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I’ve been on a lot of shore excursions on all gay cruises and mainstream cruises—some organized by the ship, and some organized on my own. Both have pros and cons.
Some pros and cons to excursions organized by the ship:
Pro: Someone else has already done the planning for you. Just pay and go.
- Pro: You are guaranteed to get back on the ship before it sails.
- Pro: If the excursion doesn’t live up to what is advertised by the ship, you may be able to negotiate for a refund or some other perk.
- Pro: You’ll likely be picked up immediately outside the ship, and dropped back off at the ship.
- Con: You’re likely paying a premium over what the actual tour cost would be if organized directly.
- Con: You’ll probably be part of a big, cumbersome group—perhaps with people who don’t move at the pace you like.
- Con: You’re fairly stuck with the itinerary.
Some pros and cons to organizing your own.
- Pro: You can totally customize your shore experience.
- Pro: If you’re traveling with several friends, you may be able to negotiate a group discount.
- Pro: You can set the pace.
- Pro: You can control who is on your tour–just you, or a group of friends. All gay travelers, or mixed. The choice is yours.
- Pro: The price will likely be lower than similar excursions organized by the ship.
- Con: If you don’t get back to the ship on time, it will sail without you.
- Con: There’s a slim possibility your guide won’t show up.
- Con: It will take a bit of time and research to find the right activity.
- Con: If doing something unguided, you run the risk of getting lost and wasting time.
- Con: If using a local guide or company and something goes wrong, you probably won’t have much recourse to get your money back or get things corrected.
All that said, here’s an example of my best-ever, self-organized shore excursion. It was a full day in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, and included horse riding, a coffee plantation, zip lining (before they were ubiquitous), swimming in tropical pools under waterfalls, picnic lunch, and dinner.
At the time—2004
—the Royal Caribbean ship we were sailing didn’t offer a zip lining excursion, but I was aware of Costa Rica as the prime zipping destination in the world—really the place that pioneered the activity.
So, I started searching the Internet for zip line activities near Puntarenas. I found one particularly interesting, Finca Daniel. They specialize in tours for land-based visitors, and had experience in taking cruise ship employees for the day. So I contacted them and asked if they could take my partner and me—pick us up at the pier, and return us to the pier.
Then everything went crazy.
It was before MeetMeOnBoard.com existed, but through early social networking we got in contact with another gay couple who were on the same sailing. They were interested in the excursion. So I contacted Finca Daniel to ask if they could take two more people.
Well, long story short—once we were on the ship and started talking about our planned excursion, many people (gay and straight) wanted to go. So, I emailed Finca Daniel and they told me I could basically fill up their van—as many as 16 people.
So we filled up the van. Crazy, huh? From 2 people wanting a special experience…to 16 who wanted to share it.
Finca Daniel delivered an exceptional experience—they showed up on time, got us back on time (although with little time to spare), and everyone who went was 100% delighted and we were the envy of the ship. They gave me and my partner a small discount for arranging the group. Again, here’s the link to the experience.
Next time I’ll tell you about taking a minivan from the ship into Caracas, Venezuela…
Now: add your comments below about experiences planning your own shore experience. And did you know, MeetMeOnBoard.com can help you do it? Click for our Shore Excursions page.
Planning your own shore excursions
If you want to organize a group cruise and perhaps sail free, it is possible! If you do it right, you may end up several free cruise cabins! Starting last week, and continuing over the next three weeks, I’m providing a series of tips for planning your own group cruise with specific sensibilities for the gay cruise traveler.
One of the best things about having your own group on a cruise is the fun of shore excursions – planning that time together*.
It’s easy to find things to do on the ship, and a sea day or two on any itinerary tends to be a favorite of many gay cruise passengers.
But what about things to do in port? Everyone knows that the cruise lines offer pre-arranged shore excursions, and sometimes they’re the right fit for you. But when you’re travelling with a group, a whole new world opens up.
On our group cruise to Hawaii, we knew we wanted to spend time at Maui’s Little Beach – a famous clothing-optional spot with a popular gay beach area. So, we rented three cars, and we all went to Little Beach. Having several cars gave us the flexibility for the group to split into smaller groups later in the day as some people grew tired of sand ‘n surf and wanted to go shop or eat. We simply split the cost of the rental cars among all members of the group. It’s worth paying a bit extra (if required) to add an extra driver, and the insurance might be a good idea.
On my Panama Canal cruise, I arranged a Puntarenas, Costa Rica zipline shore excursion for 16 people. It was not available through the cruise—in 2004 zipline and canopy tours were still relatively new. The excursion was a full day at a ranch / coffee plantation / canyon, and they picked us up at the pier. The day included horseback rides, amazing ziplines, learning about coffee growing, a picnic in the jungle, and more…all for just over $100/person. It was exceptional value, and we all had a blast. Back on the ship it was very clear that we had waaaaay more fun that day than most other passengers. As organizer, I was offered a discount for my own excursion (not free, but saved a bit).
Learn more about this type of shore excursion.
How do you find shore excursions? Easy. Check guidebooks and websites for the destinations you’ll visit. Call or email ahead to tour providers you’re interested in, and let them know you’re bringing a group onshore from a cruise ship. Ask what they can provide (pier-side pickup is important!), and what they can do to help create a great experience for you. Negotiate on price.
- I suppose there’s the possibility that a provider won’t show up. It might be worth checking with the city or region’s tourism office about the reputation of providers.
- The chance that you miss the ship. It’s crucial that you inform the tour provider of your ship’s required all-aboard time. But even so, if something goes wrong (a van breaks down, unexpected road closure, etc.), and you miss the ship, you will be responsible for getting yourselves to the next port.
- Make sure everyone in your group is aware of these risks!
Tip: Make sure your group members offer an appropriate gratuity at the end of the excursion!
Tip: If your group is big enough to fill a van or even a bus, and you are interested in having the cruise line arrange your excursions for you (which will qualify you for their various guarantees—like the ship won’t leave without you if the excursion was booked by the cruise line), ask your travel agent to look into it—or to put you directly in contact with the shore excursions company who handles the cruise line’s onshore tours. Be sure to ask for discounts and a couple of free tour passes for yourself (no promises, but you never know).
Next week: dining together on ship and ashore
*In fact, that’s one of my favorite things about connecting with other gay cruise passengers via MeetMeOnBoard.com before a cruise…the chance to plan shore time together.
A gay friend just asked me for suggestions on upcoming Panama Canal cruises. If you’ve followed this blog, you should
know that both my partner and I consider our 2005/06 canal cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Legend of the Seas our best-ever vacation, for many reasons.
Perhaps the biggest reason was the many gay men we met on board — about 40 of them, mostly couples — some of whom we had “pre-met” through Internet searches… long before MeetMeOnBoard.com was born. Many of us dined together each night in 4s and 6s, but still at larger tables with straight passengers… it was a BLAST. (We’re still friends with many of them, and still travel to see each other).
Anyway… I could go on and on about what a great cruise it was. But I suggest you go book your own! Here are a handful of tips for that trip:
- Do a full-transit sailing, not a partial.
- Go east to west (start in Florida, end in California) so you’re always adding hours to the clock.
- Stay on the ship through the entire canal–that’s what you’ve paid to experience. Guests who get off at/in the canal to do shore excursions miss the complete wow of having sailed between the two oceans.
- If your ship stops in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, arrange privately for a full-day zipline & waterfall tour with http://www.finca-daniel.de/
- If you stop in Acapulco, you MUST see the cliff divers show.
Bon voyage! Randall
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