How I skipped the cruise ship tour in Italy and had a better, cheaper adventure on my own
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Cut and bleeding, with a dead cell phone and no map, my friend and I began to wonder if adventuring on our own in the cruise port of Trapani, Italy, was still a good plan, and if we would actually make it back to our Windstar Cruises ship before it sailed.
Half an hour later, my bare feet firmly planted in the sandy shallows of the Mediterranean and sea breezes cooling our overheated bodies, we were reassured that we had, indeed, made the right choice.
We hadn’t planned on this adventure. Tired of group tours after three ship-run shore excursions in a row, we were just going to wander around town for a few hours, do some shopping and maybe grab a gelato. Then another passenger on my trip happened to mention some nearby islands with beaches and suddenly we resolved to spend our afternoon wading in the aquamarine waters of the Med.
All of the previous tours had given us glimpses of gorgeous Greek and Sicilian beaches, but no Windstar-sponsored tour actually took you to a beach. We would have to go rogue.
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I’d done it before. In St. Thomas, I took a bus from the cruise terminal to a ferry to spend the morning on the neighboring island of St. John. From Monaco, I’d hopped the public bus over to Nice for the day before reboarding my cruise. I’ve gone hiking on my own in Alaska and Norway, and rented cars to explore islands in Hawaii and French Polynesia independently.
This would be a piece of cake by comparison. And, truly, minus a few initial pitfalls, I ended up having a wonderful day.
Independent exploration can be a leap of faith, and you need to be prepared that not everything will go smoothly. The biggest danger of adventuring from a cruise ship (versus land-based travel) is that if you get your timing wrong, the ship might sail away, leaving you on your own to meet up with it again in the next port of call. That fear is strong enough to drive many straight into the arms of a welcoming tour guide. But if you keep track of time and have a clear plan in place, there’s no reason why skipping the cruise ship tour and having your own adventure can’t be rewarding.
Here’s how we planned and navigated our DIY adventure ashore in Trapani, Italy, with tips you can implement for your own empowered excursioning on your next cruise.
Always formulate a plan for your DIY excursion
It all started with an innocent conversation. “We heard you can take a ferry to some islands near Trapani,” another cruiser mentioned. Islands … with beautiful beaches? I looked at my friend and she nodded – we had a date with Google set for that afternoon.
When planning your own self-guided adventure during a cruise ship call, you don’t want to wing it. You want to have an itinerary and a schedule that leaves ample buffer time to make it back to the ship before it sails off into the distance.
So we did our homework. We learned there are three islands off the coast of Trapani; we quickly homed in on one, Favignana, for being the quickest and easiest to get to by ferry with plentiful beaches and bikes you could rent at the ferry port.
Leave plenty of time to return to the ship
“You can’t take a ferry!” exclaimed Windstar’s marketing coordinator, who was joining us on his first cruise, when we mentioned our plans at dinner. “What if it gets canceled or delayed and you get stranded on the island?”
He had a point. The number-one reason to take a ship-sponsored shore excursion is that if anything delays your return, the ship won’t leave you behind.
We had already considered this concern. We knew that when exploring on your own, you always need to leave plenty of buffer time in your itinerary to not only make it back to the ship on time, but to account for unexpected delays, too.
To pull this island-hopping feat off, we’d need to get on the first possible ferry and make sure we had tickets on a return ferry several hours before the all-aboard.
Reading up on the island experience, however, we had discovered the potential snafus: The ferries often sell out in advance, the rental bikes were not always good quality and you had to worry about locking them up, and there wasn’t much else to do on island except bake in the sun at the beach. (Well, there was a tuna museum that had us intrigued….)
Perhaps we should consider a Beach Plan B.
Were there beaches that didn’t require an over-water commute? It turned out that the San Giuliano beach is located within the Trapani city limits. It might not be the most scenic of Sicily’s beaches, but it was an accessible option with fewer complications.
We didn’t want to spend all day sunbathing or swimming, so we started considering an additional stop for the morning, with beach time in the afternoon. The ship’s tour was headed to Erice, a mountaintop town accessed by cable cars (ooh, ride!), breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and seaside (ooh, photo opp!), cobblestoned streets (ooh, charming!) and a castle at the top (ooh — sold!).
