A cruise vacation is my favorite type of vacation. If you want me to relax, put me on a ship where there's little to plan other than which drink to sip poolside and whether to spend the evening playing trivia or taking in a show. And those exciting ports visited while cruising? It's always been my preference to wing it, forgoing cruise excursions and exploring locales like the Cayman Islands or Cozumel at my own leisure — until now.
Over the course of a 10-day journey around the Caribbean, my family and I visited a total of six ports. With so many stops on the itinerary, we decided to do something new and book several excursions — an organized group tour or activity designed to showcase a destination — through our cruise line. Would we prefer to just show up and have our tour guide handle our day in port? Or would our love of adventure win out, leaving us on team "rent a car and go it alone?"
Weeks after returning to dry land, I can say there will be more excursions in my family's future. While we've made memories exploring destinations on our own (like the time my kids got to see me hold, white-knuckled, onto the dashboard while my husband figured out how to drive on the opposite side of the road in Grand Cayman), the ease of showing up and letting a tour operator show us around brought the relaxation of a cruise ship into port with us. In fact, the few stressful off-the-ship memories we made on the trip all occurred on days where we were excursion-free.
What do you do on cruise excursions?
On the island of Curaçao, we spent just over $20 per person to walk through caves and go on a guided tour of the downtown area. In the Dominican Republic, we paid about $65 each to feed and interact with spider monkeys in a beautiful jungle setting. We traveled by bus around Bonaire, taking in the island's stunning salt flats and visiting a beachfront restaurant for lunch and swimming. In the Bahamas, we took a glass-bottom boat around a lagoon, learning about the fish and plants living below the surface.
At every turn, we were escorted by knowledgable guides who shared details about their countries. Transportation was a breeze, and we boarded the ship each evening knowing we'd gotten a pretty decent taste of what each port had to offer.
Gretchen Williams is the shore excursions manager aboard our most recent ship, Holland America Line's Nieuw Statendam. She says sampling each port is what excursions are all about. "Why do people travel? Because they want to learn about what's different from their country to another country," Williams tells Yahoo Life. "By booking an excursion, we give guests that opportunity to learn about different cultures."
"You don't just want to come on a cruise vacation and be stuck on board the whole time," she adds. "You come on vacation so you can go out and explore."
How do you book cruise excursions?
While I booked some of our excursions on the Holland America Line website before our vacation date arrived, I booked others aboard the ship at the shore excursions desk. One, our Bahamian glass-bottom boat trip, we booked on board because it was a last-minute decision. Another, our bus tour of Bonaire, we booked a few days into our cruise because the excursion we'd originally chosen was cancelled by the tour owner-operator. (This sometimes happens, but the cruise line's staff is trained to help you choose the next best excursion for your needs.)
While excursions can be booked outside of your chosen cruise line (through independent tour companies) or even signed up for in the port once you've left the ship, we chose to book through our cruise line for one simple reason: peace of mind.
"By booking an excursion with the cruise line, it gives you security," Williams explains. "With Holland America Line, the tour operators we contract with must have insurance. So, if anything would happen to our guests, they are covered while they are on a tour."
"We also guarantee that if you go on an excursion with us, even if the tour is late or the excursion comes back late, the ship will wait for you," she adds.
When hopping on a spur-of-the-moment tour in a port, there's always the chance things will not go as planned. Williams says she's experienced this personally: Once on a cruise to Greece, she agreed on a rate with a taxi driver, only to have them insist she pay more once she and her guest arrived at their destination.
"If you book through the cruise line, you have security that the price you paid is the price you will be charged," says Williams.
What's it like to explore a port on your own?
On Aruba, we spent just as much as we did on some excursions to rent a car. While we'd requested a Jeep for navigating the bumpy roads, the rental car company ran out and we traveled the island in a tiny compact car, which prevented us from making it to some places we'd hoped to visit. We had a nice day exploring the island, but agreed we'd have saved ourselves stress by prioritizing what we most wanted to see and paying for an excursion instead.
On Grand Cayman, I researched a beach bar within walking distance of the dock, where we ate conch fritters and jerk chicken under the shade of beach umbrellas. An idyllic way to spend the day, but we hopped back on the ship that afternoon feeling we didn't see much of the island. And, between the cost of umbrella and chair rentals, drinks and lunch, we spent as much as we would have on an organized tour.
Williams says the choice of whether or not to book an excursion depends on what you hope to accomplish in each port, adding that the shore excursions team on board each ship should be able to help you choose which ports have a must-do excursion for your family, and which are a bit more optional.
"That's why we're here," she says. "We have knowledge of what options are available so we can recommend what's best for [guests]. Some like panoramic tours, where you sit on a bus and don't need to get off. Others love adventure. We have the knowledge to choose the best experience for each guest's needs."
Team "book that excursion"
On future cruises, excursions will absolutely be part of our itinerary. Comparing the numbers alone, we spent equal amounts at ports where we did an organized tour and ports where we did things on our own. Traveling as a family can be stressful, and having knowledgeable tour guides who helped us maximize our time on each island was invaluable to us, even though my kids are still talking about my husband's attempts to drive a compact car across Aruba's rough terrains and gigantic potholes.
Even in our excursion ports, there was plenty of time for adventure: After our morning or early afternoon of touring, we made sure to explore each port's downtown area, eating a delicious lunch, shopping for souvenirs and seeing how many Starbucks we could find so far from home.
For me, cruises are the perfect relaxed setting for making family memories, and my newfound knowledge about the value of a good excursion will be a game-changer for future sailings.
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