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Shore tours versus independent adventures in Europe

One of the first lessons I learned about Europe cruising is that shore excursions here are quite different than in the Caribbean and Alaska. In those destinations, I usually sign up to do an activity, like snorkeling or kayaking. But in Europe, many of the trips are sightseeing tours in crowded cities—you know, the kind that involve 30 people traipsing along behind a guide who’s carrying a large sign or umbrella.

I’m not a tour person. I don’t like being such an obvious tourist and annoying the locals as my group takes over street corners or city squares. I also don’t like being rushed through a town or an attraction. But in some ports-of-call where the cruise ship is hours away from any major destination, a tour may be necessary.

The key, I discovered, is choosing the correct tour. On my recent cruise with Holland America, I chose a four-hour trip from Monaco to Nice and Eze. Essentially, this meant hours of scenic driving and only 50 minutes in each town. While the drive through the south of France was breathtaking, I felt rushed in each town. A much better trip was my all-day excursion in Tuscany. This tour featured an entire morning in the town of Lucca, with both guided and free time; a long lunch made from the freshest ingredients in a farmhouse/winery among the Tuscan hills; and a tour of a lovely nearby villa. This trip, as opposed to the first one, gave us plenty of time in each locale, and wasn’t heavy on Pied Piper-style wandering after a guide.

Do-it-yourself types can easily get around many ports in Europe on their own. The trick is getting from the port into town. Holland America sold shuttle tickets for $10 from the port to the town of Palma de Mallorca, and in Barcelona, we hopped a port bus for €3 (about $4 US dollars; see for current exchange rates) return-trip. Cabs or public buses were also options. From the drop-off points, I could easily walk or take the metro to key sightseeing destinations without booking a tour. For less independent or mobile guests who don’t want to pay for the ship’s trips, both cities had hop-on-hop-off buses that would take tourists to the main attractions. No problema!

The take-away message? Read between the lines in your cruise’s shore excursion booklet to determine how much of your trip will be spent driving versus sightseeing and whether your tour will involve extensive amounts of time following a guide. You’ll also want to check on the activity level. You’ll then be in the best position to decide which tour to take or not to take one at all.

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