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Shore Excursion Hack: Leveraging NCL Port Discounts

I usually subscribe to the DIY Shore Excursion philosophy on cruise ships. However, we decided to test an alternative way to approach Shore Excursions during a 10 day cruise on the Norwegian Dawn through the ABC islands and Southern Caribbean.

This itinerary offered just one sea day for the duration and a few new stops which we had yet to visit. As our four year old would be travelling with us, full days of scuba we out of the question unless we could come up with a solution for everyone. Our 20% Latitudes discount plus $50 (per port) distinctive voyage credit from NCL sealed the decision to tag team our port time, taking turns babysitting and having some alone time. While we enjoy our family time in each new destination, the adults were ready to adult. Here’s what we did:

Oranjestad, Aruba: Antilla Wreck Snorkel & Beach Getaway

This three and a half hour trip includes snorkeling the Antilla Wreck, beach time, and open bar. The snorkeling was nice, though murky due to weather conditions. Because of the choppy water, the guides brought us to a second snorkeling location which was much calmer. I enjoyed the water’s serenity and spent my time following a mating pair of fish searching for a home. My usual hesitation to taking ship tours (the crowds) was a downside of this trip, and I spent more time watching out for other humans than for marine wildlife. Also, the humans got a bit loud/tipsy on the ride back- not my scene, but passable if you enjoy that sort of thing.

Total cost: $79 – 20% – $50 + $5 tip = $18

The other half of the family visited a local beach, which cost $27 for taxi round trip.

Willemstad, Curacao: Hato Caves and City Center

A bus drove the group to Hato Caves for a guided tour and then dropped us off in city center for another guided tour of town. Our bus departed before the rest, so we got the first tour when the cave was nice and quiet. The caves were also quite beautiful and featured cute little bats flying overhead.

The city tour was at a pace too slow for us, so we bowed out and explored on our own. The town’s vibe felt great, the architecture colorful, and everyone seemed happy and welcoming. One fun find: The Blue Experience, an interactive adventure through the process of making Blue Curacao. We enjoyed a private tour through the facility, played a family puzzle game and sampled their wares, all for free. We were able to customize our day to fit our family’s needs, including a stop at a local playground to burn off some energy.

Caves shore ex: $41 per adult and $30 per child – 20% -$50 + $5 tip= $45 (Admission to the cave alone usually costs $9/adult and $7/child so the price was comparable to doing it on our own).

Kralendijk, Bonaire: Eco Cruise by RIB at Lac Bay

Our guide picked the small group up outside the pier and drove us via rickety safari vehicle to Lac Bay. We saw flamingos and donkeys during the drive, but some guests were uncomfortable with the bumpy road. We boarded the RIB for a serene journey through the mangroves. Our guide showed us nesting birds and spotted sea turtles before returning us to the quiet beach for free time. I much preferred the pace of this tour. So quiet! Also, I had never visited Bonaire and loved the craggy desertous terrain. Definitely would love to return for an extended scuba stay.

$75 – 20% – $50 = $10 tips = $20.

While I was on the tour, the other two walked to the downtown area and wandered for a while before returning to the ship for lunch. $0

Castries, St Lucia: Catamaran Snorkel and Sail

My husband took this excursion and found it less-than relaxing. The description made this snorkel tour seem less boozy than the one I took in Aruba, but that was not the case. In fact, much of the time was spent on the boat with minimal snorkel time and large amounts of drunken passengers. Regardless, snorkeling is always a good way to decompress.

$69 – 20% -$50 + $5 tip= $10

Meanwhile, my St Lucian friend from college picked up my son and I at the pier and drove us to Pigeon Island, a national landmark. We hiked to the top of the historic fort then rewarded ourselves with ice cream and drinks before spending the rest of the afternoon watching the sun set from the sheltered beach. The calm water and fine sand allowed us to have a proper conversation while the little one happily played by himself without worry. We finally toured upscale Rodney Bay Village before returning to the ship. Perfect day, sorry dear.

