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Shore Excursions are a Profit Center Not an Amenity for Passengers

Written by: Kuki

Originally when cruise ships began offering shore excursions for their guests, in most cases they were the responsibility of the ships Cruise Directors. The Cruise Directors were in contact with various tour companies throughout the ports of call on the itineraries their ships were sailing, and the profit’s the Cruise Directors were able to realize from organizing and selling these tours to guests went directly to them serving to subsidize their salaries.

Eventually the cruise lines became more aware of just how significant the amounts those Cruise Directors were able to make from those enterprises, which to that point the cruise lines had viewed as a bit of a throwaway. And that realization led to them establishing their own Shore Excursion Departments.

They realized they were able to contract with the largest tour operators in locations around the world, and offer those tours to their passengers with significant mark-ups above what they were paying the contractors. They discovered a Profit Center. Of course the tour operators viewed the bulk buying power of the cruise lines as an attractive way to do business, enabling them to fill their tours , and they were happy to discount their prices to the cruise lines in order to do business. For them it was also much easier to deal with the cruise lines on contracts that covered all the ships in their fleet, as opposed to dealing with every ship’s Cruise Director individually.

As the tourism and cruise industries grew this has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry within the industry. And as it did several ex Cruise Directors and staff who’d worked for the Shore Excursion Departments started companies offering to set up shore excursions for cruise ship guests privately, and at lower prices than those the cruise lines were offering.

These “after market” companies became a fairly significant thorn in the side of the cruise line’s Shore Excursion Departments, cutting into their revenues for some time. There was a point where some of the cruise lines demanded those tour operators they dealt with sign exclusivity agreement in order to retain their business.

By the turn of the century the cruise lines got a better understanding of the use of the Internet and were building much improved corporate web sites. They began to understand they could improve the bottom line of their shore excursion departments by encouraging their passengers to book their shore tours in advance of their cruises using the cruise line’s own web sites (In fact some cruise lines collect payments for these shore tours in advance, thus increasing revenues well in advance of the dates they are required to pay their contracted tour operators).

The cruise lines admit that now that a full 30% of passengers book their shore excursions in advance, using this method. I’m sure there are variety of reasons for people doing this, but they are encouraged to do so with advice from the cruise lines with remarks such as “ the popular shore excursions sell out quickly”, or have “limited availability”, which is probably true on more exotic itineraries; though they are not so likely true on more standard Caribbean itineraries.

Another factor is people’s insecurity when traveling to destinations they are unfamiliar with. They want the cruise lines to be responsible for getting them to whatever tour they choose, and safely back to the ship. Many may have also heard the stories of people missing their ship’s departure time by going off and touring on their own, and become afraid they are going to be one of those if they ventured off on their own. Though there are surely instances when this occurs, I believe most often when passengers miss their ship’s departure it’s due to circumstances they could have controlled; like drinking less in bars within a short taxi ride of the pier and losing track of time. Those cases of course have nothing to do with the cruise line VS private shore tours discussions.

No question there are some ports of call where security is an issue, and you’re less likely to encounter problems on excursions you book through the ship.

However one should always be aware the cruise lines charge a significant premium for all their shore excursions. As we learned watching Peter Greenberg’s documentary on CNBC, Cruises Inc, Big Money on the High Seas http://www.cnbc.com/id/29139914  the cruise lines retain approximately 50% of the shore excursion ticket price, and that department is one of the top three profit centers for onboard revenue.

And on ship’s excursions the down-side, beyond the premium you’re paying for convenience, is the excursion will proceed only as quickly as the slowest participant.

Private shore tours are available world-wide in nearly every port where cruise ships visit. Either a “Google” search or an inquiry posted on the message boards is an easy way to get recommendations for quality tour operators.

My recommendation is to try some private tours at ports you feel comfortable with. You’ll always save money this way, and you’ll get to experience much more in the limited time available to you; just plan well enough to make certain you don’t miss the ship. I do occassionally do book ship’s excursions, but mostly only in ports where I believe security issues to be a major concern.

The above is my opinion, but I’d like to hear yours as well.

