The best Caribbean cruise excursions (and how to do them for less)
On a recent Caribbean cruise I signed my family up for the cruise line’s excursions. We did an underwater walk, ziplined through a rainforest and snorkelled off an idyllic beach. They were great fun –but the total cost for the four of us was around £950.
There is no escaping the fact that the excursions offered by cruise lines are pricey. You pay extra for the convenience of having everything arranged for you, and often the fees include hefty mark-ups.
Of course there are significant savings to be made by going it alone. But whether or not it makes sense to do so depends on what you intend to do and which islands you visit. Here are some points to take into consideration when planning a Caribbean cruise.
Where and how to go it alone
On Mediterranean cruises ports of call are usually the big attractions (think Nice, Barcelona, Venice). This is not always the case with Caribbean ports (Bridgetown on Barbados, Castries on St Lucia and St John’s on Antigua are among the less interesting). However, there are notable exceptions. Old San Juan in Puerto Rico and Old Havana in Cuba, for example, are atmospheric, Spanish-colonial gems and are best appreciated by pottering around on your own. Both are within easy walking distance of their cruise terminals. The same goes for Grenada’s picturesque little capital, St George’s.
Days on the beach
In the hot, sunny Caribbean, it’s tempting just to head for a beach on days ashore. Your cruise line will lay on a trip to a strip of sand, but on some islands you can just as easily take a public bus. For example, on St Lucia ships dock near the main bus terminal, from where frequent buses make the 20-minute journey, for 65p, to Rodney Bay’s Reduit Beach, best on the island.
Alternatively, hop in a taxi and ask the driver to collect you at a pre-arranged time. On Barbados, for example, a return fare of around £23 will take you from the cruise terminal to Accra Beach, a lovely long stretch of sand on the south coast, with good, cheap eateries nearby. Agree a fare at the outset: taxi cabs in the Caribbean are rarely metered.
Private taxi tours
Many taxi drivers offer island tours and can make informative guides. You may find this a more rewarding experience than boarding a bus with several dozen other tourists, and will enjoy flexibility in where you go and how long you spend at each attraction.
The cost per person should be a lot less than a cruise line’s group tour, especially if you travel as a family or team up with another couple.
How much you save will depend on your negotiating skills, but as a rough guide, on St Kitts a four-hour taxi tour costs around £65 for up to four people (around £16 each). Cruise lines sell tours of a similar length at around £47 a head – although they include modest admission charges to a couple of sights, which are extra on taxi tours.
Before leaving home research what there is to see and do on the islands you are visiting, and how to get around (Wi-Fi on board can be unreliable). For expert guides to St Kitts and the Bahamas download the Telegraph’s free travel app (itunes.apple.com).
On most Caribbean islands you can use US dollars. Where the dollar is not the official currency, change is usually given in the local coinage. To avoid returning home with an excess of unwanted East Caribbean or other currency, get a bundle of small denomination US notes before leaving the UK.
When to book cruise ship tours
A few cruise lines operating in the Caribbean include shore tours in the fare. Regent Seven Seas Cruises (rssc.com) offers a choice of complimentary excursions at every stop, and Viking Cruises (vikingcruises.co.uk) offers one free in each port.
Some excursions are unique to cruise lines and cannot be arranged independently or booked elsewhere. For example, Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.co.uk) runs food-oriented tours on some islands, with visits to local markets led by ships’ chefs.
Ziplining, catamaran cruises with snorkelling stops and hiking tours of the rainforest may be tricky to arrange yourself. With activities like these you are arguably better off using the cruise lines’ vetted operators.
Peace of mind
Even on statistically safer Caribbean islands, cruise passengers occasionally fall victim to violent crime. You can reduce the risk when exploring independently by taking common-sense precautions, such as leaving conspicuous valuables in your cabin (check Foreign Office advice at gov.uk). But you will be less at risk if you take an escorted tour.
Also, you won’t have to worry about delays; if you join a ship’s tour, the vessel will not sail without you. Otherwise, it is up to you to ensure you are on board by departure time. That said, it is extremely rare for any passengers to be left behind.
A wide choice of tours in most Caribbean ports is offered by Cruising Excursions (cruisingexcursions.com). Its prices can be lower than those of cruise lines: on Dominica, an excursion to Trafalgar Falls, with snorkelling at Champagne Reef, costs £55, compared to £79 with Norwegian Cruise Line.
Cruising Excursions also stresses that it will return you to your ship in good time – or will take you to the next port at no extra cost.
Viator (viator.com) also offers lots of tours in most Caribbean destinations, including excursions for cruise passengers. Look for those covered by its “worry-free” policy, which guarantees transport to the next port if you are not back at the ship on time.