$8 entrance to Park (kids under 5 free), $25 food and drinks (I pay) = $33

Bridgetown, Barbados: No Shore Excursion

We used to visit the Boatyard regularly when we worked on cruise ships. This made for an easy decision to forego an excursion and revisit it instead. For one cover price, you are guaranteed a beach chair/umbrella, a snorkel trip to visit sea turtles, use of their beach toys like water slide, trampoline and rope swing, and a drink each. You pay your way to get to the Boatyard, but they provide a taxi back to the ship every 15 minutes as part of the entrance fee. Though the entry fee has changed since we were younger, we still appreciated the assurance that there were no additional fees after we arrived. The beach is clean, the drinks are strong, and the snorkel trip pays for admission on it’s own. Our son was able to snorkel for the first time and hence is now addicted. However, for him the wreck we visited was a little too reminiscent of the pirate ships we had discussed at length in St Lucia. He steered clear just in case any ghost pirates were haunting the waters.

$10 taxi to the boatyard (child free), $25/adult and $20/child entrance boatyard + $10 drinks + $12 fish lunch = $102

St Johns, Antigua: No shore Excursion

We honestly couldn’t find a ship tour we liked the look of so we opted for the “taxi to the beach” route, choosing Jolly Beach (approx 30 min away). Antigua has a funny vibe for us and though we have vacationed here previously, the day felt menacing and therefore hard to relax. Drivers are extremely aggressive, as are the hawkers at the beach. Though we were able to enjoy the water for a bit, the tides quickly became rough as the day progressed. There was no shade either, so fearing sunburn we returned after a few hours. The downtown also feels fairly rough, so maybe a tour is the way to go after all…

$24 to the beach + $20 taxi to the ship = $44

Philipsburg, St Martin: Seaworld Explorer

The meeting process for this tour was chaotic. Guides made the group stand in the rain waiting for a missing couple who had made their way to the bus depot on their own. After wasting 20 minutes and drenching the group, they walked us to the depot where the couple was found. From there, a tour bus drove us to the French side to board a semi-submarine at Grand Case. The group descended to the underwater hull to view fish and turtles through built-in glass windows. While the boat was exciting, the guides were not very informative and kept referring to the marine life by how to cook them. I feared for the ocean animals. The bus returned directly to the ship after the boat ride finished, which seemed like a wasted opportunity. Having visited both sides of St Martin many times, I would have appreciated some free to time walk around Grand Case and eat a panini.

After a stop for French chocolate, the decided to spend the rest of the afternoon on the ship. The highlight of our day- watching a mama hen shield her seven chicks from the rain near the pier.

$65/adult and $55/child – 20% – $50 (no tip, sorry not sorry) = $98

Charlotte Amalie (Havensight), St Thomas: Skyride to Paradise Point

This is another port which we have visited MANY times as crew. Our old reliable here will always be Magen’s Bay, a 20 minute ride from the pier which we took on our own. The taxi rates are set per person ($8 regardless of age) and drivers will always wait to fill up before departing. We arrived at the beach early in the day, enjoying a few perfectly private hours before the crowds started to arrive around lunchtime. We set up shop at a picnic table before splashing next to diving pelicans for hours. There are NO hawkers, no fee for chairs… just clean facilities and unparalleled views.

We asked the return taxi driver to drop us off at the entrance to the Skyride. Our son has a particular affinity for attractions like this, so we patronized his wishes and used our credit for a FREE (!) ride. The view is impressive, but we descended rather quickly since the journey was more of a priority than the destination.

$8/pp taxi to Magen’s Bay x 6 trips + $5/adult entrance to park (children under 12 free) + $20 for drinks and snacks on the beach = $78

San Juan Puerto Rico: No Shore Excursion

Though we would have been able to apply our $50 credit to airport transfers, our flight was too early to take advantage of this option. The only option available priced out at over $100 anyway, so the $25 taxi to the airport proved faster and smarter anyway. Because we spent a day in San Juan at the beginning of our trip, we didn’t feel too deprived.

