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How to choose the right shore excursion

The half-day tour to Nice and Eze sounded incredible: A “spectacular” scenic drive, a walk through Nice’s “charming promenade” and flower market, and time to “wander through the cobblestone streets” of Eze.

Reality took a less idyllic form. The scenic drive was indeed impressive, but we spent half the tour time in the bus. In Nice, we were dropped off near a flea market surrounded by touristy shops, and in Eze our group plodded up the hill with excruciating slowness. The hour-long stops in each town felt rushed, and I found it hard to amble aimlessly when I could hear a clock ticking down toward the bus’ departure.

I’d fallen victim to an age-old marketing ploy. I was lured into believing the shore tour booklet was a helpful guide. In reality, the booklet is an ad, full of lush descriptions to convince cruisers to part with their vacation dollars.

A good shore excursion can truly enhance your cruise vacation, of course, but a mediocre one can leave you feeling like you’ve wasted an entire day. To avoid disappointment, use the following advice to pick your shore excursions. Trust me, I learned it all the hard way.

Different tours for different shores

Shore excursions can take very different forms depending on where you are. In the Caribbean and Alaska, many excursions are based around an activity, such as kayaking or snorkeling. In Europe, sightseeing tours are more common. Just because you loved or hated the excursions in one cruising region doesn’t mean you’ll have the same reaction in another.

Therefore, it’s important to consider what kind of tour you’re booking. A boat ride to a reef where you can snorkel or scuba will be quite different from a bus ride to the main tourist attractions of a European city, which in turn will be different from a food-and-wine tour or a beach drop-off.

Full-day versus half-day

Back-to-back full-day tours can take the relaxation element out of a vacation. Long bus rides and early mornings can be exhausting, especially if you’re bringing kids with you. When choosing an excursion, try to strike a balance between full- and half-day tours, as well as days to wander freely in a port town. You don’t want to return home in need of a vacation from your vacation.

Read between the lines

Complicated tours with multiple stops or activities often sound better than they are. The problem arises because people don’t want to choose between two attractions, so they figure why not do both? The answer is you often don’t have enough time to visit each place or do each activity properly.

When reading a tour description, you have to read between the lines. Compare the number of stops to the number of hours to deduce how long you’ll have for each activity. Look on a map to see how far your destinations are from the port and determine if you’ll be spending most of your time in transit. Does the tour strike a leisurely pace or does it seem rush-rush? Does the time spent in each place seem to be too little, too long, or just right? By digging a little deeper, you can figure out if a tour seems geared to your interests and travel style, or if ultimately you’d be better off visiting the sights in another way.

Guided versus free time

Depending on your nature and the nature of the excursion, you may prefer a guided trip or an independent experience. If a tour takes you to a small European town or a famous museum, look to see whether you’ll be tagging along behind a guide or left to explore on your own. For an active excursion, will you be sticking together as a group or given the appropriate instructions and sent on your way? If the answer doesn’t match your preference, you may be happier on a different trip.

Highlights versus in-depth tours

Many cruisers see each port day as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They feel compelled to view every major sight, and squeeze as many attractions as possible into a very hectic day. This attitude can lead to serious exhaustion, not to mention a superficial experience.

Resist the urge to fill your vacation with highlights tours. Often it’s the more narrowly focused excursions that create lasting memories. Trade the 11-hour Florence and Pisa trip for a more leisurely excursion through Tuscany’s wine country. Skip the sightseeing bus tour in favor of a cultural or active experience, even if it means you only visit a small town you’ve never heard of.

Is a tour even necessary?

In some port towns, a guided trip is a superfluous expense. In the Caribbean, beautiful beaches and marquee shopping areas are often a quick walk or cab ride away. Smaller ports in Europe can also lend themselves to wandering through narrow streets, stopping in cafes and cathedrals. A quick look at a map or guidebook can show you the main attractions and their accessibility. With this information, you can decide if your money is best spent on an excursion.

Consider alternative trips

Cruise lines make money on shore excursions by taking a cut from the cost of the tour. In other words, you could pay more for a ship’s excursion than the same activity booked on your own. It’s not a bad idea to check the Internet for independent operators who offer a similar experience for less money or with a smaller group. Just double check that the companies are reputable and have the appropriate licenses and training.

Some experienced cruisers opt to rent a car or use public transportation to go to the same places visited by a pricey cruise line excursion. Before you choose this option, make sure you’ll have enough time to do everything on your list while building in time for getting lost, running into traffic, and other snafus. Sometimes a ship’s tour is better for a distant or complicated trip, if only because the ship will wait for its buses to return before pulling out of port.

When to book in advance

Book in advance for excursions with limited space or once-in-a-lifetime trips you’ll be devastated to miss. You should also sign up early for trips that need a minimum number of participants. If not enough people pre-book, the trip will be canceled.

For any other excursion, though, you’re better off booking onboard. That way if you want to find out more details about a trip or want to put off booking until you’ve assessed the weather or the energy level of your travel companions, you should wait to purchase shore excursions. A few cruise lines charge penalty fees for canceling an excursion once you’re onboard, and most won’t refund your money if you cancel within 24 to 48 hours of arrival at the relevant port.

Ask for help

If, after you’ve employed all these tips, you’re still not sure about a specific excursion, all you need to do is pick up the phone. Your travel agent or a cruise line representative should have more details about the tours and perhaps some advice about which of two tours is the better choice. And don’t forget about the excursions desk onboard the ship. The staff are required to go on many of the trips, so they can speak knowledgeably about them.

Ultimately, a good attitude and open mind will guarantee a great day in port. My tour to Nice and Eze may not have been my favorite excursion, but I loved gazing down at the Riviera from the cliff-side roads and browsing the shops and exotic garden in Eze. Plus, the crazier your day, the better story it will make when you return home. But if you’d prefer to experience incredible port days and once-in-a-lifetime adventures, hunker down with that excursions booklet and let the planning begin.

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