River cruises offer an astonishing number of complimentary and optional river cruise tours in nearly every port of call. In smaller towns, there may be only one included tour option, while large cities can feature dozens of different options.
Vienna, Austria is a great example of this. Typically-offered tours include a panoramic tour of the city via motorcoach around the Ringstrasse, or ring road, that encircles the city. This is typically paired with a walking tour of the historic city center that hits all the major landmarks like St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Hofburg, and the Hotel Sacher – home to the famous Sachertorte dessert.
Another option: an afternoon visit to nearby Schonbrunn Palace. The former imperial summer palace of the Habsburgs contains 1,441 rooms in a beautiful and opulent palace set amid the sprawling and decorative gardens that could give Versailles a run for its money.
Yet more options are available, from more independent touring that includes taking Vienna’s public transit (or U-Bahn) into Stephensplatz for free time and self-guided exploration, to an evening classical music concert held in the heart of Vienna’s theatre district.
But if you’ve been to Vienna a few times before, you may not want to do any of that. Which begs the question: Do you have to take the included tours? Does the ship care?
The answer: no.
While most river cruise tours are included in the cost of the voyage itself, there’s absolutely no obligation for you to participate in one or even all of them. If you so choose, you can do your own thing in every port of call. You’ve arguably paid for the tours up-front, so there’s no financial incentive hanging over your head to go one way or another.
Now, suppose this is your fifth time to Vienna. The crew certainly doesn’t know that, so it’s best to tell the staff at the Reception Desk, or the Program Director, beforehand so that they don’t come looking for you when you fail to show up on the tour bus. Most good Program Directors (and Hotel Directors, for that matter) will do a quick sweep of the ship to ensure that all guests are aware that it’s time to leave the vessel for the included tours.
If you don’t want to participate, no problem – just advise the crew.
Conversely, the crew may also be able to help you plan your independent time ashore. Firstly, the ship’s Program Director or Concierge can help you secure things like taxi service, if needed. They can procure maps, help with making lunch or dinner reservations (absolutely invaluable when there may be a language barrier), and even recommend local and off-the-beaten path sights that you should check out, based – of course – on your personal preferences.
If your river cruise ship has bicycles (not all do), you can also use those as transportation in cities and towns along your route. A great example of this is in smaller towns like Melk or Durnstein. Been to Melk Abbey so many times that you could give the tour? Just not interested? Hop on a bike and cycle to the next town. Grab lunch. Have a drink. Cycle back. A great summer’s day.
Even if you haven’t been to a particular place before, there are some other good reasons why you may want to consider doing your own thing.
Touring around independently allows you to focus on the things that matter most to you, while skipping the things that you have little interest in. It also allows you to get out and become more mobile instead of being one of a crowd; some river cruise shore excursions can have as many as 40 people per guide, and that can be a lot to deal with, particularly in large, crowded cities. The old adage in touring proves true for river cruising: A walking tour is only as fast as its slowest participant. If you really like to motor, you may find the pace sedate.
Of course, the inverse is true, too: If you want to take your time – stop and smell the roses, as they say – independent touring makes more sense. You can linger as long as you’d like at landmarks and museums without having to worry about catching up with a guide. You can also leave the handy-but-sometimes-annoying QuietVox audio headsets back on the ship; you won’t’ need them anymore.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some lines pull out all the stops to cater to those who’d like to march to the beat of their own drum. Scenic, for example, created an interactive, iPad-style device known as Scenic Tailormade – a GPS-enabled device that provides location-specific commentary in real time. Scenic has Tailormade tours available in more than 140 different ports of call, and tours are all pre-programmed to start right at your ship’s actual docking location, ensuring you can never get lost. The GPS will literally walk you back to your ship if you so choose.
So the next time you’re on a river cruise, pick a day and do your own thing. You might be surprised at just how rewarding being independent can be.