If you have cruised before, you know how the arrival of large cruise ships in port can overwhelm the local population with thousands of people. Some locals jokingly refer to it as "the invasion." For travelers, it means that a destination's main attractions become overrun with tour groups and visitors, and it's hard to get an authentic experience -- or even a peaceful visit to a museum or historic site.
If you want to avoid crowds and have a more personal port experience, there are numerous ways to do it. If you can handle a certain element of surprise and unpredictability, you can easily be on your way to a memorable adventure. But, even advance planners and sightseers can find ways to escape the hordes of peak-season travelers. Here are our top tips on how to avoid crowds in port.
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Updated October 10, 2019
1. Go Where the Locals Are
To escape the tourist throngs, go where the locals go. Not only will you find some breathing space, but you can have an authentic experience connecting to a destination through the people who live and work there. You might miss some of the guidebook-recommended sights -- but you also might have some unexpected and memorable experiences.
One of the easiest ways to find local haunts is to avoid the main street, where everyone else is headed, and take a side street or walk a few blocks away. It might surprise you that a short distance from all the tourist shops, you will find yourself in a real neighborhood. Enter a local eatery, order a drink or a bite to eat, and start talking to people. Alternatively, you can approach friendly-looking shopkeepers, or strike up a conversation with folks playing chess or skateboarding in a local park. There's a good chance that younger people will speak English, but you'll be surprised to find that people of every age like to practice their language skills.
A conversation with new friends can be rewarding by itself, but you can also ask the locals you meet where they recommend you spend your afternoon in port. Ask them where they like to go, or where they take family and friends who visit. People everywhere love to be experts and will be happy to share their ideas with you. And, their suggestions are likely to lead you to places you wouldn't find on your own -- meaning that your shipmates won't have found them, either.
2. Take Advantage of Free Local Guides and Tours
In many places, locals volunteer to give no-cost, insider walking tours of their towns and can show you places you wouldn't see on a cruise ship tour. The internet makes them easy to find. Go to SpottedbyLocals.com for European and European-adjacent countries; the site can connect you with guides in more than 60 cities, such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Athens, Rome, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, Helsinki and Cologne, and also offers self-guiding apps. The Global Greeter Network connects travelers with locals in countries around the world, including India, China, Japan and the Philippines.
Many greeters and local guides have special interests like architecture, history, shopping, food and parks. If you mention what you are interested in seeing, they are likely to take you there. Ask to see local or off-the-beaten-path places. All of them want to share their city and their culture with you.
If you go this route, plan on giving your guide a tip. The amount will be determined by how much you like the tour, but in any case, be generous, as these folks have gifted you with their time and knowledge.
3. Visit Top Attractions Early or Late
If you want to go to a place that is offered as a cruise ship excursion, but don't want to go with lots of people, you can find ways to avoid the crowds. Inquire at the shore excursions desk what time the ship has tours leaving for the destination and when the visit will be over. Plan your arrival for before or after the tours. If you're interested in hiring a taxi to take you around or give you a tour, find a cab driver who speaks reasonable English and ask him to time your tour so you arrive at key attractions at quieter times. Taxi drivers who regularly serve the cruise port will often know when key attractions are mobbed with tour groups and when they're not.
4. Get Out of Town
The majority of cruise travelers will hang around the port city, or travel to the most iconic nearby destinations (Rome from Civitavecchia, Florence from Livorno, etc.). Especially if you have already been to the main destination, you can head away from crowds by heading out of town.
For example, in Skagway, Alaska, you could skip the shopping strip and take a hike into the nearby forest. In Civitavecchia, pass up the Rome tours and opt for a less popular excursion that goes to Cerveteri, an ancient Etruscan city of the dead, or to the Tarquinia necropolis with its magnificent painted tombs. In a tropical island, rent a car or take a cab to a more secluded beach than the one closest to the cruise ship dock.
5. Attend a Local Event
Most tourists flock to attractions listed in guidebooks, but don't pay much attention to one-off events that might be going on during their time ashore. However, catching a gallery walk, midday concert or soccer match can be a fun way to pass the afternoon and get a glimpse into the heart and culture of a destination -- and leave your fellow foreigners behind.
How do you learn about what's going on? For major cities, you can often find English-language websites that list the best events that week. Ask at the tourist office or see if the local branch has online or printed event listings. You can buy a local newspaper or magazine to find events not advertised to tourists. Even if the publication is not in English, you can offer decipher the ads or look up words on a translation app on your phone. Local markets often have boards where residents can post about events.
6. Sign Up for a Cooking Tour or Home-cooked Meal
If you are looking for local food-related experiences, a cooking or food-themed tour is a great way to indulge your appetite and get a unique experience. Cooking tours, whether through your cruise line or an independent operator, are generally limited to the number of participants; there won't be hundreds of people swarming one kitchen.
If you're looking to eat without doing the prep, EatWith.com connects hungry travelers with local foodies. Just plug in the name of the port and your date of visit to find people offering a home visit and eating experience or a cooking class. Locals may also take you food shopping at local markets, for craft beer tastings or even arrange a custom meal for you outside of their regularly advertised specials.
7. Customize a Tour
If you're more interested in seeing the sights than merely soaking up local culture, one way to beat the crowds is by hiring a private guide to create a customized tour for you. Tell the guide what you want to see and if you have any specific interests (Jewish heritage, military history, art, etc.), and she can create a tour that gets you to the places you want to see at the best times possible. Even if you end up at marquee attractions at peak times, at least you'll be with a small group and a guide entirely devoted to your needs, rather than being herded in a group of 30 on a generic tour. A good guide might even know the lesser trafficked areas of a popular destination, so you can avoid the throngs.