Travel advisors continue to find value in third-party shore excursions


A flat tire. A medical situation. A tour that runs overtime. Any of these delays could prevent a shore excursion operator from returning guests on time to a port of call and risk the ship departing without them.

That’s what happened last month when a group of eight missed the last tender to the Norwegian Dawn during a 21-day cruise up the coast of Africa.

While on the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, an independent tour ran late, leading the guide to return guests to port after the 3 p.m. all-aboard time. Despite attempts by the tour operator to convince the captain to send the tender back, the ship left without them.

The passengers traveled through more than a half-dozen countries hoping to meet the ship during a port call in Banjul, Gambia. That call was canceled due to weather, so the group eventually reunited with the ship in Dakar, Senegal, seven days after being left behind.

The event caused a flurry of media attention, but travel advisors and consortia leaders said they are still confident about working with independent vendors.

“In their contract, they have to guarantee to get everyone back on time,” said Pam Jarvis, director of cruise programs for Travel Leaders Network. “We wouldn’t work with them if they said, ‘Well, we’ll try.’ That’s not going to work for us. I can say, hand on heart, I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody left behind.”

Travel advisors have long worked with independent operators, ones they say guarantee returning guests to the ship on time or covering guests’ expenses if they have to meet the ship at the next port of call.

It’s a policy that does not differ from that of most cruise line excursions: They also guarantee that the ship will not leave guests behind, or if it has to, that the cruise line will arrange for them to get to the next port.

The difference is that most cruise lines do not pay commission on third-party tours, and guests often look for higher-quality experiences than what cruise lines offer, said Tom Baker, president of Cruise Center in Houston.

“Most of my clients do not like organized ship excursions and expensive tours, so the argument that this is the only way to go is B.S.,” he said via email, adding that he books with vendors including Abercrombie & Kent, Shore Excursions Group, known guides and destination management companies.

“My vendors have never been late to a ship and clients have made their departures on time.”

To avoid potential issues, verification of excursion providers is ongoing, whether by agencies or their consortia or host, making it easier for members to book third-party excursions with vetted providers.

Once cruising restarted during the pandemic, Jarvis said, Travel Leaders vetted both new and previous excursion vendors for its Distinctive Voyages product.

Travel Leaders hosted panels of its executives to discuss the vendors, who were also interviewed and assessed, before ultimately partnering with Shore Excursions Group and Project Expedition.

Venture Ashore, which launched in 2022, is a mashup of the reincarnated ShoreTrips, one of the most well-known independent excursion companies before it folded in the early days of the pandemic, and Cruising Excursions in the U.K. Both of these were acquired by Hornblower Group. Venture Ashore said it has partnerships with several agency groups, including Ensemble and Nexion.

Rinat Glinert, COO of Venture Ashore, said the brand has a back-to-ship guarantee and takes into consideration port conditions, holidays, traffic and ship arrivals and departures during the initial planning of experiences. The day of the tour, guides stay in touch with Venture Ashore to communicate about weather and other conditions.

“We operate in over 500 destinations. We carry tens of thousands of people every year. We’ve never left anyone behind, and I think that really speaks to the work that we put into it ahead of time. That’s why customers come to us,” Glinert said.

John Chernesky, Norwegian Cruise Line’s senior vice president of sales, said that if one of the excursions booked through the line is running late, “we will do our best to wait for the group to return, within reason, as there are a number of factors that determine our sail-away time, including the ability to deliver the planned itinerary our guests expect.”

That higher likelihood of a ship waiting for guests booked on its own excursions leads some advisors to favor those tours, at least in regions where the advisor lacks relationships with local vendors.

Such is the case for Valerie Scope, owner and travel advisor of Sea Our Style Travel in the West Palm Beach area. She focuses on cruises in the Caribbean, Mexico and Alaska, and she uses Shore Excursions Group and other independent vendors with whom she’s built a relationship. But if she is booking a client in Europe, Australia or New Zealand, where she doesn’t have experience with operators, she’ll recommend guests take excursions offered by the cruise line.

“I just can’t verify all that by the time I’m booking the trip,” she said of the quality of the guest experience and guarantees that clients will be returned to the ship on time.

In the weeks following the NCL incident, she expected her clients to raise concerns about third-party tours returning them to a ship on time but none have brought it up, she said.

“Maybe people are discussing it, but not necessarily with me,” she said. “I sort of expected that it would come up, but nothing did.”

Courtesy of Travel Weekly

woman reading a map in front of a cruise ship