Alright, with the weekend trip behind me, it’s back to cruise related posts.
After all that time spent finding the cruise we want to book, and selecting the right cabin, our next step is to plan our excursions. My wife’s generally in charge of this one, at least until she’s narrowed it down to a few that look to be the most interesting. One rule of thumb we tend to stick by when starting out: One stop/day must be a beach day. That’s not to say we won’t build in more when everything’s set, just that we want to ensure we at least have one day at the beach on the trip. For anything heading west, that day is usually reserved for whatever stop we have in Mexico, which is usually Cozumel. Beyond that, we’re pretty open to trying new things at the remaining stops.
As far as tour vendors go, we don’t use the cruise-sponsored excursions very often, we generally try to book with a local company. There are some exceptions to that rule, but of the independent tours we’ve done, we’ve never been disappointed in or had issues with the staff. Now, as others will be quick to point out, there are risks in booking with independent operators. Some of the key ones:
- If you have to pay anything at the time of booking, odds are you aren’t getting a refund if you have to miss that stop for some reason (generally tender ports where bad weather prevents tendering)
- Unlike a cruise-sponsored excursion, the ship will not wait for you if your tour is late getting back. If the tour requires a long drive away from port, be sure to check past reviews to see if that could be an issue.
- There’s going to be some level of uncertainty until you’re actually on the tour, since you don’t really know what to expect when you first arrive.
Number one hasn’t been an issue for us to date, as we usually book with tour companies that don’t require up-front payment, and we’ve only ever had to miss one port due to weather. Number two is always in the back of our minds, but in all the excursions we’ve done in different countries, we’ve never had an issue. Remember, cruisers are a key source of livelihood for the tour operators, and if they don’t get you back, they know people will hear about it and look elsewhere.
Number three, now that’s been the fun one for us. When you book with an independent operator, you’re generally basing your choice on their description along with online reviews (more on that later). There’s no cruise line certifying things are safe, that the operator is reputable, etc, so until we’re actually doing whatever tour or activity we booked, that little piece of uncertainty is there in your mind. In fact, some of our most fun excursions started out a bit hairy, so to speak :). To give a couple of examples:
When we were on our Mexico cruise in 2008, my wife booked the three of us, along wither her boss and his wife, on an Argo ATV tour while we were docked in Puerto Vallarta. That ended up being one of the best tours we’ve ever done, but the hour leading up to it was nerve racking. When we booked, we were given instructions on how to get to their office once we got off the boat. It was a walk of just under a mile to some small office building in some pretty humid conditions. Once there, we checked in, and waited for a bit for the van to come get us and take us to the ranch. The 45 minute drive to the ranch made us all a bit nervous initially. We were driving through parts of the area that I’m betting none of the cruise excursions did, over very old, worn down roads, and through very poor towns. At one point, my wife’s boss looked at her with this “what did you get us in to” kind of stare. I have to say that it was all worth it though, we all had a blast, and it was a definite reminder of how lucky we are to have been born where we were.
My second example is one we did this past Thanksgiving. We’d pre-booked a dune buggy tour in the Dominican Republic through Pro Excursions. We knew ahead of time that it may be a bit chaotic getting to their facility due to the port situation, but even knowing that, were still a bit stressed. The dock Carnival uses is controlled by someone who wants full control over the tour operators allowed at his dock. It’s rumored that he’s got a deal with the lines who use his dock to not allow non-cruise line affiliated tour operators access to it, so when you get off, you have to make your way to the taxi stand, and find the correct taxis to get you where you’re going. Because of the way the taxi/bus area is set up, it can be a bit of a nightmare to find the right ones, especially when it’s crowded. There were others from our ship looking for the same transportation, so working together we managed to find the one we needed after a bit of work. Our transportation to the Pro Excursions building was included in the tour cost, so we didn’t want to end up having to pay for transportation a second time by getting in the wrong cab. Anyway, once we got past that nuisance, we were good. Again, that was one of the best excursions we’ve ever done, and we absolutely loved the Pro Excursions staff. I’ve got plenty of GoPro footage to back that up just how fun that was :).
The moral of the story here is that while there will be uncertainty, if you do your homework, the odds of an issue popping up will be minimalized. Honestly, our worst excursion was a cruise line sponsored one in Jamaica 8 year ago, where my daughter ended up injured, so issues can happen with official tours, too (saving that for another post).
So how do you find a good tour operator? Research :). This is no different than booking the cruise or finding a cabin. The more you put in to it, the more you get out of it. My wife generally starts in the Ports of Call forums on Cruise Critic. She’ll go one stop at a time, making a list of the most interesting things to do at each stop, and then discuss them with us. We do also look at cruise line excursions for ideas, and to be sure that there isn’t something cool they offer that no local operator does. We’re pretty methodical with this, and narrow it down to one to two activities at each port (we’ll have a backup ready in case the initial activity is booked). Once we have that, we start looking at tour operators, which is again where the CC boards I linked above come in. That area of their forums seems to be less polluted with complainers than the cruise line boards, thankfully, and to date have never led us astray. We also use sites like TripAdvisor, and general internet searches of the different tour operators and tours to get an idea of how others liked them and what sort of problems (if any) arose.
Once all that’s compiled, we book the tours. By that time, we know whether or not the tour operator requires any payment up front, and while we generally don’t like to pay it all ahead of time, we have no issue putting down a small deposit to secure our spot. In many cases, even that isn’t necessary, but when it has been it’s never been a large amount. I hesitate to say we would never use an operator that required up-front payment in full, but we’d limit our exposure as much as possible by not doing it at tender ports, checking to see how many times in the past the ship had to miss that port, seeing if the operator refunded anything if you did miss it, etc. It’s all about limiting risk.
In the end, we’re obviously partial to independent tours, but will go with the option we feel provides the best value and fun for the money. The independent ones we’ve been on have resulted in a much more personal experience, where you don’t end up herded on and off a tour bus all day like cattle. The independent operators tend to take pretty good care of you, and show you more than you’d see otherwise. Your mileage may vary, of course, so as always, I suggest doing your homework when deciding on an independent vs ship sponsored tour. There’s plenty of info out there to help you decide!
Oh, and the main picture at the top of the page was taken in Grand Turk during our helicopter tour this past Thanksgiving. That’s one we didn’t book until we were already off the ship, and the operator cut us a deal as we had 4 of us going up. Another awesome adventure!