If you've arranged or planned a cruise for this summer or fall, chances are you are getting a good deal. Base cruise prices are still low compared with many land vacations, and you can take advantage of the many good rates. But cruise lines, like airlines, are feeling the squeeze that side-by-side price comparisons put on what they can charge. And, like airlines, they have resorted to separating out much of what used to be "free" into "optional" fees, as well as puffing up the prices of everything you buy onboard. You can avoid this price creep by abstaining, but at some point that means you have to forego activities you really want. And that means you're often at the mercy of your cruise line's pricing.
Shore excursions are among the priciest cruise line options. Your cruise line almost certainly pitches its own shore excursions in each port -- and maybe even tries to lock you in by preselling excursions when you first arrange your cruise. Unfortunately, in my experience, many cruise lines' shore excursions suffer from three key problems. They're usually overpriced compared with what you can buy on your own. They usually waste too much time in assembling and herding tour members around. And they waste time with overly long stops at souvenir stores that give kickbacks to the cruise line or sightseeing company.
Fortunately, you have alternatives. One of the leading agencies for independent excursions, Viator (www.shoreexcursions.viator.com), recently mounted a special website for shore excursions. Enter your cruise line, ship and itinerary, and Viator displays a list of the tours it offers in competition with those available through the cruise line. Viator says that it guarantees (1) that it's cheaper than cruise lines and (2) a timely return to your ship. On a recent check, its site posted a box comparing its prices for a Barcelona stop with prices on Carnival and Norwegian, indicating its costs of $133.39, compared with $199 and $199.95 on the cruise lines.
Similar online agencies include Shore Excursions (www.portpromotions.com), Port Compass (www.portcompass.com), PortSide Tours (www.portsidetours.com, 866-731-7193), Shore Excursions Group (www.shoreexcursionsgroup.com, 866-999-6590) and ShoreTrips (www.shoretrips.com, 888-355-0220).
Another approach is to find a local company online. As a test, I Googled "Rome shore excursions" and found a bunch of local tour operators. Unfortunately, most were for very expensive (300 euros and up) "private" excursions, which are almost surely better than tour bus groups, but not cheap. At least in Rome, the U.S. agencies' deals were better, although you might get a different result in other ports.
Of course, you can arrange your own excursions in many ports at even lower cost:
*Hire a local cabdriver to take you around the area, going where you want to go and avoiding the tourist traps.
*Rent a car for a day -- many rental companies either have port offices or meet ships.
*Use local public transportation or just walk -- at many stops, the main attractions are close to the port.
Your choice depends on where you are and what your interests are. On a Mediterranean cruise, for example, most ports enjoy easy access to local public transport. In the Caribbean, a taxi tour is probably a better bet. In Juneau or Anchorage, Alaska, think first of a rented car. Your choice also depends on your travel party: Taxis and rental cars work out best when three or four people share the cost.
You'll do better with any approach if you do your homework. Start with one or two current cruise guidebooks: Both Fodor's and Frommer's publish them for the main cruising areas. Other publishers offer more specialized cruise guides -- browse Amazon.com or a local travel bookstore. And such online forums as www.cruisecritic.com and www.cruisereviews.com have lots of port information. A few dollars spent on those books -- and a few hours spent online -- will pay big dividends after you set sail.