Overwhelmed by the sheer number of shore excursion options on your next cruise? Are you afraid of missing out if you pick the "wrong" tour? Cruise Critic brought in an expert, who let us in on a surprising secret: Knowing how a cruise line develops its shore excursion program can give cruisers useful insights into how best to plan their own cruise tour schedule.
Cruise Critic spoke with Melissa Witsoe, a product manager for Windstar, whose job it is to shape one-of-a-kind shore tours in the Mediterranean and Asia. She pulled back the curtain for us, revealing how the small-ship line creates the best tours for its passengers and offered her expert tips on how you can choose the right shore excursions -- and make the best use of your tour budget -- on your next sailing.
1. Prioritize the ports of call that drew you to the itinerary.
When Windstar goes into a new destination, its Product Development team first identifies the port's highlight or marquee attraction (such as the underground river on Palawan Island in the Philippines) and plans one main tour around it. Then the team fills in with complementary tours, which might visit other area attractions or focus on special interests like cooking or biking.
Witsoe recommends that cruisers take the same approach when planning their schedule of shore excursions. "Remember what drew you to the itinerary, what you most want to see and then focus on that port," she says. Book that excursion first and then divvy up the rest of your tour budget around it.
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2. Diversify each port.
Windstar offers between four and seven tours in every port; mega-ships offer even more choices in each destination. In addition to the highlights tour, the roster for a given port could include culinary tours, historical tours, walking tours and active tours. The key is to diversify options for passengers, who might be a mix of first timers and repeat visitors with varying interests and abilities.
Just as Windstar does not offer just one type of tour in each port, Witsoe suggests that cruisers diversify their tours across ports. "In Japan, you could see a castle in every port of call," she says, but that would get old after the third or fourth day. You'll be more satisfied with your trip if you book a mix of tour types and change up days of full-day tours with half-day outings and even a few days to wander around on your own.
3. If you're on a budget, balance tour and non-tour days.
Cost is always a factor, whether you're a cruise line or cruise traveler. When planning excursions in new destinations, a cruise line will talk to multiple tour operators to find the provider with the best prices and reputation, as well as a variety of creative and unique tours.
Most cruisers also have a travel budget and can't just book the most expensive tour in every port. Decide how much you want to spend and then portion it out among full-day and half-day tours and independent sightseeing. "If the destination is right at your fingertips and you're on a budget," Witsoe recommends you skip the tour, walk into town and explore on your own; you might be surprised at the free or low-cost attractions you can find with just a little research. Prioritize your tour dollars for places where you're docked far from a city or if the excursion you're interested in is harder (or more expensive) to recreate on your own.
4. Be realistic about activity level.
"The biggest mistake cruisers make when booking tours is incorrectly assessing activity level -- everyone in their head thinks strenuous means different things," says Witsoe. Many cruise lines mark activity levels in shore excursion descriptions, but it's up to travelers to understand the definitions and to be realistic about their own abilities. (If you're not clear on how active a tour is, ask the destinations team onboard your ship for clarification.) Book a tour that's too difficult and you will have a bad experience -- and possibly hold up the other tour participants. If you know you have mobility issues, look for the best tours for your needs. For example, Witsoe says, if you're looking at castle tours across several ports and one has an elevator to the top and the others don't, prioritize that tour.
5. Pay attention to all the words.
In addition to activity level, cruise lines will note lots of important information in tour descriptions: how much time you'll spend in transit to a destination, whether lunch or snacks are included, what gear you need to bring and whether you'll only get an outside view of an attraction or if you'll actually go inside. Don't gloss over this information; make sure you fully understand what the words are saying. Is two hours of a four-hour tour spent traveling back and forth? Do you only get five minutes to take photos of the attraction you most want to see? If you're not entirely sure, ask the shore excursion manager onboard for more insight on whether the tour, as described, is what you're looking to do.
6. Book small-group tours early and cancel later.
Knowing which are small-group or large-group tours can help cruisers be smart about advance tour bookings. For example, Windstar's typical group size is 20 people, but some tours can take up to 100 people by splitting cruisers into multiple buses with separate tour guides. Tours that sell out are usually more niche tours with upper limits, for example, a cooking class with limited space or a water-based tour with only so many seats in the boat. Motor coach tours usually do not sell out. "Book those small-group tours early and then cancel, if needed," Witsoe says. "You have more flexibility with bus tours," if you want to wait. Most cruise lines allow travelers to book online in advance, but check your cruise line's cancellation policy before booking to determine when (or if) you can cancel a tour and get a full refund.
7. Assess both cost and value.
When a small cruise line like Windstar creates shore excursions, it aims to create an experience it would be difficult or time consuming for the average traveler to research and replicate. "We want people to feel like they paid for expert advice and got what they wanted to see," says Witsoe. Her team works to put together tour itineraries that offer passengers more than what they'd get from hiring a taxi to take them around and spends a lot of time ensuring that tours are safe and operators are top quality.
For cruisers deciding whether to spend their vacation dollars on a cruise-sponsored shore tour, the key is to assess the value of the tour and not just its cost. Sure, you could perhaps arrange your own transportation or guide, but could you put together the same compelling package for less money? And, is the time you spend creating your own tour worth it, when you have a tour that was carefully put together by a cruise line's professionals? Can you trust the quality of the provider? The answers will help you decide if a ship's excursion is worth booking.
8. Be flexible.
Cruise lines hate to cancel tours. "We monitor tours for lack of interest, and do everything we can -- including not making money -- to make sure a tour goes because we know that's disappointing for the guest," says Witsoe. Even though a cruise line will do all it can to keep scheduled tours running, sometimes a cancellation is necessary. Perhaps, there are operational or weather issues that are beyond the cruise line's control, or maybe the ship is not full and doesn't have enough passengers to meet the minimum participants for certain shore excursions. If you're booking tours, know that they're never guaranteed -- especially if they're more niche tours in smaller ports -- and be prepared with a good attitude and a Plan B.
9. Report the bad -- and the good.
This advice won't help you pick a good excursion -- but your feedback can help future cruisers have a better onshore experience. For example, Witsoe says that when passengers aren't happy with an excursion, it's usually because of the guide. She encourages passengers to report back, good or bad, to help cruise lines fine tune their tour offerings and to request only the best guides. If passengers can play a part in helping the lines improve their shore excursion options, everyone can feel more confident booking ship-sponsored tours, knowing that lots of people are working together to offer the best outings in port.