A morning visit to Erice followed by a dip in the Mediterranean at the beach seemed like a more diverse and less risky alternative to our initial island-hopping plan.
Figure out your transportation plans
We had several options for getting to Erice. We could have rented a car and driven to the top of Erice, but that didn’t seem worth the cost or hassle. We could have looked up local bus routes, and indeed, some shipmates stumbled onto this option.
But my friend and I love to walk — and, let’s face it, we’re cheap. We mapped out the whole plan online: Walk to the cable car station (1 hour), spend time in Erice (few hours), walk to the beach (30 minutes), swim and sunbathe (1-2 hours), walk back to the ship (1 hour). We could be back with time to spare.
If only we had had the forethought to print out walking directions and a map with street names.
Our first stop was the ship’s reception desk, because sometimes the smaller ships will carry maps provided by the local tourist office. No dice. We looked for an information booth in the terminal, but that wasn’t an option and we didn’t see any racks of tourist maps. We would have to rely on our phones.
The ship’s tour description claimed the bus ride from the ship to the Erice cable car station was 45 minutes. That was either a lie or some crazy detour because we walked there in a similar amount of time.
Purchase return tickets in advance
The ship’s tour cost $105 per person for a bus ride to the cable car and a guided tour of the town. Round-trip cable car fare for two cost 19 euros ($20) and instead of crowding into the eight-person gondolas with a bunch of fellow passengers, we had the car to ourselves. As promised, the views from the cable car were incredible, and we got them at a fraction of the cost our shipmates were paying.
It’s always a good idea to purchase your return tickets in advance, especially if you have to lock in a time. You don’t want to venture far from the ship and then realize the return tickets back are sold out.
At the top, while getting our bearings, we actually ran into the ship’s tour as the guide led them into a church for a look around and some historical background. As we were more interested in seeing the gardens and castle, we took off in the other direction, relishing the freedom to choose our own way and escape the crowds.
The castle and surrounding stone buildings were as picturesque as promised, and we gave our camera phones a workout practicing our posing angles against the backdrop of some craggy mountains, watery expanses and dramatic medieval buildings. We chose not to pay 8 euros ($8.40) to venture inside the castle and three other attractions, including the archeology museum; even if the ship tour included entrance fees, we still would have spent less money to see them on our own.
Factor meals into your DIY tour schedule
After a quick drink stop, we slipped our way across the smooth cobblestone streets, traversing main thoroughfares filled with ceramics shops, pizzerias, paddle-wielding guides and our cruise ship companions – then ducking into side alleys where it was as quiet as any residential area on a Tuesday morning. We got turned around a few times and I would turn on my free Verizon roaming data to map our way back (a trick that would soon get me into trouble).
We hit up the mediocre but cheap and convenient café near the city gate for a quick arancino before we headed back to the gondolas for part two of our Trapani independent adventure. That’s another bit of advice for independent explorers: leave time for a leisurely lunch at a local restaurant, grab a quick bite along the way or bring snacks in case you get the munchies when you’re off the beaten path.
If we hadn’t stopped, it wouldn’t have been a huge problem because we both had packed water bottles and several snacks (granola and protein bars mainly). I’m also a fan of making PB&J sandwiches at the breakfast buffet to bring with me on port-day explorations. (Just know that many ports do not allow you to bring fresh fruit and vegetables off the ship.)
Prepare for emergencies
The walk from the ship to the cable car was a straight shot down a main thoroughfare. The path to the beach, however, zigged and zagged through the city. I wisely had screenshotted the Google Maps route so I could lead the way without using data … and stupidly failed to notice that the zoomed-out picture included no relevant street names.
No problem! We just had to walk a few blocks, then turn left, then right, then left and right until we hit the waterfront.
We didn’t account for the rocky cliff in the middle of the city.
I’m still not sure what it was, nor was it obvious on the map, but our zig-zag route was quickly interrupted by streets that dead-ended in a land mass blocking us from the sea. Every street we thought we should turn onto did not go through.
So I turned on my data again, horrified to see my phone battery draining rapidly from all of the roaming, and turned around in circles a few times before picking a direction. This, we were certain, was the way to go. Until the street Google wanted us to take was barricaded by a series of planters.
