Photo courtesy of Paul Gauguin Cruises
You’ve made it to the Caribbean on your cruise vacation, and you’re ready to seek out tropical white sand beaches or take an island overview tour, but should you go at it alone or not? Wherever you are in the world, it’s a worthy debate to weigh purchasing shore excursions from the cruise line versus making arrangements on your own, but it’s a good idea to also be mindful of a series of pros and cons associated with each approach.
Probably the greatest argument in favor of buying a port adventure from the cruise line directly is the protection it affords you. If, for some reason, a ship cannot dock or anchor at a scheduled port of call and must skip the destination, you’d be due a refund for excursions. Also, if a tour purchased from the line is running behind schedule such that you will arrive back to the ship late, the cruise will not leave you behind. Additionally, promotional onboard credits can be conveniently used for buying excursions from the cruise ship.
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Of course, there are caveats to booking through the cruise line as well. For instance, when my wife and I were just onboard the Viking Star during Viking Ocean Cruises’ first foray into the region, an excursion we had reserved onboard was canceled due to lack of participation. That is, the vendor had set a minimum number of people to run the tour, and that quota was not met by enough guests on the smaller capacity ship, although a situation out of the line's control. Alternatively, had we booked a similar excursion independently that was gathering more participants from several other sources, the tour would likely have still operated.
More often than not, the inverse is more common, however, when a shore excursion has filled up and sold out through the cruise line, requiring arrangements be made elsewhere if you’re willing to risk missing the port or the ship.
The biggest advantage of booking them on your own through an independent vendor ahead of time or once onshore is definitely cost. The same glass-bottom kayak tour in Bonaire only costs $46 directly compared to $69.95 through Princess Cruises, for example.
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The profit margin tacked on by cruise lines, of course, varies, and in the case of some, like aforementioned Viking Cruises, a selection of shore excursions may even be free if booked through the line.
Also worth consideration is a tour’s exclusivity. Some may only be available from the cruise line or from the tour operator directly, and if you’re interested in a private tour, opportunities differ as well. The cruise lines often offer them, but at marked up prices again. Inevitably, the best thing to do is to shop around and find the best options for you and your party according to a personal budget versus risk assessment.