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Shore excursions are a big part of the river cruise experience but that doesn’t mean you have to sign up for everything on offer – in fact you might get more out of visiting a new destination if you take off on your own to explore.

It depends on where the ship is docked and what you want to see and do, but many European river ports are in the middle of amazing cities and villages where local attractions are within easy strolling distance.

While cruise lines have vastly improved the quality and scope of their shore excursions in recent years – independent or guided biking and hiking tours are now par for the course, along with more active options such as kayaking at some ports – it still pays to do some homework before spending your valuable holiday time and/or dollars on outings that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Most lines include excursions in the fares and as with most things in life, the more you pay, the more choice you’ll have. But whether you’re on a top-drawer cruise or a more budget-friendly premium ship, many ‘city highlight’ tours involve boring bus trips with large groups or guided walks that are frustratingly slow-paced even if you’re with the ‘fast walkers’. Decide in advance what you really want to do in each port, consult maps and apps and ask your cruise director for his or her personal recommendations.

Timing can be an issue as well. For example, if you only have one morning in a small town, wandering around the back streets to find a friendly café might be more rewarding than boarding a bus that takes an hour each way to get to a winery where you’ll only have time to inhale a couple of samples before you’re whisked back to the ship for lunch.

Some ‘exclusive access’ excursions are excellent – private classical concerts in palaces or out of hours tours of famous art galleries, to mention just two – and would be impossible to arrange independently. Some aren’t so great though. If having dinner with everyone on the ship in a touristy chateau is not your idea of fun, don’t feel you must join in. You might enjoy a more atmospheric, local experience if you go ashore with a partner or small group – and quite possibly, much better food and wine.

The key to making the most of all your time ashore is research – and asking as many questions as possible about all aspects of organised excursions.