A Unique Experience
There are guidebooks and reference works galore to describe the history and features of Machu PIcchu. While it was more expensive, I opted for the HAL excursion rather than using a private service. While the private service that many use worked out very well, from all reports that I heard, at the time that booking had to be done I didn't know anyone who had used that service in the past and could personally recommend it and since only one of us wanted to make the trip (Marney doesn't handle altitude well) we would only be paying for one person and I would be pretty much on my own. I don't speak Spanish and we would be a considerable distance from the ship and its services, should there be a problem. Plus, the comparison isn't for eqtual services; the HAL trip includes an extra night in Coscu and some time in Lima the following day, although that part could be done on your own upon returning from the private tour. I was not unhappy with my choice, although my personal preference would have been less time spent on meals and "shopping time" and a little longer on the mountain. It was a full day, nonetheless, and many in our group were very exhausted that evening after a full day at Machu Picchu. A night's "recovery time" back in Coscu meant that most of us were refreshed and ready for a nice walking tour in Lima. At the bottom of this narrative is information about the private tour service that many used, and the comments there are from those who used that agency.
HAL Shore Excursions sent two of their staff with the groups; one was assigned to our group and another to the group that selected more deluxe rail and hotel accommodations. We had no problems that I heard of, but there was someone from HAL available to us should there have been any difficulties.
I would urge you to take with you any hotel or airline awards program information that you have. I didn't take the actual cards, but I could supply my American Airlines membership number, which got me expedited boarding as well as mileage credit, and a hotel loyalty number which got me points in that program as well.
PRIVATE TOUR INFORMATION
I'm sure there are others but this one was used by people I met on the ship and they all were quite happy with it:
Diana Blackburn at Gateway Tours & Cruises,
email@example.com; phone 864-585-7390.
Comment from one couple regarding the Blackburn tour: "Entire trip w/ air, train, hotel, and tour company picking us up was around $1750 for 2. Two others in our group have used Diane Blackburn for years. Her phone # is 864-585-7390. She booked us at the Terra Andina Hotel in a superior deluxe room. HAL does stay at a 5 star hotel, but we won't be at the hotel that long. We will be taking a taxi from HAL to the airport. Trip to Machu Pichu is with Viator, they are a reputable tour company & will pick us up at the hotel."
We cleared the ship with local officials late in Callao and this group had booked a very early flight. It is my understanding that their agent was on top of the situation and had already realized the problem and rebooked their airline by the time they left the ship and got to their airport, so they were covered on that unforseen difficulty very nicely.
The Blackburn tour did not spend a second night in Coscu but returned to Lima on the second day. Thus, they were free to make their own plans for the third day that the ship was in Callao.
I did hear of others who booked the entire trip from Callao and back on their own, arranging their own air, hotel, transportation to Machu Picchu from Coscus, etc. at an even lower price, but I believe that group had been there before and knew their way around. Our group did find it annoying that strangers would interrupt our guides (that our tour had paid for, of course!) to ask basic questions which took away from our guide time, so I would suggest that those planning a totally independent tour should equip themselves with guidebooks, maps, etc. before arrival since the signage is rather limited and it is not always evident where to go for tickets, information, etc.
If there are other questions I can answer please use the contact form (see the menu bar) to reach me; I'm happy to help.