How to get better shore excursions from your cruise

Cameron MacDonald, who never knew Edward Palmer, is busy trashing the man: “He was a politician, and a landowner who taxed his tenants, and he was a pretty horrible man!”

Looking comfortable in his mid-1800s frock coat and tall hat, MacDonald actually is portraying Palmer. Young MacDonald’s acting troupe explains to tourists how isolated Charlottetown initiated the effort to unite all of sea-to-sea Canada.

Chances are if you’ve sailed a typical cruise — this example came during a Montreal-to-Boston trip aboard Holland America Line — you weren’t looking primarily for a history lesson.

Nor do the majority of cruises offer an in-depth look at their ports: The visits seldom last more than 8 hours.

But I was shown around by MacDonald because I had contacted the city’s visitors bureau looking for more about the island than a canned lecture aboard a ship’s tour bus to the Anne of Green Gables house. I wound up with a one-on-one tour when no others showed up for our departure.

How can you get the most out of a cruise’s port calls? You may be headed on a vacation, but before departure you’ll need to research. Try these tips:

• Check each port’s tourism or chamber of commerce website. Their calendar lists special events or festivals — a chance to enjoy what the locals celebrate.

• Review the site’s history of the destination, learning what made this place special, and what it promotes now. You might decide on a pub crawl or visits to flowering gardens. Or maybe a noted manufacturer offers a tour.

• Know thyself. What hobbies do you enjoy at home that you could pursue in a different setting? Are you among those who have caused the cruise lines to add more excursions focused on the experiential, on physical activity, or multigenerational travel?

Increasingly, passengers want to see, taste, touch — by cooking regional foods, attending wine tastings, visiting a cheese maker, creating costume jewelry, learning to paint in a famous setting.

And destination web sites are likely to promote activities such as fishing, sailing, hiking, visiting a farm, even sharing a meal or a church service with locals.

• With your to-do list, comparison shop. Use those sites or a search engine to find local operators, then phone or e-mail for specifics.

That’s how I learned that my 90-minute sail on a Nova Scotia lake sold for just $35 if bought locally, while Holland America priced the sail — and a 50-mile bus ride to and from the sailboat — at more than four times that. But a rental car to get me to the sailboat was another $69.

Finally, I weighed the drive through an unfamiliar area with a deadline to board the sailboat and return vs the prime advantages of buying any ship’s excursion — convenience and peace of mind.

So I bought the ship’s tour, on which our two local escorts, former miners, serenaded us with work and union songs.

• There is one other prime advantage of patronizing the excursion desk. Cruise staff has experienced the tours being offered, understands the time required, and has vetted the performance of local operators.

The main disadvantage is that cruise lines charge a sometimes-hefty middleman fee. Conversely, ship’s excursions may be better monetarily than buying local, an advantage of volume purchasing

• If you still are not sure whether your independently arranged shore excursion would be better than what this or that cruise line is offering, ask a travel agent.

First, be sure that agent is familiar with the relevant cruise lines; do ask how the agent knows about a specific line’s excursions.

The agent may advise, for instance, that because of a typically older passenger demographic, a certain cruise line’s excursions require little more activity that walking a few blocks to the castle gate, when you would rather trek up the hill.

Speaking of stamina, major lines are adding strenuous activities on excursions such as kayaking, rock-climbing, glacier-trekking, ziplining, and donning a diving helmet with its underwater breathing apparatus, then strolling across the ocean floor. Holland America’s Ellen Lynch, director of Shore Excursions, said the line added a “trapeze school” on its San Juan calls “with excellent reviews.’’

But without researching online or consulting a travel agent, you might not be aware such an esoteric activity is offered and thus might book on a ship not boasting that excursion.


Former travel editor Robert N. Jenkins has a series of e-book anthologies of his travels; for more information, go to