st-thomas-snorkeling.jpgFew items can run up the final tab of a cruise like shore excursions.  A couple on a one-week Caribbean cruise spending an extra grand on activities they purchased from the cruise company?  No problem.    In Europe and Alaska you can spend three or four times the cost of the cruise ticket it.

Cruise lines impose a large markup in the tours they sell to passengers.  Don’t be surprised if you find a tour for sale at a hotel or online that’s up to 50% lower than the identical excursion sold by the cruise line.

For example, on a NCL cruise in Hawaii the cruise line’s price for a one-day Budget car rental was $70.  In the ship’s cyber cafe, savvy passengers booked the same Budget car  for $30 per day.

Whenever possible, I try to set up my own shore excursions before departure.  Enter “St. Thomas snorkeling” in Google and you’ll find a half-dozen companies with more affordable programs.  Google brings up local ground operators and sightseeing services all over the world.  In pre-Euro Europe touring with in a private car with guide was much less expensive than taking the ship’s motor-coach excursion.

State and country government web sites are a good source of local tour operators.  For example, Travel Alaska offers dozens of Alaska sightseeing excursions that are  more affordable than comparable cruise line shore excursions.

Several companies sell shore excursions for cruisers at a competitive price.  I recommend cruise.com, Port Promotions and Shore Trips.  They use smaller vehicles and four or more people can customize their own day ashore.

The most important part of getting good prices on shore excursions is advance research and planning because excursions must be booked before departure.

Tips For Cutting Costs in Europe & Hawaii:

Some European ports are savored best on foot. Barcelona, Venice, Florence and many of the smaller cities are delightful to explore at your own leisure and you can get maps/guide books before departure.  I never buy a shore excursion in the Greek Isles with the exception of Delos, an island a few miles from Mykonos.

In Hawaii I purchased two tours from the cruise line but on other days rented a car directly from Budget which opened vistas of scenic sightseeing.  Remember, you’re in the United States and traffic rules are the same.

But here’s a caveat: if the local company doesn’t get you back to the ship on time, it will sail without you.  Getting to the next port to meet the ship is your responsibility.   I recommend taking the name of the cruise line’s port agent, which is listed in the daily program delivered to your stateroom.

rafting.jpgAnd some tours are virtually impossible to arrange on your own.  For example, white water rafting in Costa Rica is a fabulous experience.  Since local ground operators only sell to groups, count that experience out if you don’t take the ship’s tour.

And, with the U.S. $$$ low, Europe is now extremely expensive for Americans.  I suggest a Google search to see how local prices stack up against the cruise line’s price.  Of course, shore excursions in Europe will be more expensive as well since cruise companies purchase services from local tour operators in dollars.

Do you arrange your own sightseeing ashore or mainly rely on shore excursions? What experiences have you had?