With few exceptions, most cruise lines do not compensate us for booking our clients on their excursions. When they feign shock, surprise, and horror at the thought that we would actually promote third party excursions to our clients (their cruise passengers), we feel like it’s an act. They know fully well they don’t pay us to book their excursions, and they should not be surprised to hear that’s what we do. In 2014 I was on an Anthem of the Seas pre-inaugural with Vicki Freed (Senior Vice President, Sales, Trade Support & Service, Royal Caribbean International) and Michael Bayley (President & CEO, Royal Caribbean International). Bayley was relatively new to Royal Caribbean at the time, and new to feigning shock and horror at the thought that travel professionals would actually book third party excursions.
We have all heard the arguments for both sides. Third party companies pay us commission; cruise lines (typically) don’t. Cruise lines will hold their ships for their excursions returning late, but not for passengers booked on third party excursions. Cruise lines also give priority debarkation in ports to those passengers booked on their excursions; if you booked a third party excursion you are relegated to debarking with the masses; and I think the cruise lines secretly hope you then miss your excursion.
But what about the quality of the excursions offered? Which option is better for our clients? On my recent cruise I purposely booked excursions both ways. For Cozumel and Grand Cayman I used Shore Trips, and for Cartagena I booked a cruise line excursion. I evaluated the quality of the excursion as well as pricing. The overall decision? Both options are solid, viable ways to book our clients excursions. Yes, I got commission on my Shore Trips excursions, but Celebrity Cruises offered me an opportunity in Cartagena that I simply could not book anywhere else.
In Cozumel we booked a private guide for 5 hours. The appeal here was that it was totally customizable. We could skip the stuff we were not interested in (like the Tequila factory tour), and focus more time on what did interest us (the San Gervasio Mayan Archaeological Site). The tour guide suggested we head to the ruins first, and get a jump start before the rest of the cruise passengers showed up. When we arrived there were already 3 buses of cruise passengers there (roughly 150 people). They didn’t get to spend a lot of time at the site (maybe 30-45 minutes total), skipped some parts due to time constraints, and their pictures were primarily polluted with people in them. We spent about 90 minutes there total (our choice), saw all of the grounds and ruins, and got pristine (people-less) pictures in the process.
We also had our guide recommend a local restaurant, preferably one that did not cater exclusively to tourists. So he took us to one that was only 3 blocks from his house, where he would occasionally take his wife out to dinner. It was not only authentic, but the food was amazing and the price was reasonable.
Overall, the cost of this excursion was $231 for 2 people, or roughly $45 an hour for 5 hours. For the ability to have a private guide for just the two of us, and the freedom to customize the tour 100%, we felt it was well worth the money spent. And yes, it was commissionable.
In Grand Cayman we spent less ($51 per person) for a shorter tour (slightly over 2 hours long) which was not private. However, compared to your typical cruise line excursion, ours was fairly small with 22 people total. The tour touched on the island’s highlights: the Governor’s residence, 7 Mile Beach, the rock formations of Grand Cayman’s Hell, and the turtle farm. All we wanted to do was see Hell, but there were no excursions anywhere that simply went to Hell and back; and my husband flat-out refused the idea of hiring a taxi at the port to take us there and back. The tour guide was very engaging and knowledgeable, and even though we visited areas we didn’t care about we still enjoyed the whole tour. For the money spent, we were satisfied with it. And again, it was commissionable.
Our only cruise line excursion was in Cartagena. It was an overnight stay, and Celebrity offered an intriguing nighttime tour that Shore Trips did not offer. It was a nighttime horse drawn carriage ride through the old walled city and dinner at a Colombian restaurant. At $160 per person it seemed a bit steep, but we decided to do it anyway. There were only 20 people that booked the excursion, more than likely due to the price. So we had that small-excursion feel that we like with Shore Trips, even though it was booked with the cruise line. The dinner was surprisingly all inclusive, including drinks (beer, wine and cocktails included) and gratuities. The hour-long tour through the old walled city in the horse drawn carriage was unique, and very enjoyable. Would we do it again? Absolutely! Was it worth the price? We felt that it was definitely worth it. Was it commissionable? Of course not.
My take away is pretty simple: if Shore Trips and the cruise line offer similar excursions, I will recommend Shore Trips to my clients. It is not just because they pay commission (although that is part of the equation). Their excursions are typically a higher quality, less “mass market” (meaning smaller and a better value). This is all reflected in their pricing. If you have ever arranged private guides for your clients in other destinations, you know that $45 an hour is at the lower end of the scale. If your clients are simply in it for something to do as cheap as possible, they may not appreciate the value they would be getting from Shore Trips. But I have never had a client complain once when they have returned from a Shore Trips excursion.
I will, however, still recommend cruise line excursions when they have the corner on something unique that I simply cannot get anywhere else for my clients. The horse drawn carriage ride and dinner in Cartagena is the perfect example. I would not deprive clients of that unique opportunity simply because I don’t get a commission from it. But if it’s a run of the mill “let’s go see the Tulum Mayan Ruins” type of excursion, I will want my clients to have the smaller, more intimate options offered by a third party company.
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations, she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (888) 221-1209.