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Planning your own shore excursions can add savings, spontaneity

Imagine my disappointment when [% 1628304 | | Celebrity’s %] shore-excursion representative told me my sailing trip in Key West was canceled. I had been excited for weeks about relaxing in the sun as the boat drifted across the water, sails unfurled. An entire day devoted to shopping or visiting local museums just didn’t have the same cachet.

But when I stepped off the cruise ship, I noticed various kiosks touting sailboat trips, including one from the same company Celebrity used. Crossing my fingers, I inquired about that day’s trip. Yes, it was still on. The cruise line couldn’t fill its excursion spots, but the sailing trip was running regardless. My friend and I booked tickets on the spot. Not only did I get my sailboat trip, I saved money in the process.

There’s much to be said for cruise-line shore excursions. You don’t have to do advance research, you’ll get to participate in a fun activity, and you don’t have to worry about the ship leaving without you. It’s not necessary to book tours through the cruise line, though, or even to do an organized activity at all. Plan a day in port on your own, and you’ll likely have just as much fun for a lot less.

Option 1: Spend the day at the beach or in town

You don’t need to book a special trip to hit the beach or the shops in port. In [%1608891 | | Grand Turk %], I relaxed in the sun at the beach right by the cruise pier. Later in the day, I headed over to Margaritaville, where I could use the pool and watch the poolside dance competitions for free. In [% 1625049 | | Key West %], I wandered through the shops before making my own way to the Ernest Hemingway museum. In [% 1627271 | | Grand Cayman %], five bucks got me a ride in a shared cab to the beach.

At most beach destinations, you can often walk or take a cab or bus to the beach. It’s a good idea to bring your own towel, and you can save money by traveling with an inflatable inner tube or your own snorkel mask and flippers. Most beaches have restrooms, or you can use the facilities at a nearby hotel or restaurant. You may have to shell out a couple of bucks for an umbrella, lounge chair, or water sports.

If the port is a big enough city, you may want to spend all or part of the day shopping and exploring town. In [% 1262496 | | Alaska %], all of the port cities have accessible shops, and many [% 1285902 | | European ports %] have stores and cafes close to the water. Even in the Caribbean, I made my own way around the shops of Grand Cayman and Martinique, while in Nassau and St. Lucia the local markets were just a few minutes from the ship.

Savvy travelers may wish to take local buses to get to attractions on the cheap. In European cities where public transit is efficient, you shouldn’t have problems. In the Caribbean, where buses are often unmarked and have no reliable schedule, you may be taking a chance when you step onboard. Ask the driver and other local riders to let you know when your stop comes and always leave plenty of time to get back to the port. In [% 1597709 | | Hawaii %], many cruisers choose to rent a car for a day and explore on their own.

I recommend purchasing a good guidebook, so you can have a map of town and some suggestions of what to see and do. Alternately, visit the tourist information office when you first get off the ship. The representatives will have informative brochures, city maps, and advice on getting around.

Option 2: Book your own excursions in port

It’s rare to find a quiet cruise terminal. More often than not, you’ll run into vendors promoting their trips and activities. Occasionally, kiosks will line the road, and you can book a tour on the spot.

If you don’t like to plan in advance, but don’t want to pay cruise-line rates for excursions, you can often book a trip once you arrive in port. You can negotiate with the vendors on-site or make arrangements through the tourist office. If you have a group of four or more, you may be able to hire a taxi for the day. The driver can serve as a guide and take you to places of interest.

You’ll need to take two factors into account should you decide to go this route. First, you may not know if the tour operator you’ve approached is a reputable agent or if you’re getting a good deal. If you do a little advance research, you’ll have a sense of prices and names of good agencies.

Second, your tour of choice may be sold out. Although I saw several shore excursion booths at Alaska cruise ports, I had read prior to my cruise that activities often sell out when multiple ships are in town. If you have your heart set on a particular trip, you may prefer to book it in advance. Be prepared to be flexible if you’re winging it.

Option 3: Plan your own excursions in advance

You don’t need to rely on the cruise line to book a shore excursion ahead of time. Just look up snorkeling, flightseeing (helicopter rides), fishing, or any other tours and contact the companies directly. You can easily compare prices against the cruise line’s packages.

The best way to find reputable companies is through word of mouth. Talk to friends, family members, or acquaintances who have previously been to your destination. If you’re the first of your set to travel to this area, check guidebook listings for recommended providers or post a question on the chatboard of a travel website. If all else fails, research providers online and then ask detailed questions about their practices and licenses. You might even ask for references from previous customers.

The key to arranging your own tour is timing. If the tour bus gets a flat tire and you return to the pier an hour late, the cruise ship will not be waiting for you. The best option is to plan a morning tour, so you’re back well before the ship sets sail. If an all-day tour is a must, try to find one that returns at least an hour before the ship’s scheduled departure time. If the cruise leaves without you, it’s your responsibility to make it to the next port.

Option 4: Mix it up

Sometimes it’s worth the splurge to book a cruise-ship excursion. The options are often plentiful and interesting, and the price isn’t always much higher than a trip you plan yourself. Certainly, there are fewer hassles. The key is knowing when you need or want a cruise-line trip, and when you’ll be equally happy on your own. A mix of planned activities and free days to wander in town or soak up the sun may be the best use of your time. But it’s always good to know that you have plenty of options for how to spend your days in port.

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