Overall takeaways:

  1. Shifting our perception of what was possible allowed for new experiences which we haven’t had on cruises since having a child. Taking individual shore excursions isn’t something I had considered previously and yeilded its own pros and cons. I greatly enjoyed my private “mommy time” and though I missed my clan, I appreciated the mental reset.
  2. Using the ship credit actually resulted in comparable or cheaper days than had we done it on our own. However, if you value privacy and quiet as we do, you may value this more than money.
  3. Port days are tiring, especially with children! I recommend pacing yourself- not only per day, but across a cruise’s duration. After multiple days of adventure, it’s sometimes nice to break it up with low-key activities.
  4. Discuss each other’s expectations for each place and coordinate the flow of your holiday from start to finish. We were able to (relatively) balance our alone time/family time giving everyone the best of both worlds.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Shonuffharlem January 6, 2019, 10:22 pm

    Really great work! But man EXPLAIN how you got your shore excursions credits and discounts.

    • Allison January 7, 2019, 1:48 pm

      The $50 per port per stateroom credit is a pretty standard promotional offer of theirs. At the moment, they are doing the pick six, with other options including 1)open bar 2) Specialty dining 3)Shore Ex 4) Wifi 5) Friends and Family Sail Free and 6) Airfare.
      We have chosen open bar in the past, but you pay an automatic additional amount for tips so it can add another few hundred onto your tab. Same with dining, though less expensive than on bar. The airfare always ends up being more expensive than what we can get on our own using travel hacking. For example, a priced out flights to Rome through NCL and they quoted $499 per person when we were able to find cash flights for a bit over $300 (even without using points). And we always take the Family Sails Free so our son can come along and just pay tax/tips. Therefore, we finally took a chance on shore ex.
      We also receive Latitudes discounts on gift shop, shore ex, spa etc for being repeat cruisers on NCL. This cruise in particular was called a “distinctive Voyage” which comes with additional perks depending on the run.
      And finally, we get a credit from the casino to apply on shore ex or gift shop. In this case, we chose Shore Ex so all of the excursions I mentioned ended up being completely free. However, not everyone can apply this credit so I left it out of the post. Good luck!

  • Cressinia November 6, 2019, 12:39 pm

    Thanks Shonuffharlem, that was the first question that I was going to ask. Without this credit and the 20% discount, you would have been shelling out a lot more. I’ve been a DIY shore excursion enthusiast for ever, but it does require a lot of time-consuming planning in advance (which is why I presume so few cruisers take this approach), and I’m starting to think perhaps next time take the ship excursions. So would you have been happy with these excursions paying full price?

    • Allison November 6, 2019, 2:28 pm

      Ultimately, choosing whether to do it on your own depends on a few factors.
      1) Are you willing to pay a premium for the ease and comfort that shore ex offer? If you are only in port for a few hours and can benefit from getting off early with the tours or if you are worried about making it back to the ship in time, then booking on board might be good for you.
      2) What pace are you planning for the day’s activities? I find that there is a lot of downtime when traveling in large groups which I could use more efficiently on my own. Also, changing course to spend more time on something interesting is not always an option with a tour’s tight schedule.
      3) Traveling with our son now adds almost a full price ticket to the cost. When you compare that to a taxi which adds no additional charge for extra people, the equation gets more complicated.

      Being rather introverted, I prefer to avoid the large group dynamic of tours as we sometimes feel trapped if the kid gets hungry or is making too much noise. I am also very opinionated when it comes to what I like and don’t, so I prefer to tailor our experiences to what we need as a family. I personally would rather pay to get exactly what I want with the added benefit of more freedom, even if the DIY price is comparable to shore ex. This can require a bit of extra work if you are a planner, but we have had great success just walking off and booking something on the spot in many ports. The price has never even come close to what the ship charges for either of those options.

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