The Insider: How to Get the Most Out of a Shore Excursion

September 18, 2017
Tour group posing for a photo at montserrat

I spent 12 years of my career on cruise ships working in the shore excursion department. I've had the fortune of experiencing more than 1,000 tours in all parts of the world and I was responsible for operating a whole lot more. The most difficult thing to overcome when organising these cruise shore excursions was variability -- those pesky things that ensure there are no groundhog days in our lives. These factors (often out of our control) ranged from weather conditions to traffic jams, guide personalities and abilities, group personalities and subtleties, communication in foreign lands, quality of transport, logistics of sites, volumes of crowds, and those "sliding-door moments" that can occur in these dynamics and have a butterfly effect on everything else.

Upon reflection, there are a few tips that form a common denominator to passengers' potential experience, and they are determined by their preparedness and experience.

Here are my top six tips of getting the most out of your cruise tours.

1. Go with the flow: Despite being meticulously prepared 12 months in advance, and often evolved from previous versions, most tours don't go to the exact script. There is no minute-to-minute guide that transpires, despite the efforts of a few nations' culture that this is the way it has to be to be professional providers. As mentioned with traffic, weather, guide experience, and all the logistics that the day needs to move through, your tour will continue to flow despite oncoming issues - like a stream flowing with falling pebbles (or boulders) that come to its path. I found the most satisfied participants were the ones who just let go, went with the flow for the day, and enjoyed those challenging moments as yet another part of "their" story when they returned. They embraced it and didn't fight it.

Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain

2. Dress in layers: This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's easy to see how such a simple thing can affect your experience. You may be enjoying the ideal Caribbean or European cruise on a warm summer's day, but you are still exposed to the environment that your tour takes you through. Regardless of the outside weather, coaches and transport may be too cold or too warm (and sometimes "stuck" at these levels), museums and palaces can vary, and all this can be in one day! Moving up or down in layers solves all disagreeable situations. For those on longer cruises, this mantra is ideal, as you will need to mix and match for the duration of your itinerary anyway, due to luggage restriction of flights.

3. Carry spare change: This one is a little bit of a hassle, especially when you have multiple countries in your itinerary. But it's well worth it. Firstly, not all coaches are equipped with bathrooms and, if they are, sometimes they are converted to storage rooms for the bus company. Carrying small change allows access to little things like bathrooms if needed, even in places in Europe. We normally do it in our day-to-day lives, and being on tour is still a day-to-day occurrence; it can help dealing with those odd moments and, even for things like markets when the $1US bill is worth 10 times the amount of what we are trying to purchase. (Note: I would still give the $1 bill anyway.)

4. Carry spare batteries: Speaking of carrying extras, spare camera batteries are useful, particularly in remote areas or colder climates such as Antarctica. I find that you spend so much time out in the elements waiting to capture natural beauty that often your batteries are sapped by the cold. In these remote areas, there are no 7-Elevens or camera shops to restock.

Cunard 2019 programme

5. Carry a postcard of a cruise ship: I have used this odd tool many times when overcoming language barriers, even in remote areas, pointing to the postcard of my ship to taxi drivers or someone in the street to indicate the fact I need to get back to port. A photo on your phone would also work (if you have enough battery charge left). The most panicked occasion was when, accompanying a logistically challenging group along the Great Wall of China in the snow, I decided in our free time to wander off for some "me-time". At the distance that marked the point of no-return of my time allocation I saw a sign that said there was a toboggan ride to the car park. I thought I was the smartest person in the world to discover this shortcut! I would still beat my group back and be at the meeting place well before they did -- like a good escort should. What I didn't realise was the toboggan did take you to a car park, but not the one I needed. This car park was in a ghost town with nobody around. Knocking on doors and pointing to my postcard eventually got me to where I needed to be. When I told this story to a student travel agent, who asked, "But what if they take you to the wrong ship?", I explained that if you are using the postcard/photo, don't worry too much -- they will take you to the port and it's not hard to find the right one!

6. Adjust your mindset: This tip is by far the most important one. I could always spot the passenger who had already decided their day would be negative from the start. Sitting in one of the front seats with arms folded and ready to strike, they were unhappy long before the coach even left the parking lot. Regardless of where you are, attitude creates your reality; make it a flexible and positive one.

It's funny how most out-of-the-ordinary stories stay with us forever. I once had a pep talk with my team before a 115-day world cruise, where I tried to motivate them for the challenge of servicing the same people over that time, in different places, and often on overland tours that lasted up to five days. I mentioned that hiccups will happen and guaranteed that, as bad as they are, these are the stories we will be telling our friends and family for the rest of our lives -- so embrace them as pivotal moments in life. The right mindset and going with the flow will almost always guarantee a great shoreside experience while on a cruise.

--The Insider is a monthly column by Peter Kollar, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia