Travel SOS: The best ways to book shore excursions

Atticus has booked his cruise but wants to know when it’s best to reserve his shore excursions, and if he’ll get a better deal by booking directly with onshore providers. Leon does some digging and hopes to help Atticus make up his mind.

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Q. Atticus
I’ve booked a cruise to the South Pacific and there are a lot of onshore activities I can reserve. The cruise line said I could book them at the time I put down my deposit, or that I could do it when I’m onboard. My friend, Jake, said you can sometimes book directly with the activity providers and maybe save money. What’s your advice?

A. Well, so far, you’re on the right track. It’s best to research all your options before booking onshore activities. And, yes, because your ship is pulling into port, you may have more than the options offered to you by your cruise line. Although the cruise line’s pick may be the most reputable, it may also be the most ‘touristy’, so you could maybe have a more authentic local experience by booking a vendor of your own choosing. You will be on your own, though, and you may have to manage your time to fit in with departures. The last thing you want is a local experience that leaves you stranded at the pier watching your vessel pull away.

There are a range of pros and cons when it comes to booking onboard or onshore. Here are a few to consider.

Pros of booking onboard

  • you’ll be subject to the ship’s rules and timelines, so your vessel will not depart until your shore excursion returns and you are safely aboard the vessel
  • even if the ship has to leave, you’ll be ferried by any means necessary, free of charge, to re-join the vessel
  • you’ll also be under the supervision and care of the ship’s excursion team, so if anything were to go wrong, you’d have access to all the services the ship can provide either onboard or onshore
  • you’ll be covered by the cruise line’s and the provider’s insurance
  • sometimes, you may get a better rate, because the cruise line will buy packages in bulk and pass the savings on to you
  • you won’t have to worry about entry visas.

Cons of buying onboard

  • on higher-end cruises, you’ll most likely pay more for shore excursions, because all the aforementioned assurances cost money
  • your group may be a lot larger than with a local provider
  • your tour may sell out quickly
  • you’ll be ushered about and rushed through attractions and activities, with little time and flexibility to explore on your own.

Pros of booking with a local tour provider

  • it will most likely be less expensive
  • you’ll have more flexibility
  • you’ll probably be in a smaller group
  • you’ll have a less touristy experience, and a more authentic local adventure.

Cons of booking ashore

  • you lose all the pros of booking onboard, including protection, insurance and support
  • if you’re left behind, you’ll have to fork out whatever it costs to re-join the ship
  • you may have to organise your own visas or permission to enter the country or island
  • you may not get a refund if the tour is cancelled
  • no guarantee of professionalism, insurance, safety or general conduct
  • you’ll have to organise your own transport to and from the tour.

There you have the basics, Atticus. You may save some money and have a better experience by booking directly, but there’s also the chance that you get ripped off. It’s really a personal call. My overall advice would be to do your research. There are many trustworthy, professional tour providers around and just because they aren’t the preferred vendor of your cruise line, doesn’t mean they aren’t excellent value and service. Read reviews, join cruise forums, such as those on cruiseadvice.com.au, and check out all the travel advisory websites you can find. High ratings are your best bet, as well as customer satisfaction ratings. I hope that helps!

How have you organised your onshore excursions? Why not share your tips with our members?

If you have a Travel SOS question, send it to [email protected] and we’ll do our best to answer it, or find someone who can!

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?
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