When choosing your cruise shore excursions, consider independent tours

Shore excursions are a part of what makes a cruise a cruise experience. But there are many ways to sample the local flavor that do not involve using the cruise line’s packaged tours.

During a recent cruise of the Baltic region, we took several walking tours, and most were offered and arranged independently. Importantly, many of those were free tours, where the only cost is what the traveler decided to give the guide in the way of a tip.

Our first was a tour of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Rosie introduces herself to tour patrons in Copenhagen

Our guide Rosie was an ex-pat Brit who had lived in Copenhagen for about eight years and had truly embraced her adopted home town. She showed us around during a 1.5 hour tour, starting at the statute of the city’s founder Bishop Absalon, then through the Strøget, one of the city’s famous shopping streets to the Rosënborg Castle to the Nørre Voldgade that used to be the site of the town’s northernmost wall.

She was enthusiastic, engaging, as invested in her subject as any docent we’ve ever met, and handled her charges with aplomb, taking us past numerous noteworthy sites including Lego’s flagship store and the former home of philosopher Sørren Kirkegaard.

Statue of Copenhagen's founder, Bishop Absalon

The group grew from about 20 to about 35 by the time we were finished, something we were told is not at all unusual. Arranged through Copenhagen Free Walking Tours, Rosie’s expertise and personality earned her €25 from us and tips from most, if not all, of the other guests.

Our next free tour was in the Estonian capital of Tallin. We arranged our tour through Tallin Traveller Tours, and was led by our tour guide Liine (pronounced “Leena”), who was born and raised in Tallin. As a result, she had her personal stories to relate as well as those of her relatives who had lived through various occupations of the city and had shared their perspectives on the times before Linne came to be.

Liine, our Tallin tour guide

A history major who had recently graduated university, Liine was quite animated as she led the tour through the city’s Old Town, showing us sites including the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Obviously passionate about the history of her home city, her efforts also earned her a €25 tip.

Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Why that amount? Before departing from the states, I endeavored to find out what would be considered an acceptable tip. One tour operator put it this way: “A large latte in (our city) costs approximately €5 and a paid tour costs €15-25. I think most guides would hope to be tipped something in that fairly broad range according to their performance and your satisfaction.”

Not that all the tips go to the guides. As they pointed out, they actually had to pay the tour companies to cover overhead expenses such as advertising and office staff. Understandable, but some people need things spelled out more than others.

Next, we picked up a tour in Stockholm thorough Free Tour Stockholm, where Zenid served as our host.
Zenid meets his charges at Stockholms Centralstation

A native of Zagreb, Croatia, he’d lived in Stockholm for a number of years and had become a full-time tour guide. Wending our way through the streets of Stockholm, he was funny and engaging, and had even the grumpiest among our group smiling by the end of our tour…all while educating us about the city’s history and introducing us to things we might have overlooked had we been on our own, including the small, off-the-beaten-track statuette, Järnpojke or “Iron Boy.”

The smallest monument in Stockholm: Järnpojke

Also known as the “Little boy who looks at the moon.,” the 15-centimeter tall statue is located behind the Finnish Church off Stockholm Place but it is off the main flow of the area’s foot traffic, so it isn’t usually stumbled upon; one has to seek it out.

One of the facets of free tours that varied widely was the number of guests they would accommodate.

FreeTourStockholm endeavored to limit the free tours to 10 guests while others took on far more. It’s a two-edged sword, really. A larger tour might mean more in tips for the guide but are harder for them to manage and harder for participants to ask questions of their guide. A smaller tour means more opportunity for interaction and a more personalized experience, but less in the guide’s pocket at the end of the day.

Our introduction to Warnemünde was a departure from our free tour itinerary. We engaged Dave, founder of Friends of Dave Tours, who was recommended by travel guru Rick Steves (@RickSteves). Though semi-retired, Dave made an exception for my wife and me and a couple who were visiting from western Australia.

Dave, of "Friends of Dave," tells us about Warnemünde as Jamie looks on

Dave is an ex-pat American who moved to Germany in 1999 after several years in the hospitality and cruise industry and, thanks in part to the inspiration provided by friends fueled over the course of several happy hours, decided to form his own tour company.

He showed us points of interest including the home of Norwegian painter and "Scream" creator Edvard Munch, the iconic Teepot, and sites that were important during the period of the Cold War, when Warnemünde was in what was then East Germany. Those included the Hotel Neptun, built to house visiting diplomats, and the Kurhaus Warnemünde next door, where Stasi officials listened to their discussions via the bugs planted in each and every guest room at the Neptun.

Iconic "Teepot" and lighthouse

His knowledge of the area’s history is practically encyclopedic, but there’s not a didactic bone in his body. No matter that you’ve just met him for the first time; he comes across as an old friend showing you and telling you about the area he loves and has come to call home.

Our tour was to last only two hours, but the five of us spent more than five hours together, exploring and learning about the small town at the confluence of the Warnow River and the Baltic Sea (called the Ostersee, or Eastern Sea, by locals), and sharing an adult beverage (and gossip) before exchanging hugs and going our separate ways.

A testament to his gregarious nature, upon parting he pronounced the four of us “the newest ‘Friends of Dave’.” Worth several times more than the €50 per person price, if you can coax Dave out of retirement. If not, his colleague Christian will likely be available to show you around the area.

The next day – the final day of our cruise – we had booked a free tour of Kiel, a coastal town that is also the gateway to Hamburg. Because our time in port was fairly short, we decided against hopping a train to Hamburg and to keep it local. Our guide, from Kiel Walking Tours, met us as we disembarked the ship … along with 40 or more of our shipmates. That was too big a group for our liking, so we decided to explore independently.

Statue at a church in Kiel's Altstadt, or Old Town

Each of the tours and guides had their own personality, but a few themes emerged.

Generally, the guides were quite good. It’s not a vocation that attracts introverts or the timid, and all were outgoing in their own way. Zenid was funnier and actively engaged his guests by asking them questions while Liine was more sardonic but still engaging and amusing.

The smaller the tour, the more personal the experience. (Well, duh…)

Finally, this in one area where the maxim, “You get what you pay for” doesn’t necessarily apply. We paid for two tours arranged through the vendor our cruise line used: one tour was $80 per person and a second was $63 per person. Although the guides were knowledgeable, they lacked the sparkling personality, wit, and/or passion for their topic displayed by the other guides.

Do your homework. Use several social media sites, look for tour operators who have received lots of reviews, and read several of them with a focus on the most current. If common themes emerge, you can probably conclude that the reviewers had similar experiences, for better or worse.

Then make your reservation and go, bearing in mind that you can quietly slip away if the tour isn’t meeting your expectations. Remember, there’s another tour to take in the next town.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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