I often find myself utilizing the cruise line's transportation, but then wandering on my
own as I did this day when I hiked as far as I could up the base of Mt. Hood.
Much of the appeal of a cruise, wherever in the world you sail, is the chance to get off the ship for a day and explore a new destination. But what if you’d like to do that exploring on your own, without the organized sightseeing group arranged by your cruise line? Or, what if you found an enticing independent tour you’d like to try? Not to worry. This do-it-yourself exploration is totally doable, and allowed - after all, this is your vacation!
In general, your cruise manager will provide you with a map of each port. This way you can clearly find the major highlights. They’ll also be able to recommend restaurants, shops, museums, cafes, bars and more. Some cruise lines will even provide a personal audio device that you can use for individual sightseeing (pre-recorded commentary plays based on your GPS location).
I recently was able to visit Riverfront Park in Spokane prior to my Columbia and Snake Rivers
cruise. The pavilion is beautiful and I regret missing seeing it lit up at night.
How Do Ship-Sponsored and Independent Tours Differ?
Typically, an organized, ship-sponsored shore excursion consists of a walking tour, bus tour or a guided activity, whether that’s biking or some other type of activity. You would schedule this type of tour through your cruise line.
Alternatively, you can choose to book an independent tour with a private guide or company. We can work together to determine if this would save you money, meet your interests and work with the timing of your ship’s departure from port.
Generally, I do recommend ship-sponsored tours over booking your own. Trying to pull together the various parts of transportation, sightseeing and getting back in time isn’t usually worth the hassle, so the shore excursions offered by the cruise lines are more beneficial. However, I occasionally have a client looking for something in particular, and in that case we work together to make that experience happen.
Pros and Cons
If you’re a DIYer, you’ll definitely prefer to sightsee on your own, at your pace and according to your interests (even if that just means sipping a glass of local wine and soaking up village life for several hours). You’ll likely feel a more personal connection to the destination when exploring on your own.
Then again, if you want to get the insider take on a new place, you might prefer the guide-led shore excursion offered by your cruise line. They’re typically locals themselves and can reveal all the historical and cultural tidbits for which you might be thirsting.
Going it on your own will also mean a much smaller group - either just you and your travel partners, or perhaps a couple friends you’ve met onboard. You can even consider a private guide and car, so you can move along at your own pace.
The organized shore tours are inevitably larger, but this varies by cruise line. You may run the risk of feeling like you’re being shepherded on and off a bus all day, never really delving into one attraction too deeply. Then again, if you like efficiency, these bus tours can be just the ticket.
I very much enjoyed exploring the Central Market Hall in Budapest.
Don’t Miss the Boat
One important caveat if you choose to go DIY in your destination: Get back to the ship on time. If you’re late, you’re more than likely going to have to get to the next port of call on your own dime to meet the ship there. I highly recommend that you add the ship's contact info to your phone before taking off on your own to explore. The cruise manager will often provide their cell phone number also in case of emergency and they will help you as best as possible.
What to Bring with You
Whether you’re going sightseeing on your own or you’re on an organized shore excursion, be sure to bring certain items with you. These include a photo or a photocopy of your passport, a photo ID, a small amount of cash and one credit card.
Practically speaking, bring along a daypack with snacks, water, a camera, a map, a hat, sunglasses, a rain jacket and/or umbrella. Many river cruise ships will have umbrellas, but I personally keep mine in my small pack so I never forget it.
Leave valuables and large amounts of cash on board.
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Travel Advisor Specializing in River Cruising