The Essentials: Don't Leave the Ship Without Em
You must bring your ship boarding pass (or shipboard ID) with you when you disembark or you will have trouble getting back on board. (You probably have to show it as you leave the ship anyway, so forgetting it will be hard. ) You may also be required to show a photo ID (such as your passport or driver's license). The ship will let you know if you have to carry this as well. And don't forget to bring a little cash although your ship operates on a cashless system, the ports do not.
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Many passengers get so used to carrying no cash or credit cards while aboard the ship that they forget them when going ashore.
Watch the Clock
If you're going off on your own, whether on foot or on one of the alternate tours or transportation options that we've listed, remember to be very careful about timing. You're generally required to be back at the dock at least a half-hour before the ship's scheduled departure. Passengers running late on one of the line's shore excursions needn't worry: If an excursion runs late, the ship accepts responsibility and won't leave without the late passengers.
If you're on your own, however, and miss the boat, immediately contact the cruise-line representative at the port. (Most lines list phone numbers and addresses for their port agent at each stop in the newsletter delivered to your cabin daily; be sure to take it ashore if you are going any distance from the ship! ) You'll probably be able to catch your ship at the next port of call, but you'll have to pay your own way to get there.
In some ports, it's easy to explore the downtown area on your own. There are advantages to independent exploration: Walking around is often the best way to see the sights, and you can plan your itinerary to steer clear of the crowds. In some ports, however, there's not much within walking distance of the docks. Sometimes the line will offer a shuttle bus, or cruisers can usually share a taxi or take some form of transportation into town. In cases where the sites are extremely far from the port, the cruise line's excursion program may be your best option.
That said, in some cases you can lock in the exact same tour your cruise line is selling you (with the exact same outfitter) at a lower price by cutting out the middleman (the line) and going straight to the source (the outfitter). Sites like Viator. Com, ShoreTrips. Com, and CruisingExcursions. Com can provide a superb overview of different tour options in selected ports of call, as can a quick Internet search. Want to go cycling to the ghost town of Dyea from Skagway? Type in Skagway Cycle Tours and you're set.
If you'd like to track down the operators that cruise lines use, the secret is to examine in great detail the tour you're interested in on your cruise line's website, noting the wording of the description and even the photos you find there, and then comparing that to the descriptions and photos of tour options you'll find on the websites of port towns. In some cases, you'll find an exact match. Keep in mind that some small port towns might have only one operator offering such activities as hiking and biking tours and the like, so no matter where you book you're probably going to end up with the same folks.
A fairly new trend in the world of cruising is private shore excursions. Here, the cruise line arranges a guide just for you and others you want to invite along. It's the best of both worlds you get to see what you want to see with an experienced guide but, naturally, these tours are pricey, easily running into the hundreds of dollars. Still, some lines charge per vehicle not per person so if you're splitting the cost six ways, this can actually be advantageous.
Regular shore excursions usually range in price from about $40 to $99 for a bus tour to $229 and up for elaborate trips. Prices can also vary by destination; Alaska has some of the most expensive shore excursions around, thanks to a proliferation of flightseeing and other grand-scale experiential tours. You may be in port long enough to book more than one option or take an excursion and still have several hours to explore the port on your own. You may well find that you want to do a prearranged shore excursion at one port and be on your own at the next.
The best way to decide which shore excursions you want to take is to do some research in advance of your trip. Your cruise line will send you a booklet listing its shore excursions with your cruise tickets; or a link for an online site with this information. You can compare and contrast. Just remember: The most popular excursions sell out fast. For that reason, if you're planning to travel with the cruise line, you're best off booking your shore excursions online before your cruise or at least by the first or second day of your voyage.