THE SERVICES AND AMENITIES ABOARD A LUXURY CRUISE SHIP are usually superior to those on a premium or mass-market ship. That's what guests expect when they may be shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for their cruise vacation. While luxury cruises skew largely toward an older demographic, it's a crowd that is active and still thirsty to learn, which is why luxury shore excursions need to match their clientele's discerning tastes.
All the major luxury lines have created their land programs to meet guest expectations and even surpass them. If passengers can conjure a particular activity they are interested in, most of the time the luxury ships will be able to accommodate. One passenger wanted to ride the famed Orient-Express train on his birthday with some friends, prior to cruising with Regent Seven Seas (www.rssc.com). Regent's Travel Concierge handled the request, chartering the train as a pre-cruise trip from London to Venice for a group of 35.
"The Regent Travel Concierge is set up to handle anything a guest wants," says Darius Mehta, director of land programs for Regent Seven Seas. "Guests can call and offer their own ideas, or we can help tailor something for them." The desk, which this year booked more than $1 million in excursions, can be reached at 888-868-7321.
Similarly, Seabourn Cruise Line (www.seabourn.com) has a desk that handles all requests for special trips while in port. Guests can sit down with onboard tour personnel at the complimentary Seabourn Signature Service Desk and plan a customized shore excursion. Seabourn means business. One excursion the line can put together is an intimate day having tea with a Russian family in a St. Petersburg dacha (a Russian country house or villa) while discussing Dr. Zhivago. For further information, call 800-929-9391.
Luxury cruisers often envision originality and a feeling of distinctiveness when they plan or choose a shore excursion. Riding a trolley through the streets of St. Petersburg is nice, but what about flying over Moscow in a MiG fighter jet? Crystal Cruises (www.crystalcruises.com) can arrange just that—it's one of many new Crystal Adventures that the line debuted in Europe this summer. Others include a visit to the new Porsche factory in Leipzig, Germany, coupled with a test drive; a speedboat adventure in the Baltic Sea from Helsinki; bicycle riding in Amsterdam and Hamburg; and exclusive wine tastings and dinners at castles in France.
John Stoll, Crystal Cruises' director of land programs, says it's all about giving affluent travelers the types of activities they really want. "The luxury traveler wants more choices, so we have challenged our tour operators to provide more boutique excursions," he says. "There is no limit to what can be done; if a tour is great, people will buy it." Crystal also tracks data and feedback from guests regarding their shore excursion experience. In doing so, it uses the information to improve on or create new future shore programs.
Excursions not only are a benefit for guests, they also can serve as another selling point for travel agents—a way to say to a client that a cruise is more than just sailing at sea. "Excursions are a great tool for travel agents," Stoll says. "They are another way to get excited about a destination."
Although shore excursions are usually non-commissionable, they remain an important portion of the agent's booking. Additionally, if the excursion fails to impress a client, it could mean lost future business for the agent as well as for the cruise line.
Jerry Vaughn, president and CEO of World Voyager Vacations in Washington State, has had success with the luxury lines' shore programs. "Our experience with shore excursions on the luxury cruises has been very positive," Vaughn says. "We feel that they definitely are at a much higher standard than mass-market and most premium brands. The quality of the tour guides has been exceptional; the activities, food and transportation have been well above average; and the prices very competitive. My opinion is that the whole luxury experience from the cruise line follows through in everything they do, including shore excursions.
Pat McKenzie of Crossroads Travel in Richmond, VA, allows that luxury lines do a great job planning and running shore excursions, but says the gap between what the luxury lines and the mass-market lines offer is narrowing, especially in more exotic destinations. "I think it depends on the part of the world you are cruising in," McKenzie says. "Even the mega lines in Russia and Europe try to customize shore excursions better than other areas such as the Caribbean, where there are more run-of-the-mill excursions. It also doesn't hurt that the luxury ships are dealing with much smaller groups."
McKenzie says she was "surprised" when sailing Dawn Princess recently in the Mexican Riviera and her group was offered a salsa dance class and cooking class as part of a shore excursion. "Perhaps they are coming around.
There is one advantage the luxury lines have that the lower-priced lines are just catching up with: overnight stays. Extended port calls allow guests to get a better sense of the destination. Almost invariably, non-luxury ships expect passengers to be back on board by early evening on the day a ship arrives in a port. Anyone can recognize that this doesn't leave much time to soak up the destination.
Crystal Cruises, for example, will offer 34 overland programs on their 2008 world cruise, in such cities as Bangkok and Myanmar. "That cements the experience," Stoll says of passengers' having two, sometimes three days away from the ship. "It's a good thing to get off the ship and really experience the destination." Crystal also offers extended pre- and post-cruise land stays, as well as Crystal Private Adventures, where guests can customize their own shore excursions. To speak with a Crystal shore excursions representative, call 888-722-0021.
Silversea Cruises (www.silversea.com) has a comprehensive list of shore excursions that compare favorably to other luxury lines', plus an additional perk in "Silversea Experiences"—complimentary off-ship activities that the line administers. These experiences could be a campfire dinner in Africa or a journey through the waterways of Vietnam by junk, a traditional Chinese boat. For information on Silversea's shoreside programs, call 800-722-9955.