Shore Excursions

Although many cruise lines are pretty forthcoming with information about their official shore excursions, most are rather tightlipped with information about port accessibility. They are even tighter lipped when it comes to information about the accessibility of their official shore excursions. At times, it seems like this information is a closely guarded state secret!! For example, several years ago I contacted Princess Cruise Lines to inquire about the accessibility of their Alaska shore excursions. All I wanted to know was which shore excursions were accessible. It seemed a simple enough question. After dodging the issue for several months, Princess’ official reply to my query was that this information would be available to me after I booked a cruise. Basically, they told me that unless I booked a cruise they wouldn’t even tell me if any of their shore excursions are accessible. That seemed unfair; after all, most people like to know what they are buying before they write out the check. To be fair, Princess isn’t alone here. It’s like pulling teeth to get any access information about shore excursions out of the cruise lines. In truth, only a handful of accessible shore excursions are available, so be wary if a cruise line indicates that a specific shore excursion is accessible. Make sure to ask a lot of questions, especially about the availability of accessible transportation. I’ve had reports from travelers who booked accessible shore excursions only to discover that standard buses were part of the package. If you book an accessible tour, make sure a lift-equipped or ramped vehicle is used for transportation. In many cases, the tour operators expect you to climb up the stairs to the bus and transfer to a seat. Replies from tour providers about their access deficits range from “it’s only a few steps” to “once you get on the bus the rest of the tour is accessible.” So, be forewarned that there is a very broad definition of accessible when it comes to shore excursions. Some tour providers assume that anybody in a wheelchair can walk at least a few steps, so what’s accessible to them may not exactly be accessible to you. Additionally, if you book a snorkeling or scuba shore excursion, it’s important to double check with the tour operator to make sure you will be able to participate. One wheelchair-user reports this incident in Cozumel. “The catamaran operator told me I would not be allowed to snorkel, even after I produced my scuba certification card,” says Steve. “He said it was company policy that people in wheelchairs could not snorkel. My shore excursion ended right there. I also had a hard time getting a refund from the cruise line.” So, what’s a person to do when it comes to shore excursions? You have two options. One is to work with a travel agent who is experienced in accessible travel and have them plan your cruise and accessible shore excursions. The other option is to hit the books and plan your own accessible shore excursions. The one thing you shouldn’t do is book your cruise on your own and then contact a travel agent to plan your accessible shore excursions. Most shore excursions are conducted by local tour operators. The cruise lines charge these operators a hefty percentage in order to add them to their official shore excursion list. So, the tour operators have to raise their prices to make a go of it. The end result? You pay higher prices for official shore excursions. Additionally, if something goes wrong on the shore excursion, the cruise line passes the buck to the tour operator. The cruise line’s defense is that they contract out this service so the tour operator is ultimately responsible for the service. On the other hand, if you book a cruise line shore excursion and there is a delay getting back to the ship, they will wait for you. That’s not true with independently booked shore excursions. Granted, it’s not always possible to book directly with the tour operator, especially if that tour operator also provides shore excursions for the cruise line. In most cases the cruise lines have exclusivity agreements with their shore tour providers. These agreements prohibit tour operators from accepting direct bookings from passengers. In most cases, this won’t affect the smaller tour operators or specialty tours, so try to book directly whenever possible. Additionally, cruise lines expect travel agents to peddle their shore excursions. It’s not required, but certainly a good deal of pressure is put on agents to do this. This results in many travel agents pushing the official shore excursions, even if they aren’t accessible. It’s a buyer beware situation. If you are working with a travel agent who insists that all the shore excursions are accessible, ask for specific access details. Chances are they are just reciting cruise line rhetoric, and they don’t fully understand the real meaning of accessible. If you go it on your own, the best tool for finding information on accessible shore excursions is the Internet. If you don’t have an Internet connection, try logging on at a library. The reason the Internet is such a good resource is that it allows you to connect directly with a local tour operator. You’ll also be able to get first-hand access information if you deal direct. E-mailing is a lot cheaper than faxing and phoning; and if you don’t speak the native language, many free translation programs are available. On the downside, it’s important to note that some local providers don’t take credit cards, so it may be hard to get a refund if the appropriate services aren’t provided. There are many ways to find information on accessible shore excursions. Two of my favorite resources are Cruise Critic (cruisecritic.com) and Cruise Mates (cruisemates.com). Both these sites have message boards dedicated to accessible cruising, and they are good places to post questions about accessible shore options. You can also do an Internet search under “accessible travel” and look for contacts in your port cities. Another good source of information can be disability organizations. Make a list of your port cities and post messages on travel bulletin boards for information on access. Search for destination-related resources and then find out if they have any access information. Contact tourist bureaus to see if they have any access information. Many smaller tour companies are willing to work with tourists to create specialized tours. Seek out these local companies. Join email lists, search disability web sites, and ask anybody and everybody if they have any information or contacts. You never know when one person may be the key to your search. It really is a numbers game—ask enough people and eventually you will get the answers you need. Be sure to allow plenty of time for your research, because results don’t magically materialize overnight. Once you’ve found a local tour operator, be sure to allow some leeway when scheduling your tour. On many cruise lines, passengers booked on the official shore excursions get first crack at the tenders. Be sure to inform the tour operator of your need for flexibility with the time frame. Make sure this is understood before you book your tour. You should also make sure the tour operator will refund your money if the ship doesn’t visit that port because of a last-minute change in itinerary or weather-related problems. Another option is to find accessible transportation and see the port on your own. Sometimes this is a better solution if you feel you will be pressed for time. This way you can see the sights and go back to the ship at your leisure. Sometimes, this is the best option for short port stops. Finally, common sense should prevail as far as pricing is concerned. I’ve received reports on some third-party agents who charge in excess of $1,000 per person per day for European shore tours. Granted, accessible transportation can get expensive in some parts of the world, but prices like that indicate a substantial mark up. Shop around for yourself. Chances are you will be able to find the same local operator and arrange the tour for a fraction of the price.