Excursions and Port Days: A Beginners Primer

One of the frequent questions I am asked from new cruisers is “What do I do while in port?” The answer is “That really depends on the port, what you want to do, and your budget.”

Different Kinds of Ports

One of the first things cruisers should know is that all cruise ports/destinations are not created equal.

Walk In Port:
In some ports, cruisers can walk right off the ship and have plenty to do. There might be a beach, or quaint town with historic building and architecture, or a shopping area. Cruisers still have the option of booking more extensive tours from the cruise line or by per-arranged independent tours. Taxis are also usually available. If the ship’s tender service takes passengers right into the heart of town, I also consider these ports to be walk in ports. There may be much more to see and do on a tour, but in these ports cruisers can find something to do with-in walking distance of the port.

Caribbean:St. Maarten, San Juan – Old San Juan Pier
Europe: Cartegena (Spain), Venice
Alaska: Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka
Mexico: Zihuantinejo, Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, (Some attractions and shopping in walking distance)
Canary Islands: Tenerife, La Palma

Shuttle In Ports:
In these ports, the docks are removed from the main tourist and commercial areas of town. Sometimes the cruise line or port will provide a shuttle from the docks to town. I usually find the prices to be quite high for the short ride provided. If safe and under a mile or two, I will forgo the shuttle and turn these ports into a walk in port if necessary. In some ports taxis may have access to the docks, in others passengers must take the shuttle into town shuttle to access taxi service. In most cases a ship’s excursion will pick you up at the gang way in this type of port.

Europe: Barcelona(Spain), Malaga(Spain), Madeira
Mexico: Manzanillo (shuttle to shopping and taxis only, must take taxi to resort or beaches.)

Public Transportation Ports:

In some ports the public transportation is the least expensive and easiest way to get around. Often a train, subway or bus system can enable visitors on a budget to see many of the sights and sounds of a port city. Passengers should be mindful of their safety and security as pick pockets and muggers often target tourist on public transportation. Passengers should also keep in mind the departure time for the ship when relying on public transportation. For example, it might not be wise to take the train into rome from Civiteveccia unless the ship is staying in port for 36 hour and the traveler takes the train in and back on the first day.

Hawaii: Honolulu (One can circle the entire island of Oahu on the bus, no on and off, for as little as $2.)
Europe: Civiteveccia(Trains to and from Rome.), Villefranche(Trans to Nice and Monte Carlo), Barcelona,
North America: Boston, New York

Rental Car Ports:
Often renting a car can be a great way to see a port or island, but obviously, not every port would easily lend itself to a place where one would want to drive. Many North American cruisers rent cars in Hawaii, Canada, or Alaska simply because they are in their an area with familiar signage, driving style, a common language and road designs. In ports like Barcelona or Civeteveccia/Rome, renting a car may not make sense to Americans who are unfamiliar with the language and how to navigate streets in a large European city. Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis might all feel comfortable renting cars in each others’ countries because they all drive on the left side of the road and share a common language.

Hawaii: Maui, Kauai, Honolulu, Kona, Hilo
Alaska: Skagway (Most tourist take the train, but you can rent a car and drive the parallel road)
Canada: Victoria, Vancouver

Taxi or Tour Ports:
In many ports there is little to see or do in the immediate surrounds of the port, so one must either take an organized tour or taxi in order to enjoy any of what the port has to offer. These are places where the surrounds or the other side of town are the big attractions with mountains, volcanoes, historic sites and resorts not in walking distance of the pier. In some ports, taxis drivers, per local custom, have commission agreements with gift shops and hotels, so they will often walk you into these places and help you get your “vouchers” for day use of a hotel property. Some drivers will also want to book a short tour with you for a set price which you can negotiate right there at the pier. In these ports, the cruise line tours will usually pick and drop-off tour goers up at the gangway. Often if one wants to do an onshore activity, the cruise line arranged tour is the best option.

Canary Islands: Lanzarote,
Europe: Civiteveccia (You’ll probably want to go into Rome by tour or by train),
Caribbean: Barbados, Dominica, San Juan – Pan Am Pier, St. Kitts, St. Thomas(Plenty of shopping and eateries right at pier, but to reach historic town and beaches one needs to take a taxi or a tour.)
Mexico: Mazatlan,
Hawaii: Hilo, Kauia, Kona,
Alaska: Skagway (The town is cute, but the real attraction is the road or railway to the border with Canada.)

Types of Port Activities:
Once of you understand the logistics of getting around your ports, you can then start to budget and prioritize according to the types of activities you enjoy. Here are some of the typical port activities enjoyed by cruisers.

Beaches and Resorts

Often resort hotels will allow day guest to purchase vouchers for food and drink that allow you to utilize there facilities. In some ports, the beaches are considered public and the hotels much grant you access to the beaches through their facilities, but keep in mind that under this circumstance you would not be welcome to use the pool or other facilities. Cruise line tours often include this access as part of their organized tour. Hotels that offer day use vouchers might not advertise this amenity, as they don’t want their facility to be completely over run with day use passengers, so if there is a facility that you like you can contact them through e-mail, or ask your cab driver to help you from a pre-selected list.

