If you're going on a river cruise, chances are you're keen on immersing yourself in the history and culture of your destination. And while river cruising certainly affords that much more of that than an ocean-going cruise, the time you'll have in port will still be limited and precious. Here's how to make the most of it:
1. River cruises always offer tours of port cities, be it on foot or by bus. Sometimes, you'll find multiple tours on the schedule. To get get your bearings as quickly as possible, take the first one available. It will orient you to the major landmarks, and how to get back to your ship. Once you have that down, you'll feel more comfortable wandering around.
2. Don't get too caught up in the photo-taking on these introductory tours, or at least not to the point where you're no longer paying attention. A cruise's tour guide will usually be a local resident who's lived in the area for many years and knows it well. If a certain historical tidbit or cultural nugget piques your interest, they'll be able to tell you more – or sometimes even make a detour if others express the same interest. Otherwise, the guide can make suggestions for how to explore certain aspects of the city after the tour on your own.
3. Can't wait for the tour and want to wander around first? Stop by the ship's concierge desk to find out where the guide will be taking you later. Then, pick a different route for your adventures so you don't end up visiting all the same spots twice.
4. If you love going off the tourist track, bring a printed map with you. Even if you plan on using a maps app on your phone, a printed map makes it easier for locals to point you toward hidden gems. Yes, we know a large paper map makes you look like a tourist, but for the added interaction, it's worth it.
5. Along the same lines, don't be shy about being very specific with your requests for recommendations, particularly if you feel like you're getting some obvious ones. Feel free to say, "I'm not worried about getting lost. I'm more interested in getting a sense of what people typically do on an average weekend. Tell me where you go after work."
6. Turn to your fellow passengers and to the ship's staff. Thanks to the intimate nature of river cruises, it's easy to make friends, and you'll discover that these cruisers are a loyal group. Many set sail once or twice a year – and they'll sometimes rebook itineraries that they love. Even if they're new to the destination, they'll likely be able to impart some general sightseeing and navigational tips. Likewise, beyond the concierge desk, your waiter or housekeeper might be familiar with the area, too.
7. A little research goes a long way, as obvious as that may seem. Yes, one of the many joys of river cruising is not worrying about logistics, but tossing a guidebook – or guide e-book – into your bag is easy enough. You never know if you'll come across something you'll regret not knowing about later. (Don't bank on doing lots of Googling on the ship; onboard internet is pretty slow.)
8. Opt to extend your vacation in your ship's home port, either before or after the cruise. You can book this through the cruise line, or on your own. It does add additional cost to the trip, but you've already purchased the plane tickets to get there, so maximizing time can be a good value. As long as you plan ahead, you should be able to find accommodations in the $150-$200 range, even in popular European cities. In the grand scheme of things, that's not a very significant burden on top of the more than $2,000 that you've already committed.
9. Finally, don't stress about your schedule! Be fully present, and approach each port stop with the understanding that it's impossible to see "everything" with limited time. And who knows, you could be cruising back to that destination soon.