Tour Here, Explore There

  • Day -81, 2020 World Cruise
  • Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, Chicago

If you are cruising for a week in the Caribbean or Alaska, you hardly need a port plan. The Caribbean offers sun, sand, shopping and rum. Alaska has the natural beauty of glaciers, mountains, wildlife and the sea. Sign up for a ship tour to match your interests or just wander off the ship to explore on your own.

A world cruise with 48 ports requires a different strategy, as I described in “To Plan or Not to Plan”. We started by booking tours for our “must-do” list — an overnight safari in Kenya, a trip to Borobudur in Indonesia and a tour to the moai statues on Easter Island. We can’t easily visit these iconic sites on our own.

Other ports will be easy. We’ll take ferries in Sydney, the subway in Singapore and our feet in Auckland. These English-speaking cities are repeats for me.

I’ve spent many an evening online to learn about unfamiliar ports of call. What is there to see? Is it safe to explore on our own? Does the ship dock in a convenient location or in the middle of massive container port?

One of my favorite cruise travel resources is WhatsInPort, which describes where the ship docks and how to get around. TripAdvisor, Cruise Critic, Wikipedia and search engines are good resources for learning what to do. So too are friends who have visited these ports, although finding them is a challenge when you go far afield.

Sometimes the best option is a tour. We plan to explore other ports on our own.

Ship-sponsored excursions

Holland America sent us a 250-page catalog of tours. It is a good place to start our research because the tours cover the most popular sites and attractions.

Ship tours usually are among the more expensive, sometimes twice what an independently booked similar tour would cost. The big selling point of ship tours is the assurance that the ship won’t leave without you if the tour is delayed. They are a good option for all-day tours, short port stops and locations with few other options.

Holland America’s tours get top priority for ship disembarkation. So we booked its tours at the Falklands and Easter Island, tender ports where rough seas can limit getting ashore. We also booked tours in ports we can’t easily explore on our own or find independent tours.

I pre-booked Holland America tours online because the most popular ones sell out before the ship sails. If we change our minds, we can cancel and get refunds up until a few days before each tour.

Travel agency tours

My travel agency (Cruise Specialists) will have dozens of clients on this cruise along with three hosts, and it offers 24 private tours. They are similar to Holland America’s shore excursions and cost slightly less. So while still pricey, I know from experience that they are nice four- or five-star tours with smaller groups and a trip host to handle any issues. We’ve booked several, including our overnight safari and trip to Borobudur.

Private or independent tours

Almost every port has independent tour companies. You can find them listed on sites such as TripAdvisor, Viator, ShoreFox and even Costco. Sometimes you book through these sites and other times you book directly with the tour company. There also are websites such as ToursByLocals that match local residents with tourists for informal tours.

I’ve had great success with independent tours. I always check the company’s reviews and make sure the tour will arrive back in port a couple of hours before the ship departs. The better tour companies know they will not survive if their clients miss a ship.

Unfortunately, I had to give up plans for a private tour to “Death in Paradise” TV filming locations on Guadeloupe because our port is on the other side of the island. Getting back to the ship in the time allotted is just too risky.

Some tours are open to other tourists, but usually we join fellow ship passengers to book a private tour that picks us up at the port.

Where do we find these fellow cruisers before the trip? The most common place is our Cruise Critic roll call – an online thread for virtually every cruise. Fellow cruisers post independent tour ideas on our roll call thread. If enough people commit, they book the tour. We have booked several tours on the cruise this way, including a two-day tour in Rio de Janeiro.

By sailing on Holland America’s longer cruises, I’ve also met a community of friends I see over and over. I know at least few dozen who will be on this cruise. Some of us stay in touch and we have planned small excursions together. I’ll be taking a batik class in Sri Lanka and tours in Indonesia with one such friend. Another couple will join us for lunch atop the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Explore on our own

Sometimes we don’t need or want a tour – we can just explore a port on our own, especially if I’ve been there before. It’s also easy on the ship to find adventurous fellow passengers to join you. In many ports we can walk off the ship right into a market or a few blocks into town. Once our cruise starts, we will confirm these plans by attending port lectures and talking to Holland America’s port guide.

As Rolf Potts writes in “Vagabonding:”

“Having an adventure is sometimes just a matter of going out and allowing things to happen in a strange and amazing new environment….”