We arrived in Belize early and had a ships shore excursion planned to do cave tubing, hiking and ziplining with what turned out to be 20 college kids about half our age! We managed to keep up with them and lived to tell about it! You can see all the details and photos in the next chapter of on going trip report.
This turned out to be one of the very best shore excursion we've ever taken! Our guide, Peter, made all the bad "Belize', but was one of the best guides we've had in terms of guest management, providing cultural context and being fun...the metrics I use to determine what makes a great guide! Finding a good guide is step one in finding a good excursion while cruising. What follows is a break down of the pros and cons of different offerings of cruise shore excursions and how to find the best excursion for you!
Types of Shore Excursions:
Ship's excursions -
Most cruise lines offer shore excursions. These are often available on line before sailing, or can be purchased at the Shore Excursion Desk on board.
- You can charge them on your cruise card or use your credit card before sailing, you can often be the first off the ship for an early excursion.
- You'll be given a full refund if the ship doesn't make the port, you are guaranteed to be returned to the ship on time or caught up to it at the cruise line's expense in the case of emergency.
- The excursion has generally been vetted for basic safety and insurance.
- Priority disembarkation, first off the ship in port
- You'll usually pay more than an independent excursion, as the cruise line will be taking their cut.
- You'll usually be with a larger group, although generally the more active the excursion (biking, snorkeling, kayaking) will usually have fewer participants than coach tours.
- Sometimes we've found the guides are not the same quality as those who people who run their own local businesses and rely on word of mouth to sustain their business, and although some cruise lines offer reviews on their sites, it's often hard to find reviews of these excursions on popular travel review sites.
Private excursions with local guides -
If you research the port, you can usually find reviews online of private local guides who will take you and your party or a small group of strangers on tour.
- Private guides can take you on a longer more inclusive tour for the same money as the ships 1/2 day tours, or do a 1/2 day for less.
- The group can be as small or as large as you like, we've often done private tours for the same cost as a ships excursion, or added a few fellow passengers to go with and saved money over a much larger ships excursion. You can find people share excursions by posting online on Cruise Critic on your ship's "roll call" of other passengers traveling the same time as you are.
- The guides themselves usually have a high level of hustle, since they are usually the owner or family of the owner, and rely on word of mouth (ie Trip Advisor) for good reviews to grow or sustain their business.
- The best ones will let you book ahead and are quick to communicate via email or messaging and are happy to customize your tour. (as we found with Channin Boddin in Roatan)
- Because these guides aren't cruise line vetted, their equipment may not meet stringent safety standards the ship imposes. This can be good or bad...we wanted our 15 yo to be able to ride a Segway in St Martin, and with a private tour, she could, even though the ships tour had a 16 year old min.age restriction.
- If a small operator has a problem with a broken down car or boat, there are no guarantees you will get back on time or fleet of other vehicles to get you back in time. If you miss the ship, you are on your own. That said in more than 20 years of cruising and using private guides on cruises, we have never once come close to missing the ship!
- If the ship is late or misses port, you could lose your deposit or the tour could leave without you. My recommendation is look for private guides who work with ship passengers frequently, they will often not charge should you not make the port, and will monitor the ships arrival to make changes for pick up times without even having to contact them.
Shore excursion companies
Excursion Companies offering tours for cruisers are a relatively new phenomenon, these are often the large tour companies that offer online excursions all over the world. Some companies that do this are Viatour and Context Tours (we have used Context Tours, read about our experiences here) Royal Caribbean just announced today they are forming their own private shore excursion company, GoBe (click here)
- You can often join a slightly larger group in port for cost savings, without having to do the leg work to form the group yourself
- They can cost less than ships excursions, and still be smaller groups or private.
- Because they are larger companies, they usually offer safety vetting, easy customer services and full refunds should the ship miss port.
- There is no assurance about the quality of the guiding, the guides are contractors, and can be hit or miss.
- You can have the the same concerns for missing the ship apply for companies as for private guides.
Hiring a taxi or driver in port -
Nearly every port has a taxi drivers waiting just outside the main gates of the ship's port area, and they will negotiate a price with you and take you on the "standard" tour of their island, or to any place you wish to go.
- This can be the cheapest option, especially if you go in knowing what is standard and are willing to negotiate with the driver, and get them to compete over your business.
- The driver is almost always a local with good knowledge of the area and can customize your tour.
- Its easy to share with complete strangers at the taxi stand or new found friends you meet on board the ship.
- You have no idea what kind of tour you'll get, whether your driver speaks English well, and if his car is safe. Also, if he's unimaginative, you'll be in a long string of taxis seeing all the same over crowded "sights".
- Some of these drivers can steer you towards restaurants and stores run by their friends or relatives, even if you complain on line about the tour, there really isn't a "brand" to damage, so they just pick up another passenger on the next ship. It's hit or miss, sometimes you can get a great guide who is on his or her way to becoming a top notch guide or the BIL a better tour company fired because he's so awful!
- Be sure to agree on a price for the whole tour, out and return, make sure it's written down on a piece of note paper so there is no "lost in translation" moment when it's time to return to the ship.