helicopter pic

At the moment, I’m at sea on one of the biggest cruise ships in the world. There’s 4,000 passengers on this behemoth and it’s literally a floating resort. Each time we dock at a port, passengers flock out by the hundreds as cruise employees sort them into groups, load them onto buses and carry them away on various adventures. Later in the day, when the horn blows and the passengers load back into the ship, each of them has a story to tell of where they’ve been, fascinating tidbits of history they learned, and what they had for lunch. This particular ship is full of experienced cruisers who know what they want to see and have a good idea how much they’re willing to spend for a day out. For newbies, trying to decide what you want to see and not spending a lot can be a challenge.

On many ships, you can book an excursion on your cabin television, at the services deck, or on the cruise line website before you ever leave home. If you have mobility issues or don’t want to be bothered about navigating or learning about the area, then these prepackaged tours make a lot of sense and are easily booked. If you like to travel at a faster pace, want to see and do more, and would like to save some money, this article is for you.

I made a discovery years ago while cruising through Alaska. There was a helicopter flight excursion that allowed travelers to fly over the glaciers and land on them. That sounded like my kind of trip! The only problem was that this little adventure cost over $400 according to the ship excursion menu. As badly as I wanted to do it, I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money for a one day trip. As I walked out of the port wondering if I was missing out on something amazing, I noticed a kiosk selling helicopter rides directly outside the gate. I found that it was the same exact trip and it was less than $200. It turns out that it was the same company the ship used. After adding commission, handling, booking fees and blah blah blah tax, the price had more than doubled.

I also have two theories regarding travel. First the number of people traveling together (after 2) is inversely proportional to the amount of fun and flexibility of the trip, and secondly, the maximum amount of things seen in a day is directly related to the speed of the slowest person in the group. So, if you’re in a tour bus with a bunch of slow people, you’re not gonna get to see a lot or have as much fun or flexibility as you would on your own. So, how do you an excursion on your own?

The first thing I do is to look at the excursions offered by the ship and decide which two look the best to me. The reason I’ll pick two excursions is that I know I can move faster than a bus of 100 people that have to stop for bathroom breaks or don’t walk as fast as I do up a hill. I sift through the language of the tour descriptions. I’m wary of phrases such as “you’ll have time to relax” or “afternoon at your leisure”, or “time for shopping”.That usually means the bus is going to dump you somewhere since there’s not enough time to squeeze in something else. Also, tours that have a lot of verbiage about the history of a valley or some random facts about a place you’ve never heard of, are sometimes trying to make a tour look like it has lots of things to do or sound more exciting than it really is. Jot down the name of the places on the tours, plug them into Google maps and see how long it takes to get to them. The tour description will list the sites in order, so this is an easy thing to do. Chances are most of the places the ship has picked are tourist favorites so you shouldn’t have to worry about making a bad choice. Often the tours are either an overview of the city, a few sites not terribly far from each other, or one famous place that requires an hour or two of driving to get to and from.

If you follow this system, you might find that after you get to all the places on your list, wait in line, and see the attraction, you need more time than you actually have in port. That’s what TripAdvisor is for. TripAdvisor is a great website for collecting travelers opinions about an area and then showing reviews from these individuals about each place. You can sort them by popularity or distance from you. I often look at the top ten attractions and read through some of the reviews to get a feel for what people liked about the place. I love UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so I usually see if there are any in the area I’m visiting. One of my travel friends loves to visit Hard Rock Cafes around the world, so she’ll often do a search to see if there are any near the port she’s visiting. Once you’ve made a list of places that you’d like to go, then you can prioritize them. While this isn’t necessary, it does assure that you’ll have time to visit the most important places on your list. Have your list handy when you step off the ship.

The next question is how should you get around? In some places you can walk. Others you can use public transport, take a Segway tour, hop on a carriage ride, take a bus, or get a taxi. My first choice is usually to rent a car. You can set up a car the night before on a website like Expedia if you have access to the Internet or sometimes just book one at the port. If you’re on a big ship, they might be sold out by the time you get to the office or prices might be higher. You have more choices when booking in advance. Sometimes getting to the office can be difficult so finding a car rental near the port or sending the agency an email to see if they can meet you with the car can save you precious time. I like having my own car and a map of where I want to go so I can stop when I want, take photos when I want, and have a place to keep things I don’t want to carry. I also like having a cigarette lighter to charge my phone.This is favorite way of getting around.

Almost every cruise terminal will have taxi cab drivers lined up with maps and pictures of the local sites. If the prices are reasonable and you don’t want to fool around with trying to deal with rental car contracts, parking, and finding your way around the city, this might be your best option. Show the taxi driver the list you’ve created, have a look at the tours he already offers and then discuss the timse and the price. If you don’t want to be rushed, it’s better to book him for a set number of hours or until the time you need to be back at your ship. If you get some other passengers together and split the cost, you can do all the things on your list for 25% of what the ship would charge you. That’s a pretty big savings. If you’re good at negotiating, you might be able to get the taxi driver to cut his price as well.

If you’re traveling alone or with a partner and the weather is nice, a Hop On Hop Off bus can make your day pretty easy. They’re available in lots of port cities and are easy to spot. These buses usually hit all the major tourist attractions in the city and come with a multi-language headset that guides you and gives you facts about each stop. If the stop doesn’t interest you, just stay on the bus. If you want to get off, you can just catch the next one that comes by and continue your tour after you’ve visited the attraction. Typically these buses cost around $20 for a 24 hour pass.

Don’t be afraid of language barriers when leaving the safety net of the ship’s tours. Chances are you’ll have more adventure and you’ll love being able to stop whenever and wherever you want. Taking control of your day and saving money? Priceless!