Q – In your reviews of the Top Ten Cruise Lines, we notice that you say very little about the cost these lines are charging for their shore excursions. We’ve done one previous cruise on MSC and we’re trying Oceania in Europe next May. But we notice that they are charging up to twice as much as we can pay for the same tour booking it ourselves online. We like the private tours, my wife tends to get bus sick. Why are these tours such a rip-off?  I hate to think about planning a vacation while worrying about being taken for a ride. And believe me, we can well afford to pay what they are asking – it’s just the principle.

A –  This is a complicated topic and we don’t want to over-analyze it. Let’s begin by saying that the tour departments of all of the cruise lines are, essentially, set up as independent profit centers. There are mark-ups of a certain percentage on every tour sold. Pricing is determined in negotiation with the tour operator in each port, often with the help of the cruise line’s port agent who represents their interests in each destination.

Safety, reliability, driver training, and the condition of the automobile or van are cost considerations. Remember, driving in someone’s car, bus, or van is the single most dangerous thing you can do abroad. It is far more dangerous than the risk of terrorism, for instance. The best companies tend not to solicit online – they don’t have to. There is a finite number of top-guides and vehicles, and they tend to be booked up by the top cruise specialists months in advance. If a guide or driver is hanging out in chat rooms or online, you have to wonder why they have in-season availability. You also have to ask yourself a very important question: “If there is a serious problem does this company have an office in the States where I can initiate legal action”? If the answer is no, avoid the company.

Finally, as regards private drivers of merit, you should find that the better travel agents will work with the most reliable companies and they can deliver private driver/guide services at about a 20% discount versus what the cruise line is charging.

Oceania is an excellent value overall. It appears that you have booked your cruise directly with the  company, a major mistake. If you are sailing next May you have just paid deposit which means you can still turn the booking over to a qualified Cruise Specialist. We recommend that you do this immediately and then review each of the ports with your consultant to determine where it makes sense to do private touring. And remember, the point is not to have someone silently driving you around. The only reason to justify the high cost of private driver arrangements is that they can be totally designed around your specific interests. Most clients do not fully take advantage of this.