Prepping for your best cruise

Make it your cruise! Use these tips from seasoned cruisers to make it awesome. (Cheryl Welch | Travel Beat Magazine)

Make it your cruise! Use these tips from seasoned cruisers to make it awesome. (Cheryl Welch | Travel Beat Magazine)

OK, so your cruise countdown is on.

You’ve paid up and checked in online. Check.

Your plane seat is awaiting you. Check.

Now all you have to do is plan for your excursions and pack. That’s all.

But when you sit down to figure out those days ashore, you’re suddenly acutely aware that you have no idea which is the best way to spend those precious few hours off the ship. You know you want to get the most out of it because, well, you might not return to this particular port ever again.

This seasoned traveler (and cruiser) is here to help. I’ve done all the research – and have sometimes learned the hard way – how to find the best excursions for less.

First off, let’s talk about the night before your cruise:

1. Always fly in the evening or night before your cruise departs.

You may think it’ll be OK to arrive by plane by noon to hop on the boat by 3 p.m., but we’ve seen that go wrong for folks. Their planes are delayed by bad weather or equipment malfunctions, then they don’t arrive in time to get on the boat. You don’t want to be these people.

2. Get a hotel somewhere near the cruise port, but anticipate you’ll likely have to take an Uber or cab to the port.

The only port where we rolled our bags from the hotel onto the boat was in Seattle, and we paid a premium to get the nearby hotel. Save yourself the walk – and the high price tag – by getting something close, but not too close, that you can Uber right up to the curb the next morning. Before booking your hotel, make sure to read reviews about it on TripAdvisor to make sure it’s in a safe area, clean and the service is good.

3. Don’t fret if the hotel doesn’t have a shuttle to the port or airport.

Use Uber! Uber is super easy and cheap. If you don’t already have it, download the app in advance of your trip.

Now, let’s talk about excursions:

1. Print out your cruise itinerary with the dates and times you’ll be in port.

Pay attention to whether the itinerary says you’ll be tendering into that port. If so, that means you’ll have to line up to get on smaller boats that will take you to the port. This could take a while in both getting off and back on the ship.

If you’re not tendering, you can anticipate that if the cruise docks at 9 a.m., you will be off the ship by 9:30 a.m.; and if the time in port is listed as 6 p.m., that you’ll need to be back on your ship by 5:30 p.m. Plan a half hour both ways.

If you’re tendering, plan an hour both ways.

Looking for ancient history and culture? Uxmal might just be the ticket. (Cheryl Welch | Travel Beat Magazine)

Looking for ancient history and culture? Uxmal might just be the ticket. (Cheryl Welch | Travel Beat Magazine)

2. Discuss with your cruisemates what you are hoping to get out of each stop.

Are they looking for adventure? Zip-lining, ATVing, hiking up mountains?

Would they prefer to relax, perhaps soak up the sun at a beach?

Is it the culture or history of the area they’re looking to explore?

Are they animal lovers and can’t wait to snorkel with turtles or get up close and personal with dolphins?

3. Start researching.

Once you learn what it is they (and you) are most interested in doing, go online to your cruise booking, and see what excursions are offered from the cruise line in each of these ports. Take notes on what appeals to you about these excursions. Pay attention also to the information about how long the excursions are and how strenuous they may be.

In Progresso, for instance, excursions include a variety of Mayan ruins and temples – Chichen Itza, Uxmal and some smaller ruins nearer the port.

In Belize, excursions vary from cave tubing to private island snorkeling to river cruises to Mayan ruins.

In Nassau, you could choose between a day at Atlantis’ water parks, dolphin and stingray encounters, or ultimate beach relaxation.

In Juneau, you can go whale watching, gold mining or on a glacier and wildlife safari.

The possibilities are endless, but you’ll be able to get a feel for the ports and what they have to offer based on the cruise line suggestions.

Then, always check TripAdvisor to see what the best tours, beaches and historic sites are for that port.

4. Consider going it alone.

Or maybe lying on a beach gazing out at the turquoise water is more your speed. (Cheryl Welch | Travel Beat Magazine)

Or maybe lying on a beach gazing out at the turquoise water is more your speed. (Cheryl Welch | Travel Beat Magazine)

Cruise ship excursion prices are always much higher than if you find private tours or your own activities by cab. Cruise lines often add the fear factor of going off-ship for excursions, though, by saying you may miss the boat.

Unless it will take a while to get to your destination and your stop in the port is short, you will likely be just fine booking offline in advance, or playing it by ear once you get to your port.

If you’re going to Chichen Itza, it’s a lengthy trip there and back. That’s one I’d suggest you go through the cruise ship excursions. But the others that are closer to port? Consider a local tour company or grabbing a taxi (always negotiating a price before you get in).

As long as you know where you want to go, there will always be taxis or shuttles available in port to get you there and back.

5. Why not the cruise ship excursions?

They generally cost nearly double, you’ll line up like cattle at the beginning, then be packed like sardines onto a boat, bus or train for your excursion. And, in our experience, they are always rushed and have limited quality.

For example, in Juneau, we went on our own with Harv & Marv’s Outback Adventures for whale watching and a stop at Mendenhall Glacier.

Harv & Marv’s boats were either six- or 12-seater boats with nice hydraulic seats for handling the bumps with ease, and a great viewing platform up front and out back. By comparison, the boats our cruisemates got on had more than 100 people on them, and they were trying to elbow one another out of the way to see the whales. Our smaller boats stayed out longer, got closer, and we had plenty of arm space to see the whales.

As soon as we got into port, there was Harv & Marv’s van to pick up us and the six other people who signed up for the tour. We went on the 12-seater boat. We had a naturalist on board as well as the captain, and we were out cruising the mountain-edged bay for a good hour before the big boats from the cruise line were even spotted on the horizon.

When we returned to the harbor, we caught the same van to Mendenhall Glacier, where we had time to soak it in, get plenty of pictures, before being dropped off either in the city (town, really) of Juneau or back at the ship.

Harv & Marv’s cost about 30 percent less than the ship’s excursions and, in our estimation, offered a better value and experience.

Another example was in Roatan (or Mahogany Bay) in Honduras.

Instead of packing onto huge catamarans with 100 other people from the ship to go snorkeling, we found Radical Adventures through TripAdvisor. We booked in advance with another couple, and arranged to be picked up just outside the port and a short 5-minute walk up a hill. A driver picked us up, and drove us in a van to the catamaran that was docked a short 15-minute drive away.

It was just the four of us and then the captain, his wife, a chef, and a couple of crew. We motored out to the coral reef, where we could hear the ocean crashing against the reef on the other side.

We snorkeled the interior reef, which was well-protected and had the best, most alive coral and sea life. Our guide dove down to bring up live starfish and urchins for us to see or hold, then returned them where he found them. We are forever ruined to other snorkeling experiences because this was so incredible.

We spent as long as we liked snorkeling in two spots, then climbed back aboard, rinsed off with fresh water, then settled in for a gourmet meal and snacks, as we motored back to the harbor.

This excursion cost about 20 percent less than what the cruise line offered, and truly offered a personalized and intimate experience.

Which excursions have you loved the most? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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