Private excursions that rock your boat, not your budget
I can’t wait to jump ship and, well, dive into a port. I’m usually first to debark and don’t re-board until near departure time. I want every second onshore to count. But I dislike big-bus tours to, actually, anywhere. I always feel distanced from my experience - as if I’m looking at my destination through a pane of glass. Which often happens, literally and figuratively, on bus tours. Truthfully, just getting off a ship and seeing rows of buses depresses me, let alone trying to find the magic of a destination surrounded by strangers. Therefore, I was thrilled to discover an alternative to ship-affiliated shore excursions that make me feel like Kate Middleton at Joe Smith prices.
Ship-Sponsored Tours Pros and Cons
Ship-organized excursions are a safe way to sightsee. Accompanied by a cruise line representative, passengers are secure that should anything unexpected arise, their best interests are primary. A ship will not leave port until guests on shore excursions booked through the cruise line have returned. An extra bonus is that sometimes, you meet with lovely people who become fast friends for the duration of the cruise - if not for life. I have several whom I met this way.
But there’s a big down side. Traveling with a large group wastes precious time. It slows down the sightseeing process – corralling wandering passengers, loading and unloading buses - particularly troubling when you have only one day - or worse, an afternoon - in an enthralling port.
When I sightsee in a big group, I often lose the specialness of the place. Everyone pushing to take the perfect picture, or be first in line. No extra time to linger at a sight that speaks to me. And usually, group tours offer many things I want to see, but always, a few I don’t. Like those darn silk and carpet-weaving demonstrations thinly veiled as education, but designed to get you to shop.
Private Tours Don’t Have to Cost a Fortune
Private tours – sightseeing with a guide, car and driver – can be exorbitant when booked through a cruise line. But when I looked into private tours through outside companies, I was stunned at their moderate cost.
Private tours can be comparative in cost to a ship-affiliated group tour, but provide far more bang for the buck. You can do much more by traveling solo as you move faster and can linger where you want. And you can custom-tailor private outings to suit your interests. Or change destinations midstream in the tour.
Use a well-established private tour company that consistently works with cruise passengers and offers excursions in numerous ports worldwide. I stumbled across Kensington Tours, an American-based (Delaware) company, offering custom tours in more than 130 ports worldwide. They use experienced local guides and – this is important - have 24/7 on-the-ground support. Not call centers, but well-staffed offices in ports.
“In all our years of operation, we’ve never had a client miss their departure time,” says Robin Brooks, spokesperson for Kensington Tours. “This is what we do. And we guarantee that, if ever needed, it is our responsibility to get you to the next port.”
Kensington Tours is the brainchild of Royal Geographic Society Fellow Jeff Willner. Willner grew up in Africa and is a veteran of global expeditions to more than 70 countries. He wished to create a company where a local guide’s personal attention and the company’s comprehensive knowledge transform a trip into an experience.
Kensington Tours has been written up in many leading national publications, including the New York Times, Town and Country and Travel + Leisure. It has won many awards, such as 2012 World’s Best Luxury Tour Specialists by Fodor’s Traveling Intelligence and “World’s Best 2011” by Travel + Leisure.
(Interestingly, this company also provides complete packages; cruises with pre-and-post days, hotels, tours and private shore excursions. Talk about ease of cruise travel. Do the math and see if this works for you.)
Kensington Tour’s web site makes it easy; they offer a whopping 185 shore excursions with pricing, so you can compare their fees to those of your cruise line. Working with one company handling so many ports has another benefit; you are dealing with one outfit instead of, say, eight, and only one currency.
My Private Tour Experience
I worked with Kensington Tours for two days during a recent Shanghai trip with my daughter. They carefully crafted a custom itinerary after lengthy conversations; one city shopping day and a countryside village outing.
When our guide appeared on the countryside day, he told us we had to cancel plans due to heavy rains and road problems. He quickly rearranged our day into a city spectacular. He even secured last-minute tickets (and great seats) for ERA, a terrific acrobatic show.
