Many well-heeled cruisers are skipping cattle-call excursions

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Jocelyn Greenwood, a first-time cruiser from New York who was on the Emerald Princess last May in Greece, learned firsthand that there are two distinct classes of people who go on shore excursions.

The ones who take the bus and the ones who get picked up in a black Mercedes-Benz.

Small, private excursions are quickly becoming the excursion of choice for well-heeled travelers. Luxury line Crystal Cruises said it arranged 55% more private shore excursions between January and August 2007 than it did during the entire year in 2006. 

John Stoll, Crystal's director of land programs, said that the highest demand is in Europe, where about 70% of the customized arrangements were made.

On Princess, a premium cruise line, more passengers than ever are paying fees sometimes beyond the cost of the cruise in order to see the sites in relative luxury.

Princess spokeswoman Carol Maglione said that the cruise line has been offering passengers customized tours and private car excursions for several years and that they have consistently been very popular.

Greenwood went on excursions in Athens and Kataklon, Greece, on consecutive days. In Athens, she took a $1,119 private car excursion and to Olympia was on a $64 bus tour, both arranged by Princess. The private car could take up to three passengers.

"On the bus, I felt like one of a herd," she recalled. "On the private excursion, I was able to dictate where we went and how much time was spent at each location."

Greenwood said that she booked the Tour of Athens by Private Car and was picked up at the ship by a "spotless black Mercedes sedan."

"The amount of information [she gave] was overwhelming," Greenwood said of the guide, who informed Greenwood that a previous client had been U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

"I was getting a history lesson the whole way," Greenwood said. "The Acropolis was extremely crowded, so it was great that I could get the attention from the guide and also get away when I wanted."

After visiting the major sites of Athens, Greenwood asked the guide to bring her to a restaurant where locals dine.

The guide took her to a "really funky" place where the guide did all the ordering, Greenwood said. They enjoyed a spread of Greek food and beer.  

"I have no idea what I ate," she recalled. "But it was one of the best meals I had on the trip."

The next day was quite a contrast. Greenwood joined a bus tour from the port of Katakolon to the archaeological site of Olympia.

At lunchtime, the group was told it had 30 minutes to eat in a touristy area right outside the Olympia archaeological site, where Greenwood said the choices consisted of tourist-trap restaurants with unremarkable food and overpriced souvenir shops.

Greenwood said there were dozens of groups from the Princess ship alone and that finding the right bus among the multitudes in the parking lot was itself a feat.

She considered the time allotted to tour Olympia insufficient and found it difficult to retain what she had learned.

"It really was evident that the more you pay, the better treatment you get," Greenwood said. "I would have been devastated to have toured Athens in a group if it was anything like the group tour of Olympia."

Jerry Davis, president of Alice Travel in Fairfield, N.J., said that an increasing number of his clients are choosing private, customized excursions when they are traveling with family members or other couples. Going in a group is an economical solution to getting the service and attention of a guide driving a private vehicle.

Princess offers a private tour of Athens with a guide and van driver for $999 per vehicle. The van can seat up to eight people, making the per-person cost of a full van $125. 

"People are understanding that with even one or two other couples, you can do it cost-effectively with a car and driver," Davis said.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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