Budget-minded travelers know that cruises are similar to all-inclusive resort vacations in many ways, with all lodging, meals and entertainment included in one basic price. But just as a land resort may add on fees for activities from golf to horseback riding to scuba diving, so cruise ships offer a tempting array of shore excursions that also raises the bill considerably.
A shore excursion may be as simple and inexpensive as a walking tour around a port city ($12 to $15) on an Alaska cruise to a six-day plane and motor-coach tour of India and Nepal ($2,390) on an around-the-world cruise.
The most expensive (and most popular) shore excursions are "flight-seeing" or helicopter tours, along with golf packages, sportfishing trips, scuba diving and submarine underwater tours. It's about $75 for a submarine sightseeing tour or a scuba dive in Grand Cayman, $140 a day for Alaska sportfishing, $120 to play 18 holes at the Wailea Gold golf course on the Big Island of Hawaii or $180 for a 30-minute tour above Sydney by seaplane.
In the Caribbean, the average half-day coach tour of an island costs about $30 per person or $120 for four. An alternative for people who don't want to travel with the group or who want to visit different areas would be to negotiate a half-day island tour with one of the cab drivers hanging around the port, where the going rate, depending on the port, may be $50 or $60 for four.
If you choose this option, however, make sure the driver speaks adequate English (sometimes a problem in French-speaking Martinique) and agree on a fare before getting into the vehicle. And never pay the driver until he returns you to the ship at the end of your tour.
To spend the day at the beach, ask first if your ship will be operating a shuttle to and from the beach at a nominal fee. If not, it's possible to arrange for a cab to drop you off at the beach and return for you later, but don't pay anything until he comes back and returns you to the ship.
If you're on a three- or four-day cruise to Ensenada or a seven-day sailing that includes St. John and St. Thomas, you'll find plenty of vans and cabs that offer fixed-price shuttles between the port and town.
Assess when a shore excursion offers something you can easily do on your own, such as a historical tour of tiny Skagway, Alaska, by van, which costs $26 a person, when a free historical walking tour is offered several times a day by park rangers from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
In Juneau, Alaska, instead of paying $30 for a motor-coach tour or $160 for a helicopter tour of Mendenhall Glacier, consider catching a taxi or even a city bus to this famous "drive-in" glacier only 10 minutes from the port.
On the other hand, arranging an overland tour of India and Nepal on your own would be a monumental headache. It makes more sense to buy the cruise line's package.
The following tips may help you plan your shore excursion expenditures wisely.
* When the shore excursion booklet arrives with the ticket and other information about your cruise, discuss the options with other family members sailing with you. Select which ones are most important. Set a per-person budget for shore excursions and try to stick to it.
* If there's something you don't want to miss, be sure to sign up with the shore excursion office at the first opportunity. Some popular excursions sell out quickly. A few cruise lines allow you to book certain excursions through your travel agent when you book your cruise, so ask your agent.
* Remember that the cruise lines generally do not operate the excursions but rather contract with tour companies based in the various ports. It's not unusual for passengers aboard several different cruise lines to be taking the same tour.
* If you set out on your own, take with you the name, address and phone number of the local port agent. That way, if you do have a problem, you can call for assistance from the company contracted to handle the ship's business in port.
* While it is sometimes slightly cheaper to buy the same tour in town at a hotel or travel agency than aboard the ship, you forfeit your guarantee of getting back to the ship on time if vehicle breakdowns or traffic snarls delay you. In that case, it's your responsibility, not the cruise line's, to get you to the next port to catch up with the ship. With a busload of fellow passengers and a shore excursion representative, the risk of getting left behind is diminished, but not eliminated.
* Ask members of the shore excursion staff for advice, even if you plan to strike out on your own. They can tell you how much a half-day island tour of St. Thomas should cost with a local cab or how safe it is to walk the route from the dock into town. They can also arrange car rentals ahead of time.