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04-04-2016 Shore excursions: book through the cruise line or book with a private tour operator?

In February we sailed with a group of 12 from Lima to Buenos Aires on the Oceania Regatta. A favorite ship of ours. Before we departed we set up a pre-cruise excursion to Machu Picchu through a third-party travel supplier. It was terrific. Compared to the cruise line offering we spent an extra day at Machu Picchu, stayed in comparable hotels, and spent $350 per person less. And the local operator was excellent, holding our hand every step of the way, providing excellent guides in Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Lima, and making the entire experience wonderful. But, we were willing to do this for ourselves and our group only because the travel supplier has been vetted by our WESTA travel consortium and we’ve heard the supplier present their company at travel events. To go out on the Internet and randomly pick somebody, or even use Cruise Critic and other sites to find somebody was a leap of faith we were not willing to make on behalf of our clients. Oh, and this same travel supplier provided a tour that wrapped up the 20 plus day holiday with a city tour of Buenos Aires that could not have been better. One of our group actually called for a standing ovation for the tour guide. Can it get better than that?

We used yet another WESTA vetted supplier to provide over half of our shore excursion in the other ports. Compared to comparable cruise line prices we saved over $150 per person and went in a group of 12, not 40. If I compared the price to the “exclusive” tours where the cruise line limits the group size to 16 the savings would have been greater. In every port but one the guide was outstanding and the tour was “better” than the cruise line tour in the eyes of the group. And in the one exception, the tour was fine, and they even altered things to suit us and enable us to do more, the only drawback was the relative inexperience of the guide and the need to draw the information from her rather than her just dispensing it. Minor in the big picture.

So how important is having a supplier that has been vetted and is trustworthy? We all read the wonderful experiences people have with independents on Travel Advisor and Cruise Critic. What we don’t see are the disasters, as people are less likely to go and advertise that they had a miserable experience. I spoke with an individual on the cruise who had one of those miserable experiences. She paid in advance and the tour never showed up. After some constant badgering on the telephone, not cheap in South America, the company told her they would send somebody to the ship. Too late the individual said, just refund my money. She told me it took multiple more days and calls to make the refund happen. And in the end, she was grateful to get her money back.

What a miserable travel experience! Moral: picking a travel supplier by random on the Internet can be a crap shoot but working with a travel counselor who has access to quality suppliers will more likely result in a rewarding experience. And compared to cruise line prices, the shore excursion will likely be a genuine value.

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