Free shore excursions at almost every port are one of the benefits of river cruising: You receive an orientation and introduction to a destination without having to arrange the logistics of a tour or pay for it yourself.
Generally, these tours are quite good but in some destinations—especially in places where tourism isn’t well developed, where language barriers exist, and/or when group sizes are very large—group tours can be pretty lackluster. In addition, the quality of a particular tour varies greatly depending on the individual who conducts it.
What type of river cruiser are you?
In a recent article in Travel Weekly (an industry publication), river cruise expert Michelle Baran explains that there are two general approaches travelers can take to river cruising.
“In one version, the vessel acts as a sort of floating hotel and passengers who like to do things on their own use the ship and its included meals, excursions and amenities at their convenience, “ she writes. “In the other version, river cruising is similar to a fully organized guided tour where you do everything with your fellow passengers: eat together, go on excursions together and ultimately, really bond with each other,” she adds.
Having traveled on many river cruises on different cruise lines, we’ve discovered that it’s possible to meld the best of both worlds: going with the group on excursions that seem of particular interest, particularly if you have never visited a port before, and going rogue when you want the freedom of being on your own.
Here are some good reasons to ditch the group and venture out on your own:
1) You can set your own priorities
When you’re part of a group, to a large extent, you’re obliged to follow “the program” and keep up with the group. However, on your own, you’ll be able to pursue your own passions and interests. A little research up front will allow you, for example, to identify a special museum or another point of interest that you wouldn’t want to miss.
If you’re a food enthusiast, you can use your time enjoying a meal at a destination restaurant you have always wanted to visit. Shopaholics can carve out the time to make a coveted purchase to take home.
2) You can set your own pace
Most river cruise lines allow passengers to divide into at least two groups on land tours: regular and “gentle” walkers. Gentle walker groups are more attentive to those with mobility challenges.
But whether you’re a fast or slow walker, ditching the group really allows you to stop and linger whenever you want without the fear of having to quickly catch up. When you see something that captures your interest, you have the liberty to stop to take a special photograph or even a series of photos. (You’ll also have the advantage of not having the backs of a bunch of heads in your shots.)
3) You can revel in the pleasure of discovery
There is much to be said for serendipity. Aimless wandering allows tourists to find the unexpected. There’s a certain joy to not knowing what is around the next corner and discovering it on your own. Once there, apps like Google Maps allow you to pinpoint your location and learn more about what you’ve seen.
4) You can go incognito if you choose
Nothing spells tourist like a group following a guide with a lollipop. And if that isn’t a giveaway sign, then wearing a QuietVox or other wireless listening device around your neck is another. Leaving the group allows you to immerse yourself among locals and get a truer experience of a destination.
5) You will have more time and opportunity to talk to locals
As an individual or couple, rather than as part of a group, you’re more likely to interact with locals who can help you identify the best vantage point for a photograph or the best place to savor a local food specialty.
Mussels at De Koetse Restaurant in Bruges (Credit: Jerome Levine)
Dish of mussels at De Koetse Restaurant in Bruges (Credit: Jerome Levine)
Most guided tours tend to be heavy on history. Spending time with locals is more likely to allow you a peek at contemporary culture and customs. You will also have the opportunity to serve as an emissary/goodwill ambassador for your own country.
And remember: Even in the midst of a group tour, you’re always free to leave if it isn’t to your liking. Just make sure you let the guide know you are going; find out when and where you need to get back on the ship, or the time and place of a meeting point at the port; and watch the time. Like ocean-going vessels, river cruises can’t afford to wait for stragglers.
Author, Irene S. Levine , Contributor Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
Note: I always take a photo of the daily cruise planner info with the docking location and also mark myself on Google maps as I am leaving the ship. I use the *parking* function.