Last post, I discussed saving money on a cruise, and all the shiny objects on board to raise the cost of your vacation.
Another big expense is shore excursions. Some river cruises and smaller luxury ships include free destination tours, but on the majority of mainstream cruises, you'll have to spend money if you go ashore in port. Typically, the shore excursions available from the cruise lines are over-priced. The markup is another revenue stream for the company.
But the advantage is, you won't be left behind if the tour bus breaks down or gets stuck in traffic. We heard about a couple on the voyage before ours who missed the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina. They spent almost $1000 to get themselves to the next port, much more than the priciest shore excursion would have cost them.
A ship's tour can be the best option if your time in port is short and the site you want to visit is not easily accessible. For example, if multiple modes of transportation are required to reach it.
With a little research, you can find reputable tour companies that work with cruise passengers and perhaps join with others from your ship. Check out the message boards on Cruise Critic (https://boards.cruisecritic.com/) as someone might have already organized a tour that covers more attractions and charges less than a comparable ship's excursion. There is still some risk, but these companies stake their reputations on getting their cruise customers back to the ship on time.
It helps if your cruise line has an onboard port lecturer who gives you more information than what shore excursions are available for purchase and what shops are "recommended" in port. I also suggest talking to people who work on the ship, especially if the ship calls in that port regularly. (With a repositioning cruise, the destinations may be new to the crew as well.)
Wait staff and cabin stewards spend most of their contracts working, so they seldom have enough time to explore ashore, and when they do get off the ship, they head for free Wi-Fi and perhaps a nearby grocery store. But they talk to a lot of passengers on every voyage, so sometimes they can pass along tips they've heard from other customers. The entertainers are probably your best prospects, as their time ashore is mainly their own. Over the years, we've learned a lot of useful secrets from dance troupes. When we run into our ship's singers and dancers using the same local transportation options we've discovered, we know we've broken the code.
Even if you research the destination in advance, there are always variables such as, where will the ship be parked? Will the arrival be delayed—or perhaps even aborted due to unforeseen circumstances?
Sometimes the docking location is convenient—close to cheap, efficient local transportation or even better, within walking distance of major attractions, but sometimes you're out in the boondocks, miles from nowhere. Sometimes a free shuttle is provided by the port or the city. Maybe the cruise line will tell you about it in advance; maybe you'll find out about it by accident when you walk off the ship. Sometimes there's a fee for a shuttle ride to downtown or a shopping mall.
In many ports, taxis abound, ready to take cruise passengers to major attractions or on customized tours. Sometimes you'll find them right at the port gates, and sometimes you'll have to take a shuttle to a central location to hire a taxi. If you have several people in your party, you can cover the same stops as the ship's excursion, often for less money per person than the ship charges. (Entry fees to museums and parks would be additional.) Before you get in a cab, negotiate the price, and try not to have to pay until the end. Also, ensure the driver speaks your language and understands where you want to go, whether or not he is to wait if you're going to get out of the cab, and what time you need to be back to the ship.
On our last cruise, our first stop was Coquimbo, a port town in northern Chile. We were told there was absolutely nothing to see or do in Coquimbo; it was merely the gateway to La Serena, a resort town with an interesting historical section. All the shore excursions offered by the ship exceeded $100 per person, except for "La Serena On Your Own" costing around $70 per person, which was essentially a bus ride there and back. We opted not to purchase an excursion.
The evening we sailed away from Coquimbo, we talked to several passengers who had found a local bus that went from the Coquimbo cruise port to the historic center of La Serena for one dollar each way per person! While they were wandering around the town, they saw the ship's tour bus drop off passengers very near the stop for the local bus.
Although we suspected there might be a local bus connecting the two cities, we weren't able to find out this information beforehand from anyone we talked to. When our ship docked in Coquimbo, we spotted a huge cross atop a hill, reminiscent of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. My husband loves hiking—and dragging me along—to high viewpoints. He decided climbing to that cross was what we would do with our time in Coquimbo.
Our cabin steward had been to the cross before. He said visitors could go inside a church there, and that, while it's easier to take a taxi, it's also possible to walk. That was all my husband wanted to hear. The cabin steward suggested we walk several blocks down the wharf to the grocery store, then turn onto the main street that ascends the hill, approaching the monument from the back side—much less steep than climbing the steps up the hill facing the port.
I asked about buses going there, but everyone we talked to said, "No, you must take a taxi. It's too hard to walk, and there's no bus." However, as we trudged up the incline of the main street toward the monument, I saw several local buses pass us by and stop at various points ahead of us.
Troopers that we are, we finally made it to the top and were facing Cruz Del Tercer Milenio (Cross of the Third Millennium). It cost three dollars each to get inside the gates, but the price of admission was well worth it. Besides many detailed outdoor sculptures, there's a chapel and a museum with artifacts from various popes, particularly John Paul II, and the illustrated story of how the entire structure was built in less than a year to usher in the 21st century. Elevators took us to two different observation platforms, where we had magnificent views of the port city below, our ship, and the surrounding countryside.
The walk down the hill was easier and we took a slightly different route, meandering through neighborhoods, enjoying the beautiful day and local color, proud of ourselves for finding an inexpensive and satisfying way to spend our time ashore.
That night we dined with an Australian couple, older than we are, who had taken the one-dollar bus ride into La Serena that morning, had a look around, then came back to Coquimbo and hiked up to the Cross of the Third Millennium—the steep way.
What tips do you have for saving money ashore? I'd love to hear your comments.