Cruising with MJ – The Series
Cruising with MJ – Port Day (On shore excursions, and doing your own thing)
I get a lot of questions about cruising. Some expected, some not. A question I’ve come to expect from newer cruisers is what to do when the ship is in port? Specifically, should one book shore excursions through the ship, a private tour operator, or just buy a book and explore on your own. For me, the answer is easy…..all of the above. 🙂 I have talked around this in previous blog posts, but I thought it was worthy of a post all its own.
I have a few rules about what to do when the ship is in port. If I have never sailed into a port before, I typically book a shore excursion through the cruise line, or book a private tour with my travel agent. Once I have visited a port, I feel more free to buy a travel book, read up on a destination, and explore on my own. Or in the case of Nassau, which I have been to at least 20 times now, I do one of three things – stay on the ship, walk to the Green Parrot (free wi-fi that works and cheap drinks), or head over to the water park at Atlantis. That water park, incidentally, is one of the more expensive cruise ship shore excursions you can buy at around $150 dollars per person last time I checked. (Hint: You can use your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to access the Atlantis water park…. look for a future post on that. 😉 )
Cruises of the Mediterranean and Alaska would be high on my list for finding the right organized tour. I don’t have experience with Alaska, but in the Mediterranean, I have done both cruise line excursions and private tours through my travel agent, as well as small group private tours with my fellow cruisers. The roll call forums on CruiseCritic.com can be an excellent source of information on these tours. Think of Cruise Critic as the FlyerTalk or MilePoint of cruising. In fact, I would bet that if you are a regular FlyerTalk user, the look and feel of the Cruise Critic message boards will feel quite familiar to you.
The Roll Call forums are a sub forum where cruisers start threads on the specific cruises they will be taking. One thread per cruise. It’s a great way to meet your fellow cruisers in advance, and on cruises of 7 nights or longer, most cruise lines will even throw a little reception party for the Cruise Critic members on board if 25 or more sign up to attend. More often than not, someone will solicit to get a small group together to book a private van for 6 to 8 guests and arrange a private tour of some destinations. I have participated in two such tours with good results. A better sight-seeing experience than loading on a bus with 50 of your new best friends, personal guide, and dividing the cost among 6 to 8 guests makes these quite affordable. You will find that many of your fellow cruisers will have past experience with certain operators, giving you further assurance that you will have an enjoyable, and safe time.
If booking through the ship has any advantages at all (and it does), the biggest must be that if you are on a tour organized by your cruise line, and get stuck in traffic, whatever, and are running late, your ship will wait for you. Touring on your own and don’t make it back in time and you are very likely to be waiving goodbye to your ship as you run for the pier. It is something to think about. That said, your most reputable operators are going to ensure that you make it back to your ship with no problems.
Doing things on your own can be fun too. During our Mediterranean cruise last fall, MrsMJ and I spent a few days in Italy in advance of the cruise, did a private tour of Tuscany (just the two of us), and did two other private tours during the cruise with our fellow travelers (aka ILoMJ or In Laws of MJ). MrsMJ and I also took off on our own from Livorno via train to Pisa. I had not seen the leaning tower, and it had been years since MrsMJ had been. We walked to the train station from downtown, bought our train tickets, and took the 30 minute or so train ride to Pisa. Bought tickets to the tower on site, and climbed it. Hung out for a bit, taking the obligatory picture then walked to the train station, bought our return tickets to Livorno, and within an hour, were back on our ship. I researched the details of train and tower tickets online and read a little on Pisa in one of our travel books. All in cost for this – around 70 bucks.
Cruising is all about you, and so are the experiences you decide to partake in while visiting a port. There are a number of options available, all of which have their advantages and disadvantages. You just have to do a little research, decide what you are comfortable with, and go for it. Enjoy your cruise!
-MJ, April 18, 2013