Monday, April 27, 2015

Tips for Booking Cruise Excursions and Tours Independently


One of the best parts of cruises are the excursions when at port. The tours allow unique experiences that would be hard to get to otherwise, usually with some type of guide. What do you do if the cruise line doesn't offer an excursion that interests you, or you already have something in mind that isn't included in any cruise line excursion? This post will go through the pros & cons of booking an excursion independently, tips on safety when booking an indepent excursion, and how to pick the best cruise excursion to book.

Pros & Cons of Booking Excursions Independently

The upside of booking outside of a cruise line is that it is typically less expensive than booking through the cruise line. There is also a little more flexibility with departure times, return times, and stops along the way. You can have a more catered experience to your tastes and needs. There is also a bigger variety, since the cruise line doesn't partner with every company on the island. 

The risks of booking independently of the cruise line is what keeps most people from doing it, and is what kept me from doing it for so long. The main risk is that it is not backed by the cruise line. This can cause some issues with payment as well as time. When you book directly with the cruise line, they guaranty to wait for a tour that is running late. If you book independent (or even walk off the ship independently) they will not wait for you. I'm not sure how many people ACTUALLY get left on an island, but it's always possible if something goes wrong. That's generally enough to scare people into only booking with the cruise line. 

Below are tips for booking an excursion independently of the cruise line and to avoid those cons listed above.

Reviews

The best way to find a local tour or excursion is through reviews online. Pre-internet, I would have never booked outside of a cruise line but with the vast amount of information relating to travel online and on review websites, it's really easy to gather information on whether a particular company is quality or not. Not only can you locate the top rated tours, but you can also check out any recommendations you saw on social media or by friends. [See some tips for using review sites for travel here.]

To first locate a tour, I simply use Google to search for the best things to do in the destination city. This leads to travel blogs, round up posts, and articles that are great sources of information to gather ideas of what you might want to do. I also use social media like instagram and twitter by searching hashtags and geolocators to see what photos/activities people are posting about in certain locations. Most people will generally only post something that they really enjoyed (or rant about something they really hated) so it's a good spot for ideas. [For example, John Legend posted about Scotchie's, a restaurant in Jamaica, and we added that to our list of things to do in Jamaica.]

After I have some ideas of what I'd like to do, I search review sites. My favorite is TripAdvisor. I've used it for years for restaurant, shopping, and activities reviews when traveling. I trust the reviews there and contribute reviews of my own. Another site that I sometimes look at is CruiseCritic, but I haven't used it enough to fully endorse. It is often referenced in TripAdvisor reviews and comes up in Google searches frequently. I read several reviews (both good and bad!) and look at photos that travelers share. Because I'm a very visual person and love video, I also sometimes search the tour/excursion name on YouTube to see if there are any video tours/vlogs of the experience. They're hugely helpful.

Compare to Cruise Line Offerings

If you come across a tour that looks interesting, be sure to compare it to cruise line offerings. There might be a similar excursion that you can compare cost to. If it is very similar and is of similar pricing, I would probably go ahead and book through the cruise line just for the reduced risk of getting left and for ease of payment. It might even have the exact tour with the same company through the cruise line. Just be sure to confirm that aspect before booking.

 Pricing & Negotiation

This part becomes a little tricky. Booking independently leaves you a little exposed to price gouging. Be sure to compare pricing to cruise line offerings and any reviews you've seen that mention price. If you don't come across any, use those travel blogs and social media searches to reach out to someone that did the tour already and ask them if they don't mind comparing what they paid vs. what you were quoted, while also keeping busy season/demand in mind. (Most bloggers/writers/travelers are more than willing to help! Don't be afraid to email someone or use a site's contact form. I love getting questions, personally, and love helping out other travelers.)

If it's a set price listed on a website, you should be fine. That means that they have the same price across the board and are less likely to up charge you. If they quote you a price, then you do have the opportunity to try to negotiate if you feel it is unreasonable compared to other tours or reviews. I've personally never felt the need to negotiate as I've felt my quoted price was fair compared to other posted prices, but that might not always be the case and there's no harm in trying to lower the price. You can always still agree to the higher price if they won't budge or pass altogether. No harm, no foul.

Safety & Timing

Here is something important: make sure you have access to a phone that works internationally so if there is any point you feel unsafe or if you feel as though you need to return to the ship and the tour isn't flexible enough to do so on your request, you can make a call to the ship and they can give you local authority information or can help you back to the ship. This should be the case every time you leave the ship, but especially if you'll be leaving port with any tour not associated with the cruise line. This is a worst scenario but I always feel much more at ease if I have these precautions taken care of ahead of time. 

If at any time prior to your tour/excursion departure you feel that it isn't a good idea or you're in a sketchy situation- there is no reason why you shouldn't back out of it. Don't step foot anywhere you feel uncomfortable. If you're meeting in a secluded area with not many tourists around, that's probably a red flag. It's always a good sign if you see other cruisers. You likely will. I've even spoken with some cruisers that almost never book through the cruise line, so this is a very common practice. 

The majority of these islands rely heavily (or even solely!) on tourism for economic stability, so they generally take very good care of tourists. Every restaurant, stand, tour, and shop I stepped into treated me very well.

It's always a good idea to tell your tour guide an earlier time than the actual all aboard time- just in case. For example, I told my recent tour guide we had a 4;00 all aboard time and we were back at the port by 3:30. All aboard was actually 4:45, so we had the chance to roam the port and return to the ship with time to spare.  If you want some info on the tour I recently booked in Falmouth, Jamaica, see here.

Please leave any other tips or suggestions in the comments. Have you ever had a good/bad experience booking an excursion independently of a cruise line? 


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