Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part IV: Shore Excursions - A Realistic Perspective

Note:  There is an excellent thread on this topic on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.  So after you read this article, stop by and join the discussion.

It seems counterintuitive that the issue of shore excursions (or tours) on luxury cruises would be at issue, but alas they are. 

Luxury is not, by definition, expensive. Luxury is special, rarefied, if you will. And, let me be clear, I am not talking about the exotic, or significantly more expensive private tours.  I am speaking only of tours that are available to luxury cruise guests and, as such, are limited in nature and number.  And, to be sure, I am talking about "Travel"...not "Sightseeing".  For example:

- Walking the streets of Palamos, Spain with the ship's Executive Chef seeking out unique cured meats.
- Walking through the fish market in Catania, Sicily and then having an authentic Sicilian lunch.
- Having a wine tasting with only a dozen people at a beautiful winery with incredible views in Slovenia.
- Visiting a small Turkish restaurant and watching a cooking demonstration followed by an information (and delicious) lunch in a garden.

These things, or similar, are available on every cruise...with a little planning (or, sometimes, with none at all).  Why then discuss shore excursions at all?  The reason is simple:  Regent Seven Seas Cruises has been wrongly "teaching" folks that packing themselves onto buses to have glimpse of things that should be savored is part of a luxury experience.

I am here to tell you it ain't so! Don't believe the marketing hype.  And, don't let that kind of thought process keep you from "traveling" or "luxuriating" on any cruise or vacation you take.

More specifically, Regent Seven Seas Cruises markets itself as a "Six Star Luxury" product...err' umm, did...and then decided that marketing everything you pay for was "free"; including shore excursions. (I have previously written on how the "inclusiveness" comes at a steep price and that, for sure, it is anything but "free". See, for example, Fuzzy Math.

But those shore excursions are not the same shore excursions as it previously provided...or as provided on any luxury cruise line. Regent (and its predecessor in name, Radisson) did what Seabourn and Silversea have always done: Limit the number of guests who can take a particular excursion because when there are too many people the quality of the experience degrades significantly.

Now, however, Regent may have kept the same itinerary, but it has increased the number of people on its standard tours by up to double...and more than double. Hence you wind up not with the prior 25 people on a full bus and a more personalized experience with your guide, but 50+ on a bus and a tour guide. I can do that on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity, but I can't do that on Seabourn or Silversea...because they are luxury products.  (And don't compromise yourself into justifying the difference because, "heck it was free"...It wasn't.  You paid, and paid dearly, for it.)  [Note:  I am not implying that only Regent has some rather marginal tours.  Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, etc. all have them.  I simply am using Regent as the example because of the totality of claiming the "free" tours are part of a luxury experience.]

I have read various people talking about how Regent now has you queue up in the show lounge waiting for your tour number to be called. Regardless of the inconsistency of execution such things are never, ever, a luxury experience...and you haven't even left the ship.   The same folks who say they will never sail on a mass market cruise because the will not tolerate standing in line find themselves, well, standing in line on a Regent cruise.  And, as I will explain, more than once!

For example, and honestly by totally random choice, I find that Regent offers "free" visiting Santorini and taking a bus ride to Qia, then walking around, hopping back on a bus for a lunch, then hopping back on the bus, and then being dropped off in Fira to make your way back to the ship.  It is neither a $129 value nor luxury. The very thought of stepping onto a bus in Santorini makes me shudder. (If you have been there you will know exactly what I mean.)

I love Santorini. I remember once sitting on the cliffside drinking a local bottle of wine with some fruit and watching the sunset with my wife.

I remember another time sitting on the roof of a little restaurant in Qia (Pelicanos) having what ranks as one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten (feta and spinach) with one of the best views I have ever witnessed. 

I remember a third time going on a ridiculous shopping spree with some friends and then finding a wonderful little taverna with great views enjoying a local meal after driving around the beaches of black, red and brown sand. (Regent offers something similar for $179 per person extra with very quick stops at two wineries!) 

You tell me which are luxury experiences and which aren't.  Now, aside from the shopping, how much do you think those experiences cost me?  Which ones would you rather have?
This, of course, raises the issue of what someone expects when they visit a place: Travel or Sightsee. Are they just happy to be there? Do they have a deep interest and are relegated to a quick glimpse of artwork they have waited to see for years? Do they want the 45 minute shopping experience in the main part of town rather than the artsy place hidden in the back streets? Let me give you a hint:  It doesn't matter on a large ship's tour because what will be given is an homogenized experience no matter what your take is. That is not luxury.

I am not claiming that every ship's tour is a part of a busman's holiday.  There are some excellent shore excursions out there.  But they are limited in number of guests, better in the quality of the guide (not tour guide), and longer in time spent where it really matters.

On most of my luxury cruises I take a ship's tour or two.  And, to be fair, I may well host an Ensemble Experience for any guests who booked their cruises through a member travel agency.  Some of those experiences are luxury and some of them are not, but some are - as one reader has pointed out - the best or safest way to see a place when you are wary or unsure about the locale or getting back to the ship.  (A place like Constanta, Romania comes to mind.) But I get to choose and I get to not pay for tours or ports I do not want to take a tour in...and make that compromise when and how I want to; and only when I want to.

Something else to think about when considering those luxury moments in port:  It is not necessarily about a formal shore excursion.  Some of my favorite and most memorable times were had just wandering around a port town.  Readers will remember

-My wandering into a fantastic local place in Trieste, Italy because I saw a sign that said "Wine Buffet" (though, obviously it meant "wine and a buffet"). 
-The wonderful lunch in a the tiniest restaurant I have ever eaten in when in St.Tropez - complete with a sweet transvestite waiter(ess).
-Wandering the local market in Le Lavandou, France where I watched this fantastic paella being cooked over a couple of hours...then bought some and sat on a wall on the beach and ate a fantastic treat with the Seabourn Legend in the background....followed by a local restaurant serving Vin de Provence with a bowl of mussels in garlic and cream.

Grabbing your paid for "free" tour prevents these things from happening...or even having a chance of happening.

Finally, I am not talking about "value"; I am talking about luxury.  I have hinted (strongly) that I do not believe there is true value in the larger tours and, to be sure, I find it wrong to be paying for an entire cruise's "free" tours when I know I prefer to "Travel" than to "Sightsee" so I will not take many of them.  That is personal for you to decide.  It is for me to raise the issue of whether there is any "value" in that package and in those sorts of tours.  I think it is limited...and actually degrades both the "luxury" and "travel" experience.

I have been receiving quite a number of emails asking me if I actually book cruises or if I would consider booking their cruises or if I would consider booking cruises on other than luxury cruise lines. The answer to all three questions is: YES. You can email me at eric@goldringtravel.com  or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or internationally on +1 732 383-7398 or UK on +44 20 8133 3450 or Australia on +61 7 3102 4685.