Do you prefer to pay the extra for the convenience of having the cruise lines responsible for you? Do you book the ship’s excursions reluctantly, simply so you know you won’t be left standing at the pier? Do you prefer to dig a little and find private tours, or do you skip any type of tours and go off exploring on your own?

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Comments

Comment from Mike M
Time March 25, 2009 at 10:13 am

I believe I have stated it a few times on the message boards that “I’ve never met a ship’s excursion I truly enjoyed. ” OK: The Las Calitas excursion in Mazatlan was pretty good but $100 pp for a boat ride, lunch and an hour on the beach was a bit much.

I have taken about eight or nine ship’s excursions in my 20+ cruises and I have ended up stranded for hours by the side of the road, herded like cattle, forced to stop at “cruise line designated”, stuck on stinking buses while waiting for people to pick up that last trinket and causing the rest to miss part of the tour and forced to hear a tour guide, who barely spoke English, rant about the Franco regime in Spain.

Perhaps I have the same luck on ship’s shore excursions as you do in flying but a ship’s excursion is never my first choice. In most ports we will do a private tour, with our own driver and see more than the ship’s excursions, have the ability to change the itinerary, stop where we want and get the information on a location that is pertinent to our interest.

This is always less $$$ than a comparable ship’s excursion and always more enjoyable.

I know that if I do my own thing onshore I am doing it at my own risk but for a responsible person that risk is fairly low and if I miss the ship then it’s my own fault.

I also feel that overall I am at less risk from a security standpoint than a ship’s excursion which is a much bigger target. I have seen excursions, especially in Asia and South America that are mobbed by locals trying to sell wares and those who are looking for a handout or to pick a pocket while we have proceeded unmolested or hassled.

I also have to state my favorite issue with cruise line excursion departments. The use of the “scare tactic” to sell tours. They will post that you should not take a private excursion because they are not safe; you will not be allowed off the ship because you need a visa to get off the ship for a private tour (Russia) and that the food and water are contaminated so you need to take their excursion so you don’t get sick. If you aren’t smart enough to drink bottled water and eat well cooked food then you deserve dysentery.

I know the cruise lines need the revenue but I do feel like they are pulling a Jesse James on me when I book a ship’s excursion. I may get something from them but it always seems like I got the short end of the stick.

Take care,
Mike

Comment from Brian
Time March 25, 2009 at 10:58 am

This series of articles and shows cant make the cruise lines happy. As people begin to realize just how much more they have to pay for ship sponsored tours, they will begin to do their own independent ones. This will hurt the bottom line but personally I dont care.

Comment from Kuki
Time March 25, 2009 at 11:09 am

Mike… once again you and I seem to share a brain. (Please return your half as I need it :) ).

But I won’t eat most of what you’re willing to put in your mouth. LOL

Comment from WildRover
Time March 25, 2009 at 11:52 am

I have been told that in Alaska, private excursion companies ask if you are on a cruise and if you are, they will not let you book with them instead make you go through the cruise line. They have exclusivity contracts w/ the cruise lines. So your choices are much more narrow in Alaska.

I think, also, being a woman that I am less likely to book private because safety concerns for us are very real, especially in a foreign country.

Comment from Namvet4
Time March 25, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Cruise ships are retail destinations, anything beyond the base offerings included in the price of the cruise will be profit centers… if not they will cease to exist. Being a newbie I am amazed how many posters decry the loss of this or that “service” or the increased cost of this or that “service”. (You can substitute product for service) An excursion is a product that is thankfully available from multiple vendors… you pick and you choose based on what your $$$ can tolerate.
I appreciate the safety concern of many and I appreciate the cost consciousness of others. The market will drive the profit concept on both fronts. During the many discussions I had with fellow passengers on board I heard both good and bad reviews about both ship sponsored and privately arranged excursions. Do your home work, see what you like, read reviews and spend your $$$ accordingly.
Thanks for the Blog Kuki . . . enjoyed reading your opinion.