“This can’t be a street,” I said, but my friend pointed out that if you peered around the foliage, the street did appear to continue on the other side. All we had to do was jump the greenery.
We did not take into consideration that folks who want to prevent lost tourists from venturing past their apartment will not plant cute little flowers in their planter barriers. They will plant razor-sharp Audrey II-inspired hostile plants.
“It cut me; I’m bleeding!” my friend exclaimed, and I was shocked to see her leg covered in blood. Indeed, I had a small cut on my foot, too, but she looked like a horror movie extra.
Thankfully, I had embraced my inner scout and come prepared for emergencies. In addition to snacks, I was packing a first-aid kit with antiseptic, band-aids and ibuprofen, as well as tissues – all of which came in handy.
So there we were, in an unknown part of a foreign city, cleaning up blood, waiting to be chased off by the curmudgeonly gardener who grew such evil greenery, unclear how to get to either the beach or our ship and with the battery symbol on my phone turning red.
Suddenly I was missing all those tour guides with their insider knowledge about how to get places and where to find the best snacks.
Look for free options before you open your wallet
Of course, we were on our own, without a cab or bus in sight, so we made one last Hail Mary request for online directions, marched back off in the midday heat, and miraculously found the coastline.
One photo later, my phone was officially dead, and Italian Google maps had taken us to Lido San Giuliano, a restaurant and beach club, not the public beach. We weren’t 100% sure, but I have been on enough cruises to know that public beaches in Italy tend to be stretches of sand with few, if any, amenities.
In many destinations, any time you see chairs and umbrellas set out in nice rows on a beach, someone is probably going to find you and ask you for money if you use them. It’s perfectly acceptable to pay for shade and seating on a beach if the price is right for you. But don’t ever feel forced to pay; depending on where you are, a public strip of sand with no entrance fee is often nearby.
Turns out, we weren’t far off from our highly anticipated and free beach spot. We kicked off our shoes, hoisted our bags onto our sweaty backs, and marched past all the matching lounge-and-umbrella sets to the hodge-podge collection of colorful umbrellas and beach tents on the public beach.
We set down our cruise ship towels on the beach amid tanned nonnas, young and gorgeous Italian lovers, and the requisite middle-aged men in Speedos and bare-bummed toddlers. There were no cruise tourists and no guides — just sea and sand and sky and the chance to finally dip our toes into the Mediterranean waves. (And, um, wash the blood off.)
We savored the cool waters and our freedom until I spotted some sea creatures that looked like jellyfish and decided I did not want to risk a second painful encounter with another angry species.
The walk back involved hugging the coastline until we were closer to the ship, so we were fairly confident we would not get so hopelessly turned around. Still, we gave ourselves two hours to do the supposedly one-hour walk back.
Lo and behold, as our waterfront path was turning a corner, I spotted a fountain we had passed on our walk that morning. I knew where we were! We retraced our steps back to the ship without further bloodshed.
Learn when it’s best to go it alone and when you should take the ship’s tour
In the end, we walked somewhere north of 24,000 steps (allowing us to indulge in dessert guilt-free), saw the same quaint town as the tour groups at a fraction of the cost and on our own time, went to the beach (something everyone on board talked about wanting to do but most people never accomplished) and were safely on board the ship as it set sail for the next port of call.
At dinner, we overheard the other passenger who had suggested the island jaunt talking about his misadventure. He had gotten to the ferry terminal too late and all the return ferries were sold out, so he had to abandon his plans. Our research had paid off with the better choice — and I dare say we had a more exciting day in port than anyone else on the cruise ship.
Our success wasn’t a knock against ship-sponsored shore excursions. A guided tour can be incredible for getting historical and cultural background on the place you’re visiting and getting easy transportation to key sights without the hassle of planning or the risk of getting lost. On this cruise, guided tours in Athens and Kefalonia were highlights and took us to places or gave us insights we never would have gotten on our own.
But it’s important to recognize that you’re not bound to a ship’s offerings and it’s okay to go it alone. In Trapani, we needed a day to escape the group and do the things we wanted at our own pace. Ditching the ship tours allowed us to do that.
Next time, though, we will print out a map.
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Featured image by Erica Silverstein for The Points Guy.
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