The pleasures of any cruise experience include both ship and shore. Here are some tips to make the most of every cruise port:
Determine your timing
Before you leave home, find out how much time you have at each port and the precise date of your arrival. (For example, when I disembarked in Brindisi, Italy, on All Saints’ Day, all the museums and businesses were closed).
Check out where the ship will dock. Is the dock centrally located or will you need to be bused elsewhere? Cruise ships don’t wait for errant passengers, so plan your schedule accordingly.
Book an excursion
Look at the excursions offered by the cruise line, then compare costs and benefits of alternatives. Tour operators contracted by the cruise line may be the easiest, safest and sometimes most economical way to go. But bear in mind that space on popular tours may be limited—so book them as soon as possible.
While on board, read the daily bulletin on the ship, attend any lectures, speak to the crew and other guests, and watch the closed-circuit programs to learn about tour destinations and remaining openings.
You can book an escorted tour independently through a travel agent or various Web sites, such as portpromotions.com, shoreexcursionsgroup.com or shoretrips.com. Before you give anyone your credit card number, be sure to vet specific tour operators by looking at web forums such as Roll Call on cruisecritic.com.
Do it yourself
If you tend to march to the beat of your own drummer, many port cities are walkable, such as Cabo San Lucas, Genoa, Barcelona and Monte Carlo. Armed with maps, a hand-held GPS or the Google Maps app on an iPad, it’s wonderful to discover a new place by foot.
I always stop in at the local tourism office for detailed maps and suggestions. Taxi drivers wait at most ports; be sure to negotiate rates in advance.
Think outside the box
If you really want to get to know a port, tack time on to the beginning or end of your trip and plan to stay there for a few days or more. If you fail to plan your excursions, take advantage of quiet time on the ship while most people are away; there may even be spa discounts.
[This article was previously published in the Chicago Tribune on January 19, 2011.]
If you are interested in making the most of your shore excursions, you may also want to read Mixing Cruise with Independent Travel by Rick Steves in the San Francisco Chronicle.