Canadian Tammy Cecco wasn’t a fan of cruising.
“The thought of being on a ship with thousands of other people and not being able to get off,” she said, “was something that I wanted to avoid.”
That didn’t change when Cecco, a travel magazine publisher, boarded a surprise cruise booked by her husband to renew their vows in front of family and friends.
“When I got on … I thought ‘Oh my god, what am I doing here?'” she said. “I’m not the type of person who likes to be herded at all.”
She said she imagined “a little tiny cabin and no window.” Yet she found that some cruise ships have spacious suites with floor-to-ceiling windows. Plus, floors with fewer cabins give the feeling of a “boutique” travel experience, she said.
Once she “relaxed into it,” Cecco said, she started to enjoy cruise ship travel.
“Cruising has really evolved,” she said. “There’s something for everyone now.”
A strategy on the shore
Cecco also found a way to enjoy “private, personalized” experiences on shore. she said.
She booked private excursions, instead of cruise-organized one, on her last two cruise vacations — one to Russia and Scandinavia and the other to Southern Europe, she said.
Cecco, who often travels with her family of five and her mother-in-law, said private tours suit everyone’s needs — and interests.
“There were six of us, and we wanted a private tour because often the kids are not interested in these big, long tours,” she said. “When you do book an excursion with a cruise line or with an organized tour, typically you’re going with a bunch of other people, and you have to go along with their itinerary.”
Cecco said she booked a private tour at “pretty much every stop” on their last cruise, plus Rome.
“We had one day that we wanted to do the Colosseum as well as the Vatican, and each of those could be a full day tour on their own,” she said. “I asked the tour guide if he could give us the best of both in one single day, and he managed to combine the two of them expertly.”
Private shore excursions on the rise
Cecco booked guides through ToursByLocals, a Canada-based travel company that operates in 188 countries, according to its website.
The company said private shore tours account for nearly a third of all tours booked in 2023 — up from 12% in 2022 bookings.
“More people are returning to cruising in 2023, but even more than that, more people are seeking out private experiences when they do return to sea,” said Luciano Bullorsky, the company’s president and co-owner.
He said people want the ability to use private transportation, interact with a local guide and reach the sites “before the busloads of tourists arrive.” Plus, they can go places buses can’t go, such as smaller restaurants, boutique wineries, even a “family-run sled dog ranch,” he said.
Bullorsky said most private excursion bookings are in Europe, especially along the Mediterranean. But, he said, Alaska and Puerto Rico are also popular.
Top bookings include “Best of Ephesus” in Turkey, full-day tours of Santorini and Athens, an island tour of Bermuda and a coastal trip to Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia with a guide who has a Ph.D. in Canadian history.
Giuseppe D’Angelo runs a popular tour of Rome, but he also takes travelers to explore Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and other parts of Italy’s Campania region, including “11 of the 53 UNESCO sites” in Italy, he said.
“I am able to create itineraries and routes, including sites and attractions, which are unique, and not followed by crowds of large cruise excursions,” he said. “Sometimes, cruisers will send me a list of very popular spots including Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius or the Sistine Chapel … In those cases, I will arrange for them the best sequence of visits in order see each place when they are less congested.”
He said many clients ask for restaurant recommendations “with the best food and no tourists,” he said.
On top of that, ToursByLocals CEO and co-founder Paul Melhus said the company guarantees travelers will be returned to the ship on time — or the company pays overnight hotel costs plus transportation fees to the ship’s next destination.
How much private excursions cost
Cruisers can expect to pay around $100 per person for cruise-organized excursions, according to the financial website Money We Have.
Cecco paid about $600 for each of her privately organized full-day tours, which included entrance fees and private transportation for six people.
She said for what they did, she “definitely” saved money as well as time, because private tours move more quickly between locations. Plus, she said she got an insider’s perspective and that often elusive “authentic” experience that many travelers seek.
She said in Sicily, she ate in bakeries tucked away in small villages. In Santorini, she snapped photographs without hordes of tourists in the background.
As for whether private shore excursions would make her more likely to cruise in the future: “Most definitely,” she said.