Will I have time on my own? This is a very common question for those that have not taken a river cruise before. The short answer is – yes. But there is more to the story.
A typical day
To some people, a typical day on a river cruise can feel highly structured. Eat breakfast before a 9 AM excursion, back on the ship for lunch. Perhaps there’s a second excursion in teh after noon or perhaps the ship is sailing to a new destination. Then there’s a cruise manager / distention talk, cocktail hour, dinner and maybe some entertainment. But his is really deceiving and like many things there are no typical days.
The first thing to know on a river cruise: the time is yours. If you want to spend zero time on tours, you can. Let’s take an example: The included excursion might include an orientation tour around the town or city lasting say 90 minutes. Then you’ll have a few hours to wander the city yourself before lunch is serviced on the ship. The afternoon might have another included excursion – perhaps a bus ride to a vineyard or nearby castle. You may choose to follow the suggested itinerary. Yo may choose to go on the morning orientation tour, but stay in town for lunch. You may decide to skip the afternoon excursion and relax on the ship. It’s always your choice.
Our observation is most river cruises try to do everything that’s offered. And that’s only natural. You’re paying for it and you never know if you’ll have get back to the same city again. This can lead to fatigue toward the end of the cruise – though most people find it a pleasurable type of fatigue since they have had such a good time and learned so much. Still, there may be days that you are just “toured out”. No problem. You can wonder off the ship any time you want.
Here’s some examples that we’ve done to make sure time is our own.
Skipped the morning tour and went on a bicycle ride in Kinderdyck Holland. This was day 6 of our river cruise, it was a beautiful day outside and I wanted to experience bike riding in Holland of the beaten path. We went into a few small towns which had great bike lanes and saw normal families going about their business. Something you don’t always get on the tour.
- We had been to Vienna before and had experienced included evening out at the Opera house. So this time we stayed on ship with only a few other passengers. we had the entire dinning room to ourselves. Later that evening we left the ship, hopped on the subway (a 5 min walk from the ship) and walked around Vienna at night our selves. We had a great time.
- While most of the passengers went on an included excursion in Passau, we decided to stay on the ship while it sailed down the Danube. We just needed a little extra down time that day. As we were leaving Passau we turned around and got a beautiful photograph of the city just as a fog was lifting. That afternoon we mostly stayed on the sun deck, relaxed and watch the landscape go by. That photograph is hanging up on our family room wall.
- In Cologne we dropped out of the included tour about half way because we wanted to spend more time in the giant cathedral. We got the lay of the land from the tour guide and took it from there.
We do love the included tours. So don’t get the impression that we avoid them. But sometimes you just need a little alone time.
Flexible ….. to a point
So you can see you can indeed get lots of time on your own. But don’t think you have a infinite amount of flexibility. If you visiting say Monet’s gardens in Giverny France and it’s time to get back to the ship,, you really need to leave. You can opt to stay of course but you’ll need to find your own way back to the ship in Paris. The good news is that the ships really don’t move that much between cities so you can always catch up with them. But then you miss the included meals, you probably need to find your own hotel for the night. If that’s what you want, no problem. My only point here is that if you want to spend 10 hours in the gardens, but the tour has you leaving in 5 hours, you may need to schedule a second trip back at a later time.
On the Douro river in Portugal, the ship is not allowed to sail at night. So that means you’ll be spending some part of each day on the ship, sailing the river. You simply don’t have the option of staying at a particular Port wine vineyard longer than the cruise ship’s itinerary. So there are some constraints.
Typically you are in a city for only a day. Larger venues like Vienna, many ships will overnight. And of course the best way to spend additional time in a city is with a pre or post cruise extension. Our experience is that most of the towns you stop at on the river cruises are quite small and the amount of time provided by the ship is more than sufficient. But the big destination cities: Paris, Budapest, Amsterdam, Prague, etc really need several days to experience. So you can get a taste of the individual towns along the way. But really get immersed in the larger cities before or after the cruise starts. Most people simply use the pre or post cruise extensions offered by the cruise lines but you can also do these yourself. An experienced travel agent can help navigate the choices and of course ensure you get the best pricing and options that meet your individual needs.
Time on your own?
Will you have time on your own on a river cruise? Absolutely. You can opt out of any tour, dinner, event. You can do everything included for 6 days and opt out the other day. But you can’t easily change the itinerary. Locks need to be entered on a certain schedule and the captain will make that schedule regardless of where you happen to be. So you have lots of opportunity for time on your own but you still need to follow the basic itinerary.
Most repeat river cruisers – and there’s many – are much more relaxed about the inclusions. They will pick and choose what they want to do and feel more free to make the vacation the way they want. First time cruises many times are afraid to miss out on something. Two thoughts on this. First, don’t worry about missing out because you’ll gain something else in its place. Second, the fact that there’s so many repeat river cruises means that many people like the experience so much they come back. So there’s always next time.
Many of our clients love river cruising so much they do multiple trips. An experienced travel agent can make sure you are paired with the most appropriate river cruise line, date, itinerary, cabin choice and promotion to make sure you have a great time. After all, it’s up to you to make the most of your vacation time.