I used to think there were independent travelers and cruise passengers -- two mutually exclusive categories. But now, with cruising shedding its newlywed and geriatric stereotypes, all kinds of tourists are finding shipboard travel to be appealing.
Cruising works especially well for first-timers as a destination sampler of Europe, enticing you with a day here and a day there. If you prefer to tiptoe into Europe -- rather than dive right in -- the bite-sized approach of a cruise can be a good way to get your feet wet. Busy port days are followed by relaxing days at sea, setting a comfortable best-of-both-worlds pace.
To help reluctant or clueless day-trippers (and to add to their bottom line), cruise lines offer a smorgasbord of packaged shore excursions. In most European ports, you'll have a choice of sightseeing tours on a bus, town walks, craft and shopping tours, and guided visits to museums and archaeological sites. These junkets aren't cheap. On Mediterranean cruises, a basic two-hour walking tour runs about $60 to 75 per person; a half-day bus tour to a nearby sight can be $125 and up.
These excursions come with a guaranteed return time to the ship (easing a cruiser's biggest worry -- being left behind), priority disembarking, and an efficient itinerary. But what the cruise lines call upside can have a downside. It's true you'll be whisked from the dock to your destination -- but you'll have to patiently wait as 50 other people board the bus with you. If you're on your own and want to check out a carpet shop, you can stay for as long or as little as you like. With an excursion, you're restricted to the shop selected by the cruise line and must stay for the time they've allotted. Independent travelers can chafe at the loss of freedom.
Nevertheless, some excursions are a great value, getting you to top-tier and otherwise out-of-the-way sights on a well-planned schedule. I would happily pay a premium, for example, for a no-sweat transfer and an eloquent guide to interpret the Roman ruins at hard-to-reach Ephesus in Turkey. But there's no point in signing up for an excursion in accessible places like Barcelona or Venice, whose ports are near the sight-packed city centers. In cases like this, I always go by the back door, on my own, experiencing more flexibility for a fraction of the price.
Cruise lines don't go out of their way to help independent travelers do their own thing. But with a little determination, anyone can plan a day trip. In most ports, a city-run tourist desk opens to greet passengers when ships arrive. Stop here to get practical information for figuring out what to do, where to go, and how to get there. Ask for a city map, and you'll be walking into town within minutes of disembarking. City buses, taxis, and local guides offer plenty of good options to those who want to see a lot on their own.
For ports farther from your destination of choice, it can be smart to organize a group beforehand. A good plan for a day in Florence -- reachable from the port of Livorno -- is to hire a minibus taxi that holds eight people. Spending 400 euros for a round-trip into Florence would be costly for two, but for eight the price drops to just 50 euros per person -- a great deal. And with this plan you'll get to Florence in just an hour -- twice as fast as by train. Prearrange a pick-up time with your driver, and you're sure to be back by sailing time.
Don't be afraid to walk boldly into the unknown. Seize the opportunity to kick the pebbles that stuck in Julius Caesar's sandals at the Roman Forum, explore a dusty corner of the Agora in Athens, or hear the Muslim call to prayer warble across the rooftops in Istanbul. There's plenty of fun on board for cruisers, but your most prized European memories are bound to come from your back-door adventures on land.
(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)