Comment from lainey
Time March 25, 2009 at 2:55 pm

what a surprise, shore excursions are profit centers. is it really that surprising? you make it sound like a negative thing… its a business of course they are for profit

Comment from Kuki
Time March 25, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Lainey… of course it’s for a profit. I don’t know if most people would think it’s as much of a profit center as it is.. with 100% + mark ups, that would rate it right behind the ship’s casinos, and bars.

So.. with a bit of effort people can save as much as half the price, if they are willing to go on their own. It’s about making informed decisions.

Not much different than shopping in the “ship recommended” stores (those recommendations which are paid for), or venturing off to other stores to save some money.

It’s a matter of making all the information available, and then discussing it.

One of my questions was if people are happy doing ship’s excursions, paying the extra for the convenience.

Comment from Ephraim
Time March 25, 2009 at 8:09 pm

The other problem with shore excursions is that the cruiseline pressure the companies to provide the service as cheaply as possible. So they companies endeavour to do so by including tour locales that don’t cost money. So the next time they stop at a public park or they stop at a plantation or a shop… it is a way for them to save money on admittance costs. In the case of shops, they may be providing the driver and guide with free meals, gifts or kickbacks to the owners.

Comment from Thoth
Time March 25, 2009 at 8:11 pm

OK I’m a putz but I always book through the line. As of late, I enjoy picking my shore excursion out month’s ahead of time. On sail day they are paid for already.
My biggest issue is being a solo traveler & accountability….. the idea of somebody knowing where I am, especially in some place like San Sombrero. Accountability also in that tour operators check out in a scrutiny process.
I paid $69 for a Chichen Itza tour, and $89 for a Jeep safari. I don’t consider the cost that bad.

Comment from Kuki
Time March 25, 2009 at 8:44 pm

LOL Toth. I don’t think you’re a “putz”. That’s exactly what I was getting at… despite the premium you choose to do the excursions through the ship. And certainly as a single traveler, security is a strong consideration… and also the social aspect of group shore tours are likely a big consideration as well; good way to meet your cruisemates.

Comment from peggy
Time March 26, 2009 at 8:44 am

Help…I am having trouble finding a reliable web-site to book shore excursions for my upcoming cruise stopping at the following ports: LeHavre;France; LaCoruna, Spain; Dover England Madeira Portugal; Does anyone have any suggestions? Sincerely appreciated.

Comment from Mike Lawson
Time March 26, 2009 at 9:51 am

Kuki, very timely, Carole and I will be taking our first private tour in St. Petersberg. With your help I was able to convince her to give it a try. I have no doubt we will see more than the ship tour. I am considering the private tour approach for some of the other countries on the Baltic cruise . Do you have any suggestions? Thanks, Mike

Comment from Nancy Bradford
Time March 26, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Very good article. I found that the first time we cruised we only did ship excursions. Since then if we found one we truly wanted to do we would book thru the ship. We found in a couple of island s we did better just booking at the dock. Of course if it is long tour or of an area a distance form the dock then we feel better going with the lines tour due to the possiblity of trouble getting back in time.

Comment from Fireba11
Time March 26, 2009 at 10:24 pm

I agree whole heartedly Kuki! When I go to a port for the first time I normally bear the expense of a cruise line tour, so as to scope out the port. If I return to a port as I have done in St. Martin, St. Thomas and Cozumel I then do my own thing.

I have talked to private tour operators and they confirm what you have stated about the cruise lines charging double what a tour should cost. I di hate their scare tactics they use like “If you do one of our tours and you are late getting back the ship will wait on you but if you do your own thing the ship wont wait”. One would never be late with a ship tour because they always end up dropping you off at the port with 2-3 hours to spare.

One of the best excursions I had was in St. Martin where we got off the boat took a taxi to the French side of the Island and then took a taxi back. It cost about 1/3 of what Carnival would have wanted for the same excursion and we had a blast because we set our own time table and went where we pleased.

Keep up the good work
Tim

Comment from Kuki
Time March 26, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Mike.. have no doubt at all that you’ll enjoy the private tours in St. Petersburg. That’s the way to go there in my opinion.