Sailing and Snorkeling

Sailing or Party boat tours usually with a stop for beach time or snorkeling are some of the most popular tours.

Scenic and Site Seeing Tours
Many people enjoy taking in views and scenery. Coach and railway tours transport cruise passengers to some of the most popular tourist areas and offer many different levels of activity with transportation, admissions and guides provided. Sometimes a meal is included. Rental car tours of the same areas are often a nice alternative for more independent travelers.

Shopping Tours
Coaches pick up passengers at the pier and transport them to the most popular shopping areas.

Cultural Experience
Visitors get to experience a part of the ports culture by visiting an interpretive village, taking in a folk performances, viewing artisans work, or attending a cooking class.

Tastings Tours
Guest get to sample gourmet food, wine or even local liquor.

Guided Walking Tour

A local guide leads visitors and narrates about important in town sites.

Nature Tours
These types of tour include canopy zip lines, botanical gardens and butterfly farms.

Helicopter Tours

These tours are very popular in Alaska and Hawaii. They provide some of the best sight seeing around. Airplane tours are also a nice alternative.

Decision Making:

Once you have booked your cruise, determine what your total budget is for sight seeing and tours, and then start researching what there is to see and do in each destination. The best place to start that research is right on your cruise line’s web site. They will have all their different tours for you to look at. If something is of interest to you, cruise talk advises you to research the activity more thoroughly. Can you visit the same sites just as easily on your own? Does an independent tour operator offer the same type of experience at a better price or more personalized service? Evaluate how you could alternatively spend time in this port. Could you see something similar more economically in a different port.

Independent Tour Vs a Ship’s Tour

In addition, you need to evaluate the risks and benefits of an independent tour vs. a ship’s tour. You can book a tour directly with a cruise line, or with an independent tour operator in a particular port. Some of the independent tour operators are well known among frequent cruisers, an often come with great recommendations on cruise and travel review boards. For some independent tours you will have to book a group, with others you can book for a couple or family for a shared excursion.

With a ship’s tour the cruise line will pick you up at the dock and take you to all your activities. The cruise ship usually waits for a group of passengers on a ship’s tour who have a delay in returning to the ship.

If you have booked an independent tour make sure you understand where you will need to go to meet your tour and how you are going to get there. In some ports, the independent tours have access to the docks, in others they will have to meet you wherever the ship’s over priced shuttle drops you off. Also, should their be an unforeseen circumstance like traffic jam or mechanical failure, the cruise ship will not wait for passengers returning late from and independent tour. When evaluating an independent tour operator one should always question what their back up plan is for emergencies traffic jams, flat tires or engine failure.

Tips from Cruise Talk’s Experiences:

When we take a cruise, we usually travel think of the cruise ship itself as our primary destination. This often leaves us with a limited budget and desire for tours. Hence, we plan for a limited number of excursions.

On our Hawaiian cruise we rented cars in most ports as this was the most economical way for two adults and two children to see the island. In some ports, we were subject to long waits for vehicles and in other ports they were an easy in and out. We loved being able to set our own schedule and explore independently.

Our next cruise took us to the Mexican Riviera with kids. We only took one ship’s excursion, which was an excursion that included a Folklore Show, shopping and a beach resort. We enjoyed other ports as walk-ins, via taxi, or via water taxis.

For our next cruise to Alaska, we splurged on the Skagway Railway Excursion, had a modest expenditure for the Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan, and then explored our other port Juneau on our own.
For our two transatlantic cruises we splurged up front with three days in Barcelona in 2008 and three days in Rome in 2009. We spent the bulk of touring budget on our pre-cruise stay, so we kept it simple in most ports, exploring on our own, or skipping the port all together. However, I did take one of my most memorable tours on the Barcelona to San Juan cruise on the island of Lanzarote. I had done enough research to learn that the attraction of this island is the volcanic desert landscape. The best way to see this is through a tour of the Timanfaya National park, whose “Volcanic Road” can only be accessed by tour bus. Since this island struck me a one of most unique in the world, I booked a ship’s tour of the island.

On our recent Caribbean cruise, my husband and I decided ahead of time that the most important aspect of that trip was going to be relaxation. Other than walking into the shopping areas right off the ship, we saw very little of island, and enjoyed our floating resort during most port days. We did however enjoy our day of shopping and beach going in Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, on it’s nice bathing beach with plenty of beach side food, drinks and shopping.

Our touring habits may not be typical, but they fit our budget and our preferences just fine. I know many other cruisers who like to do an extensive excursion in every port. It just depends on how much activity with which you wish to fill your days. The best part of a cruise is that vacationers can do a little or as much as they want and still get a great vacation at a great value.