Ship of fools: Shore excursions can sink your cruise

For years, whenever anyone has asked me for my advice about port excursions on a cruise, I have had the same advice: Don't pay for them.

You can usually see a port more cheaply, quickly, and in more depth if you steer away from the clots of tour groups and do everything yourself.

Never pay $100 and up to be corralled onto a coach and follow a bored guide holding up a numbered sign all day. There's always a taxi, a dollar van, or a sidewalk that will take you to your adventures without an insane cruise line markup. Unless you have your heart set on some offbeat adventure like zip-lining, cruise port excursions are usually a high-priced convenience item that repackage stuff you could buy on shore for less. They're simply not a necessity. Just make sure you get back to your ship on time and you can usually do it yourself.

At least, that's been my advice until now. The suggestion still holds for most small ports, such as in virtually all of the ones in the Caribbean and Alaska. But I am just now returning from an overseas trip (I'm writing this from somewhere over Latvia) during which I followed the staff of the Disney Cruise Line around as they prepared their shore excursions for its new European cruises in 2010.

And I sheepishly admit that I must now revise my advice.

I do not think that you should always book port excursions. Far from it. I still think they're mostly a waste of time and money in the Caribbean. But I now think that any cruise passenger has to know one critical bit of information as soon as they book their vacation: Where the ports are in relation to the main attractions.

In the Caribbean, the good stuff is almost right off the gangplank, or it's just over the hill or across the bay and served by a fleet of ready taxis that are waiting for passengers to get off the ship (get ready to bargain). But in Europe, there are some ports where you stand a good chance of missing out, or even getting ripped off, if you eschew the ship's excursions and try to cobble your own visit together.

Disney Cruise Line has been very savvy. Whether intentionally or not, I can't say, but it has chosen a slate of ports that virtually require guests to buy an excursion if they plan to get anything done. You could get off the ship in the port at Tunis on your own, but if you do, you're still 20 minutes from the interesting parts of the old city, and the North African culture won't be familiar enough to most passengers to make that realistic without assistance. La Spezia is just a dull Italian port, and the jewels, Pisa, Lucca, and Florence, are two hours away by bus. Rome is also far from its port. A few Disney ports are easier, such as Barcelona, but you wouldn't know that if you didn't take a couple of hours to do some homework before your trip.

Too many cruise passengers just book their trips and think the rest will be taken care of and paid for. It won't be. Before you pay for your cruise, you should know nitty-gritty geographical info about each destination, because once you do, you'll also have an idea about how much more, beyond your fare, that you have to spend in port excursions.

For example, Mykonos' cruise port, built recently for modern ships, is a 10-minute taxi ride from town. Dubrovnik's port is practically next to town, and you can walk. Just go to your local bookstore and look up the information yourself, or grill your cruise line about the port you're using -- and remember that many European cities may have a couple of ports; ships have gotten so big that they've had to dig new ones, and the larger of the two is usually miles from the ancient cities.

St. Petersburg, Russia, is a rare port at which you pretty much must buy a port excursion. That's because the Russian Federation is a stickler for paperwork. You'll be allowed to enter the country without a visa if you're on a shore excursion, but if you aren't, you have to spend hundreds of dollars for your own tourist visa, and you'll have to take weeks to send your passport to the Russian embassy to get it done.

Because so many ports on the Disney cruises are far from the action, the company stands to double its money even after you pay your fare. Cleverly, Disney's shore excursions (it calls them "port adventures," la ti da) have been gussied up to make the extra expense a little less painful. In Russia, you'll be able to chat (using an interpreter) with the children studying at a real Russian ballet boarding school, or attend an after-hours Disney Princess ball at Catherine's Palace, which is the place with the famous Amber Room. In Florence, kids paint their own mini-frescoes.

Expensive? Yeah, it adds up. But at least they're interesting. Too often, seeing Europe may turn out to be a case of getting herded on and off buses, bumping elbows with shuffling blobs of infirm tourists, with lots of time eaten away by bathroom breaks and souvenir shopping in tourist traps. To know if you're getting a rubber-stamp shore excursion, and whether you could do it cheaper without wearing the yoke of the cruise line, you have to do some advance research. But that, I know, is more than some cruise passengers will want to do.

You could consult a few websites with message boards that dissect cruise product (Cruise Critic is one, or plumb the reader message boards at a site such as Fodor's or Frommers), but that could backfire, since not all cruise devotées have the same standards as you. The site ShoreTrips.com vets every trip it lists before selling it to the public and makes every one sound like a dream, but it doesn't examine the core question: Do you really need to pay for this excursion? To find that answer, better to start with a guide book that isn't fronted by the cruise industry and assess the situation from there.

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