by Suzanne G.
As much as we cruisers look forward to port days, shore excursions can be a source of anxiety for many people. Booking through the cruise line seems like a risk-free choice, especially when you are traveling in an unfamiliar country and don’t speak the language. Plus, you never know how safe or pedestrian-friendly the port is or how reliable or reputable the tour operators in the area are.
Even when we know we are overpaying for tours and settling for itineraries that aren’t quite right, booking through the cruise line still seems pragmatic. Or is that just what the cruise lines want us to think?
I have booked plenty of shore excursions through cruise lines and willingly paid their exorbitant prices. Those purchases were mostly motivated by fears about safety, complicated visa requirements, language barriers, and my ability to navigate a foreign port on my own. And, no matter how unlikely, I NEVER want to end up in one of those YouTube videos of people running to the ship!
There have been some ports where I was thankful for the safety and security of traveling in a large group and having a comfortable coach waiting for me at the pier. At the time, those overpriced shore excursions were a solid choice. But there have also been many ports that I could have easily navigated by myself and afternoons in beautiful places that were wasted at tour stops that didn’t interest me.
While booking through the cruise line may be the best decision in some ports, for most cruisers, this is not the case for Hawaii cruises. If you want to break free from the shore excursion trap and book a tour independently, Hawaii is where to do it.
Hawaii cruises are ideal for DIY shore excursions
If you speak English and can operate a smartphone you can easily navigate Hawaii’s ports the infrastructure is there to support you.
Hawaii is one of the safest cruise destinations in the world and one of the easiest to navigate on your own. The tourist infrastructure is well established, year-round, and you can find so much information online. This includes detailed port schedules that allow you to see exactly where you’ll be on each day of your cruise. Rideshares, taxis, and car rentals are plentiful and reasonably priced. Many areas are walkable. Cell coverage is reliable and free wifi is plentiful. Ships often stay in port later and sometimes they stay overnight. Also, there are only two tender ports in Hawaii, Lahaina and Hilo, so you have one less logistical hurdle to worry about.
Finally, in a very unlikely scenario where you missed the boat, Hawaii is the one place where that would be a minor headache and not a major catastrophe. In some cases, you could travel from one port to the next quicker than the ship. (ex: the drive from Hilo to Kona takes under two hours and flights from one island to the next take less than an hour). Thankfully, in Hawaii, interisland flights are fast, cheap, and plentiful and last-minute hotel rooms can be found even in high season.
If you’re not yet convinced, here are seven reasons to book your Hawaii excursions on your own:
- You’ll get a better price. Sometimes the mark-ups are outrageous, more than double the price. For example, I recently attended the Ka Moana Luau and sat with a couple from a Princess ship that was in port. They had booked the luau on their own, for a savings of $125 each. Meanwhile, their shipmates who had booked through the cruise line were shoved off to the side in the group seating section, while they enjoyed center-stage seats. To be fair, the cruise line did throw in transportation, but the ship was docked less than 1 mile from the luau! My tablemates figured a 20-minute walk there and a $10 Uber ride back were well worth saving $250.
- You’ll have more options. Cruise ships only offer a small percentage of what an area has to offer. There are high-quality Hawaii excursions that aren’t offered on cruise ships because they are a niche interest, too small, too similar to another tour, or they just don’t think it will be profitable to offer it. But that might just be the perfect tour for you!
- You’ll have a better experience. With more flexibility and more freedom your day can look exactly like how you envisioned it. You can book tours that will pick you up, or you can rent a car and drive to them, or even fit multiple tours in your day plus some sightseeing along the way. You’ll be able to book smaller-sized or private tours if you choose. Remember, this is your vacation, so enjoy the freedom to customize your itinerary and prioritize your interests as you choose the Hawaii excursions that are right for you!
- You’ll get better customer service. By this, I don’t mean friendliness, but rather availability and knowledge. Online services are 24/7, while shore excursion desks usually have limited hours and long lines. Also, when you book directly or through a service like Tour Hawaii, you are interacting with people who live in Hawaii and who know the tours. The shore excursion desk staff doesn’t live in Hawaii, and it’s unlikely they are from Hawaii. While they may have sampled a few of the Hawaii excursions, they don’t know the islands like a local does. They can’t guide you to the best excursions, answer unique questions, or give you solid advice on how to enhance your day in port.
- You’ll get more opportunities to interact with locals and observe local life. The big disadvantage of shore excursions is there is no room for spontaneity, going off the beaten path, or getting a little lost. But often these are the occasions that we remember most vividly from our travels. Opportunities to have meaningful interactions with locals or local culture are really limited when every minute of your day has been planned out for you.
- You’ll support local small businesses. Booking directly or through a locally based concierge service like Tour Hawaii means that 100% of your dollars are staying local, as opposed to when you book through the cruise line. Those big corporate markups will not benefit the local economy or have any positive impact on local communities.
- You’ll resist predatory corporate business practices. Cruise lines use fear tactics to convince passengers to book shore excursions through them exclusively. And that’s not OK.
Cruisers are “encouraged” to book shore excursions through the cruise line because it is highly profitable to the cruise line. It’s not about our safety or guest satisfaction, let’s be real.
In reality, the fear and anxiety we have about safety and security in port (and getting back to the ship on time) are often exaggerated, unfounded, and perhaps manufactured. And Hawaii is the best place to see this for yourself, should you dare book a tour outside the cruise line!