Tips for planning port tours on your own
By David G. Molyneaux, editor, The Travel Mavens
The key to planning inventive, tailor-made excursions is to do pre-trip research about your itinerary well before your cruise: Consult guidebooks and tourist offices. Get a map to learn about the area near your intended port calls. Surf the Internet, Google your destinations and ask friends who have followed similar routes.
Planning is much easier than it used to be. Even in the small towns of Europe, most tourist boards now have Websites and e-mail addresses. Improved access to local guides and recommendations for touring ashore could not come at a better time, as summer cruising around Europe continues to grow in popularity with Americans.
Cruising advantages in Europe:
Traveling by ship can be easier and more comfortable than touring by bus or private car. You sleep in the same bed every night, know exactly where the next meal will be (with no difficulty understanding a menu written in a foreign language), have no worries about transportation, and have a good estimate of the total cost of your vacation before leaving home.
The cost of a cruise in Europe is less than you would pay for a similar quality of accommodations and meals at hotels and restaurants on land.
Cruising disadvantages in Europe:
Ships stop in each port for only a few hours, or at most a day, so you really don't have enough time to fully explore a community. If you want more time, you will have to plan a return trip.
Another disadvantage is the kind of herd mentality on cruise ship shore excursions, during which you travel with the same people you see daily aboard ship. Moreover, cruise lines tend to design shore excursions for the sedentary traveler, so most tours are easy on the feet but low on imagination. They can be long on sitting and eating, short on exercise and mingling with local residents.
Planning excursions on your own:
During a voyage on the Crystal Serenity to Northern Europe, my wife and I planned moderately athletic, independent tours ashore, mostly walking and bicycling. We were careful to let the ship know where we were going and when we would be back. We would leave the ship as soon as it was cleared by immigration and return about an hour before it sailed, building in plenty of transportation time so we didn't get left behind.
Our experiences ashore were well worth eating an early breakfast. (We took along food from the buffet line for a mid-morning snack.) We saved our lethargic moments for sea days, when the ship sailed all day without stopping at a port. On these days, we slept late, ate a leisurely breakfast and joined other passengers for afternoon tea.