He appeared to know everyone, everywhere. When we spontaneously visited the Shanghai Museum, we encountered long entrance lines in the pouring rain. Yet our guide got us inside in seconds. A flash of his I.D., a brief conversation and we were VIPs.
On our Shanghai shopping day, we met our chic young guide in our hotel lobby promptly at 9 a.m. She spoke excellent English, was well traveled and knew food and fashion – ideal on all counts. Our driver dropped us at boutiques and our guide called the driver from her mobile phone when we were done. We waited but a minute for our car. When we made a spontaneous destination change, our guide directed the driver to turn the car around and smiled throughout the process.
My daughter and I felt like princesses. And yes, we scored at stores we could never have found independently. I was so impressed, I booked this company for an upcoming trip to Marrakech. (Cruise ships dock in Casablanca, Morocco and arrange day and/or overnight excursions to Marrakech, about a two-and-one-half-hour drive.)
Private Tours Versus Ship Tour Costs
Frankly, I was stunned when I researched prices. Take an Istanbul shore excursion with Kensington Tours. An eight-hour, custom-designed day begins at $174 per person (based on two-to-four guests). So think $348 per couple. This includes a private guide and transportation to and from port, plus visits to all Istanbul’s highlights. St. Sophia Church, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace are among the stops and admissions are included.
Suppose you booked a private car, driver and English-speaking guide for an eight-hour day in Istanbul with Crystal Cruises. The cost on the web site for this excursion (on a May 2014 voyage) is $759 for up to two persons. This does not include admission to sites. The high cost is hardly exclusive to Crystal; most cruise ships charge the same big fees to arrange private cars and guides. Most don’t list the cost for private excursions on their web sites, although they acknowledge they exist. (Kudos to Crystal.)
Oceania Cruises has an in-between offering; four-hour Istanbul tour May 2014 with a minimum of 10 guests and maximum of 16 for $265 per person. This is but a half-day with a small group and the cost is $530 for two. If you advance-purchase the tour, it’s $398 for two. A company like Kensington is $348 for two - in a private car and for eight hours, not four.
Full-day tours via cruise lines nearly always include lunch. But chances are a restaurant that can handle a big group is of lesser quality (think mass-produced buffet) than a market-driven café with dishes cooked to order for just you and your spouse, and recommended by a local expert. No forced conversations. No waiting for 40 others to finish eating and visit the loo.
“The itineraries on our web site are merely inspiration – samples and starting points for personalized tours,” says Danny Pastuck, Kensington Tours’ Senior Cruise Specialist. “Architecture, art, cuisine, shopping – the choice is yours. If you want to eat pasta three times in one morning in Italy, have tea with a Russian ballerina or sample spiders in Cambodia, our office in that country will make it happen.”
With custom options available, you can start a tour at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. and sleep in. If visiting a packed port city, a company like Kensington will whisk you away from crowds of cruisers and find a forest, village or beach. They know tourist bus schedules and schedule the opposite way to avoid traffic jams and sightseeing throngs.
“In the past two years, we’ve seen a growth of more than 200% in private guided shore excursions,” says Danny Pastuck. “And demand is strong for 2014 into 2015. Cruise itineraries don’t change too much, so what you do in port helps make each experience different,” he continues. “From a once-in-a-lifetime cruise to cruise addicts that have visited a port a dozen times, travelers are looking for something different and more tailored experiences.”
Do Your Homework
Have you booked your next cruise? Compare Kensington Tours’ or other such nationally recognized American companies’ outings to ship-booked shore excursions. You must may discover that a private company that can guarantee your safety and security - in grand, personalized style - costs the same or only slightly more than a ship-affliated tour.
Kensington Tours web site is also an impressive travel resource. Their travel blog, Compass, offers invaluable insider information penned by their destination specialists (a whopping 42 experts on staff) of many cruise ports. (kensingtontours.com; 1-888-903-2001)