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Book a ship excursion or plan your own outing? It’s a tough call

A backpacker walks down Khaosan Road, a favorite tourist destination.

A backpacker walks down Khaosan Road, a favorite tourist destination.

(Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)

Her website looked professional, and she was described as an A-1 guide — a travel and fashion blogger who was also “a local celebrity, actress and model.” So we hired her to take us on a shopping excursion when our ship sailed into port near Bangkok, Thailand.

It would have been easier to go on one of the ship’s Bangkok excursions, but the three of us had visited the city before, explored the usual tourist spots and were looking for a little retail therapy for a change of pace. Tracey seemed a natural choice: She promised to take us “to the most popular markets and also hidden markets. Everything from little souvenirs to traditional tailors. We’ll help you negotiate the best price.”

It was a mistake.

Tracey walked about 10 paces ahead of us all day, took us to shops that weren’t interesting and avoided our requests by saying everything we wanted to see was “too far away.”

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All of these things were simply annoyances we would have written off, except she also took us to a restaurant we would remember forever. And not in a happy way. The food was killer — almost literally. One member of our group was sick for days.

Many experienced cruisers steer clear of their ship’s excursions because of cost and crowded conditions, but our experience illustrates one of the downsides to booking your own port tours.

So what’s a cruiser to do? Book with the ship and pay more, or take your chances with the Internet or lines of taxi drivers waiting near the gangway when you leave the ship?

Frequent cruiser Cordula Schneider often chooses her ship’s excursions. “I’m by myself,” Schneider said. “I’m not comfortable going it alone. Thinking about fighting off a bunch of cab drivers or 20 to 25 tuk-tuk [pedicab] operators by myself is terrible.”

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Another good reason to take a ship’s tour: “It’s smart to take one at the very beginning of a cruise,” said Allyn Shulman, another frequent cruiser. “You want to meet people, and it’s an ideal way.”

Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of CruiseCritic.com, offers more reasons to book with the ship. “The biggest benefit is that the tour operators have been vetted by the line and are considered trusted partners,” she said.

“Additionally, ships will always wait in port until all passengers taking cruise line-sponsored tours have returned; if for any reason your group is delayed returning to the ship, you won’t be left behind, which isn’t something guaranteed to passengers who have booked excursions through a third-party provider.”

Still, you can save money by going it alone or sharing expenses with fellow travelers. I recently booked a daylong excursion to a beach club for $79; it consisted of a 15-minute bus ride, a day in a lounge chair overlooking a pretty shoreline, a draft beer and a bus ride back. Four friends on the ship shared a cab to the same location for $3 each and got in free.

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McDaniel acknowledges there are advantages to going it alone or sharing with friends. “You can comparison shop and look for alternative tour options,” she said. “You can end up with more private time with a guide, or tours that involve smaller groups.”

Bob Levinstein, chief executive of CruiseCompete.com, often advises against ship excursions.

They are “more expensive and you get a less-intimate, more crowded, more commercial experience,” he said. Besides, he added, most of the best excursions sell out immediately.

His solution is to book through an independent consolidator such as those listed on his website (www.lat.ms/shoreexcursions). He also suggests checking port reviews on AllThingsCruise.com and discussion sites such as CruiseAddicts.com.

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McDaniel suggests using the Roll Calls (www.cruisecritic.com/rollcalls) segment on her website to meet other travelers on your upcoming sailing and organize independent tours together.

So what’s the bottom line? Should you book ship’s excursions or outside tours? It all depends on you and the situation.

“Be aware of your personal comfort level,” McDaniel said. “Take that into account when booking your excursions, whether you’re looking for the convenience and assurance of a ship-sponsored tour, or the flexibility and customization of an independent excursion.”

travel@latimes.com

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Cruise tip of the week: do-it-yourself laundry

Worried about washing your clothes after a visit to a steamy port? Dry-cleaning services are often available aboard ships, but so are do-it-yourself laundry facilities and ironing boards. Among the cruise lines offering launderettes are Carnival, Crystal, Cunard, Disney and Princes


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