It’s an eerie feeling to walk the streets of Pompeii. If you do it on your own

The unpackaged tour

Sometimes life places you in the path of a tough decision. Looking at the optional shore excursions offered in Naples, Italy, by the cruise line, we had two choices — we could climb Mount Vesuvius or we could tour Pompeii, but there was no possibility of doing both.

Sometimes life places you in the path of a tough decision. Looking at the optional shore excursions offered in Naples, Italy, by the cruise line, we had two choices — we could climb Mount Vesuvius or we could tour Pompeii, but there was no possibility of doing both.

It was a dilemma that many cruise passengers face. With only eight hours in most ports of call, it can be difficult to see all the sights you want to see.

Fortunately, there was a solution to our problem and it was waiting for us as we stepped off the ship.

After choosing to forgo the pre-packaged shore excursions that didn’t really meet our needs, we were making our way to the train station to go see Pompeii on our own when we began talking with a local taxi driver named Alberto.

In a matter of minutes, we negotiated a price to hire him for the day with guaranteed stops to climb Mount Vesuvius, tour Pompeii, visit a cameo factory and stop for a slice of pizza in the city where it was invented.

The added bonus came in the fact that the final ticket price was less than either of the pre-packaged shore excursions we had considered.

When travelling by cruise ship, making the most of the limited time you have in a port-of-call can sometimes mean breaking away from the rest of the pack and planning your own activities.

Your solution can be as simple as hiring an independent taxi driver for the day or engaging the services of a local tour company for a private tour. Other times it means figuring out local transit schedules and touring on your own.

In every case, it takes a little advance research to determine what you want to see, how to get around and what activities you would like to experience in each place your ship will dock.

As I stood at the top of the towering black volcano that buried Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, there was no doubt the impromptu taxi tour with Alberto had been the right decision for us. I felt my own smallness as I gazed into the 650-metre-wide smouldering core of Vesuvius and looked down upon the ruins of the great city of Pompeii below.

Charles Dickens put it best when he said: “it is a strange and melancholy sensation seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun.”

I was just glad I hadn’t missed out on seeing it.

Dealing with shore excursions

l Know thyself: Think about the hobbies and activities you enjoy at home and see if there are any opportunities to enjoy them in the destination you are visiting. Wine tastings, cooking classes, art classes, fishing, hiking, farm visits or adventurous activities can be found in many destinations.

l Do some research: Check the tourism websites for each port of call. Be sure to check the tourism calendars for festivals and special events — these are the places the locals will be. Peruse an online guidebook for the destination to see what sites are recommended by the experts. An established guidebook website like www.fodors.com has information on virtually every port destination.

l Check the options: Check out the pre-packaged tours offered by the cruise line and see if any of them appeal to you. Then decide if they could be cheaper or better if you did something similar on your own. Check the websites of local tour operators to see what tours they offer. Also check review sites like Tripadvisor to see if past customers have been satisfied with a particular tour operator. Then email or call to get exact pricing for their tour. On a visit to Kusadasi, Turkey, we discovered that a private tour for four people with Kusadasi Tours (www.kusadasitours.com) was less costly, more pleasant and included more sites than the shore excursion offered on our cruise ship.

l When it’s best to choose a prepackaged shore excursion: There are advantages to ship-sponsored shore excursions. You can be confident the tour operator is licensed and reputable and that the ship won’t depart until your tour has returned — even if it’s late. If you plan to travel well beyond the port to see some sites (to see the ruins of Tulum while docked in Cozumel, for example), you may be better off going with one of the ship’s organized shore excursions rather than venturing out on your own. If you venture off on your own and something happens that causes you to miss the ship’s scheduled departure time, it can be costly to get to the next port on your own. There are also times when the organized tour offered by the cruise ship works out to be cheaper and more convenient than travelling on your own. It’s kind of like buying in bulk and getting a discount. Another plus to the prepackaged shore excursions is that sometimes you meet other shipmates on the excursions whose company you can continue to enjoy back on the ship.

l Know your tour lingo: To understand what the prepackaged shore excursion is offering, you need to know a little lingo. If the tour is described as a “panoramic” tour of the city it is likely you will pass by the major sites without getting out of the bus to actually visit them. For mobility-impaired individuals who just wish to catch a glimpse of sites like the acropolis or the Mayan ruins of Tulum, this type of tour might be perfect. For active individuals, it might be frustrating. If the tour suggests visiting the “highlights” and includes many stops in a short amount of time, don’t expect an in-depth tour of any of the sites.

l Getting around: If you decide to forgo the ship-sponsored tour, you can walk, use public transit, rent a car or take a taxi. It’s best to plan ahead in any case. When hiring a taxi for a full day, be sure to negotiate a flat rate for the day including all the stops you plan to make. Choose a driver who speaks English well and he or she may be able to tell you a little about the sites you will pass on the way to your destination. If you are going to rent a car, book it well in advance of your departure date. You’ll get lower rates and that way you can be sure the rental agency isn’t sold out. Be sure to check to see if you need an international driver’s licence or additional insurance to rent a vehicle in any particular destination. Many credit cards have insurance for car rentals if the rental is charged to the card.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. Follow Debbie’s travels at www.wanderwoman.ca. If you have an interesting travel story you would like to share, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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