretty quickly. An excursion farther inland - like the hour from Rome's port Civitavecchia into central Rome - is best taken with the cruise sponsored tour group. We did take that tour and were held up an hour in traffic getting back to the ship, making it right at the wire for the sailing. 

"A ship is no different than a plane - they have schedules to keep," says Bryan. "Tour operators adhere to those schedules - or they run the risk of losing their contract with the cruise line."

an hour from the port CivitavecchiaA cruise sponsored excursion means they will wait or take responsibility for your boarding of the ship in the event it's late. If you do book on your own and miss the ship, getting to the next port is your responsibility. But you aren't completely deserted.

"Some people panic and head straight for the airport but they can't leave the island without their ID," says Bryan. "Go back to the port and let the port authority (which becomes the company representative) help you get to your next port of call. They'll organize flights and let the ship know you're on your way. You'll have to pay all expenses but you'll have an escort."

Factor in the individual costs of transportation, tour and refreshments along with the added insurance equal good value.

Go for the flavor!

Bryan says shore excursions are a lot like restaurants. "One dissatisfying restaurant experience doesn't mean you stop eating at restaurants all together, right?"

GoGirlfriend is Happy in the CaribbeanRemember that every island you visit is a country and there are so many factors that can affect your experience. From cultural diversity that you may not expect to a fellow passenger who may cause a delay and set the whole tour behind schedule, shore excursions aren't perfect.

"To go see an amazing volcano in Nicaragua you have to step off the beaten path and go through the culture of the region," says Bryan. "Cruise ships do such a good job of accommodating and servicing passengers that when you step out of the ship, it can feel like breaking out of a bubble and that can be shocking to some people."

When you cruise, do you book through your cruise line or on your own? Ever been left behind? Leave a comment below and let other learn from your experience.


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