For suggestions on your other ports, drop me an email with your itinerary, and I’ll do my best. I know some of the other ports the ship will offer a free shuttle into the center of town… and some spots that’s a good option.

Comment from Jason
Time March 27, 2009 at 2:28 am

Friends you make great points about shorex but having been to St Petersburg many times please be aware that you WILL need to get a visa to get off the ship if you are not on a ship’s tour. If your tour operator is not officially recognized they will not be able to get into the port and you will not get a visa.
Kuki you need to write a bit more responsibly about this and check out the excellent explanation on Carnival’s web site.

Comment from Kuki
Time March 27, 2009 at 7:52 am

Jason.. I don’t believe anyone said you don’t need a Visa for any tour in Russia.
Mike mentioned it, because most cruise lines do tell people that fact in a manner that implies a ship’s tour is the only way to go.

There are now many private tour operators in St. Petersburg who are authorized to include your Visa in their tour prices.

I couldn’t find Carnival’s statement, but let’s hope you are correct .. that they deal with honestly, and up front. Though they have no ships in Europe this year.

To be clear.. you do need a Visa in St. Petersburg, and many private operators DO take care of the Visa issue for their guests, and include that in the price of the tours they offer.

As I said in the blog, ask about tour operators on the message boards, and you’ll get suggestions for private tour operators just about anywhere.

There are other countries where Visas are required before you’re allowed to get off the ship to tour. Eygpt comes to mind, and Brazil.

I know this year Carnival had an incident in Brazil, where MANY passengers were not allowed off the ship. In that case they were apparently DID NOT understand they had to get the Visas themselves, but assumed Carnival would have a blanket visa as they do in other ports of call.

Comment from Thoth
Time March 27, 2009 at 8:56 am

“….and also the social aspect of group shore tours are likely a big consideration as well; good way to meet your cruisemates ”
Exactly right Kuki !
Especially on a 3000 pax mega-ship it presents an opportunity for being part of a group.

Comment from Mike M
Time March 30, 2009 at 4:50 pm

The Russian visa issue is one that can be confusing. Tour operators do not provide you with a “standard” tourist visa. They need to be licensed and you need their tour tickets to get through immigration and remain with them throughout your stay.

Here is the explanation from the U.S. State Department: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1006.html#International cruise ship passengers

“International Cruise Ship Passengers: International cruise ship passengers are permitted to visit Russian ports without a visa for a period of up to 72 hours. Passengers who wish to go ashore during port calls may do so without visas provided that they are with an organized tour at all times, accompanied by a tour operator who has been duly licensed by Russian authorities. These special entry/exit requirements do not apply to river boat cruise passengers and travelers coming to Russia on package tours. These travelers will need to apply for visas prior to entry, and should follow the general guidelines for entry/exit requirements. ”

Just make sure your tour operator is licensed by the state.

Take care,
Mike

Comment from Luanne Russo
Time March 30, 2009 at 5:44 pm

I could not agree with you more, Kuki, but you also need to talk about the fact that just because it is a cruise line tour does not mean that you are always safe.

I cannot count the times that people have complained about the lack of security, and their false belief that just because it is a ships tour, everything will be okay.

I usually always book independent, unless in my research, I discover that the port is either a bit tricky, or if it is a port that the majority recommend taking the the ships tour. (Jamaica)

Comment from Kuki
Time March 30, 2009 at 5:57 pm

A good tip of to “maybe” try a ship’s excursion is when you hear of ports like Eygpt and Guatemala, where ship’s tours are escorted by armed guards :)

Comment from Nitza
Time July 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I am happy to have found this site. All the comments are helpful. I have had my share of Caribbean cruces in the past and always taken private shore excursions with no bad experiences. We are planning a Mediterranean cruise for the first time (12 family members) and we would like to know the opinions of others on where to purchase the shore excursions and if we should buy EUROS in the US or on the ship. The ports to visit are Florence / Pisa Italy, Rome Italy, Naples / Capri Italy, Athens Greece, Ephesus / Kusadasi Turkey, Chania Greece and Valletta Malta.

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