Q – My husband and my sister and her husband have been cruising together for the past eight years on Crystal, Silversea, and Azamara. And while nothing comes close to Crystal in terms of service, food, and entertainment, they all seem to have one thing in common – a few real shore excursion clinkers. Do each of these lines plan their own excursions or is there some sharing? Is there any way to find out in advance which are the really better excursions ashore? Should there be savings when the four of us travel together?
A – Planning shore excursions is an extremely complicated project in any port. The cruise line must bring together port agents and local operators to try to craft a program that meets the needs of the port, the community, and an operator who have a very clearly defined number of available air-conditioned buses and guides. Cruise lines can try to create options and they can, where there is suitable operator competition, seek out bids. But as ships cruise to more and more exotic ports, options are often quite limited and cruise lines might love a destination while hating their inability to find a local tourism infrastructure that truly understands the expectations of the luxury traveler. Perhaps only “Uncle Phil” owns the required five air-conditioned buses. And he can charge what the traffic will allow.
Most of the contracts between a cruise line and a local tour operator are only of one or two years duration, so building up long-term relationships are often difficult. Cruise lines like to feel that they have another option should guest satisfaction scores in a port be low. The line’s Port Agent is usually the go-between the line and local operators.
In developing countries, many of the best guides want to work a bus on a group tour, hoping for additional tips. In more sophisticated countries, however, the better guides pride themselves on not doing large bus tour groups so the very special guides normally work independently. A good guide in London, for instance, can easily earn $800 per day after the tour company is paid its share of the cost.
It is hard to know which are the better tours. Cruise lines do not look for exceptional tours. They look for generally pleasing tours for their specific demographics. On a Crystal cruise, for example, tours must be set up for those seeking an outdoor active experience while other guests have walking difficulty and prefer sightseeing overviews by bus. There are always art aficionados and foodies to content with. Your travel agent will have experience with previous guests who have booked the tours. Ask your agent to highlight the tours he recommends.
Finally, we would strongly urge you to arrange private shore excursions when your are traveling as a foursome. The total cost of a private experience in port only increases about 20% when a second couple is added. So it lowers your per person cost significantly and private begins to line up nicely against the charge a ship will charge for four full-day tours. Any guest working with a consultant who is a member of one of the leading consortium groups will have the distinct advantage of using their overseas office network. Sorry for the long response but your question(s) required it.