How to Cruise: An Easy Guide for First-Timers

Cruising has always been one of my family’s favorite ways of vacationing. Cruises offer everything that one could possibly need on a vacation – quality restaurants, amazing nightly shows, a casino, a spa, and much more. You get to visit a variety of cities and countries and the best part is that all the traveling happens while you’re asleep! I quite like the fact that after a full day out in the port city, I can go back to the ship, have a nice dinner, maybe gamble a bit, and wake up the next morning to a completely different port.

However, not all cruises are the same and not all itineraries are perfect. Going on a cruise to the Caribbean or to Bermuda, for example, is completely different than going on a cruise to Europe or Asia. Recently, my family and I made the jump from our typical Caribbean/Bermuda/Bahamas cruises to an international cruise. At first, we were pretty overwhelmed with the choices. Which part of Europe did we want to go to? When should we go? Which port should we embark on? So many questions!

If you’re thinking about embarking on a European cruise but don’t quite know where to start – here’s a few (hopefully) useful steps to help you!


Step 1: Decide where in Europe you would like to visit. Read up on each part of Europe that cruise lines will follow and decide what interests you the most. One of the most useful resources I used was


Western Mediterranean cruises typically stop in Barcelona in Spain, Italy, and the southern part of France. If you’re interested in arts, culture, café hopping, and boutique shopping, then the Western Mediterranean is for you! Visit the Vatican or Pompeii or go shopping in the leather markets of Florence.

Eastern Mediterranean cruises typically encompass Italy, Croatia, Greece, and sometimes Turkey. If ancient history, blue beaches, and beautiful villages are your thing, then definitely check out the Eastern Mediterranean.

A Baltic Sea cruise will take you to Scandinavia and Russia. For most Baltic Sea cruises, Stockholm, and Copenhagen are very popular ports of call – and most will also include Oslo, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg.

There are also Norwegian Fjord cruises as well as British Isles cruises that will bring you to England, Scotland, and London.

And of course, don’t forget the Canary Islands!


Step 2: Decide on which cruise line you want to use. Once you’ve decided where you want to go, figure out which cruise line is the best for your needs.

For most of the cruises above, the major, mainstream cruise lines will offer an itinerary that meets your requirements. Out of the most popular are Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Celebrity, Costa, and MSC. There are also a bunch of luxury lines like Regent Seven Seas, Oceania, Silversea, and Seabourn.


Take a look at the cruise ships themselves and what they offer. I always advise picking the itinerary first – because it’s better to have a good trip itinerary with a suboptimal room than a bad trip itinerary with a great balcony room. You’ll be spending too much time off the boat and around the boat to notice your stateroom!


Step 3: Decide on what to do in each port of call.

Each port of call will usually have an abundance of activities for you to do – some ports will have nearby cities that you can also visit if the port doesn’t entice you. Really get to know the port – and whether or not you want to stay in the port city or venture outside.

There are a bunch of free online resources – but there are also a ton of guidebooks available too. For my most recent Western Mediterranean cruise, we utilized Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports, which was the most helpful guide in the world. I also borrowed my cousin’s Fodor’s Italy guidebook to help me navigate the Italian ports of call.



Step 4: Decide on the specifics.

For most ports of call, after you’ve decided what you want to do, there’s the task of deciding how to do it. Cruise ships will offer you a variety of tours offered through them. There are pros and cons with this.

Pros: You’re guaranteed to make it back to the ship. If your tour misses the due-back time, the cruise will wait for you. You’ve already paid for the tour, you know you can trust people running it, and you can always bring up any complaints to your cruise line.

Cons: There is often an upsell involved since the cruise line is setting everything up for you. Most of the cruise tours are also large and impersonal so if you’re looking for a more intimate experience, it might not be for you.

For me, I found that booking a shared tour and then sharing it on your cruise’s Roll Call on is a great way to get an intimate, personable experience while saving money by splitting the costs. It’s also a great way to meet new friends! We used Joe Banana Limo for Florence and Umberto at for Naples and really had a great time on both tours.

Of course, there’s also DIY! I found that DIY-ing half of our ports really helped us save money and tailor the trip to our specific interests. Google Maps is a great tool for helping to navigate your way around new cities and of course, there are always guides both online and in print!  


Step 5: And lastly, make sure you book all the necessary items and tickets.

We booked a pocket wifi for this trip because of how useful it was for me in Japan. We used Webspot, which is a French company but ships to all over Europe. It was super helpful whenever we wanted to DIY a port or simply check-in with our friends and family back home. It was also super helpful to use the Skype app to call our tour guide when we were running a bit behind in Rome.


It’s also important to book tickets in advance to major churches, museums, and tourist sites. For example, it saved us a lot of time pre-purchasing tickets to the Colosseum, Pompeii, and Sagrada Familia. The lines for tickets for those sites can take up hours during peak tourist season!


Day 9: Naples, Italy

Day 9 – Naples, Italy

Our last port of call was Naples, one of the oldest cities in the world, and Italy’s third largest city. Common day trips from Naples include Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and Capri. Since we knew we wanted to visit Pompeii as well as the Amalfi Coast, a private tour seemed like the best way to go. I met two couples on CruiseCritic’s Roll Call for our cruise and we booked a private tour with Umberto at ItalyDrivers. He picked us up, drove us to Pompeii for a tour with a separate tour guide, and then drove us down to the Amalfi Coast for lunch in Positano and free time in Sorrento.

Our first stop was a morning tour at Pompeii. We actually arrived before it opened, so our tour was one of the first ones in. Our tour guide, Teresa, was amazing – she was informative, funny, and super nice. It was so surreal being in Pompeii, especially as Teresa gave us so much more context and information about the place.


We then drove up the winding roads to the Amalfi Coast – these are definitely roads that a huge tour bus could not make it up!


Lunch was at La Tagliata, at my request. La Tagliata stands on the top of the hill in Positano, overlooking the gorgeous coast. The restaurant is family owned and run. There is no menu – you eat that they cook that day. First to arrive at the table was a bunch of appetizers – family style. Then our waiters delivered an assortment of pastas, also family style. And finally, we received dessert and a shot of lemoncello. For 25€ we left absolutely stuffed! The food was so delicious!



After our delicious meal, we drove back down the mountain to Sorrento for some light shopping. And of course, despite the fact that we were absolutely full, we had to have one last gelato! Raki had a delightfully tart lemoncello gelato that paired really well with the mango. It was definitely one of the best lemon gelato’s that I’ve had this trip!


Umberto brought us safety back to the ship – with time to spare. We were so tired from the day that we just crashed in our room, despite the fact that we had 1-2 hours left.

Ah Amalfi Coast, why are you do beautiful?


Day 8 – A Sea Day on the Norwegian Epic

Day 8 – Sea Day

Our 6th day on the ship was a sea day as we traveled from Barcelona to Naples. We had plans to wake up early and sunbathe on the top deck, but ended up sleeping in. We were so tired from all the ports we were visiting! We had a late breakfast at one of the sit-down, table service restaurants and explored the ship. There was also a lot of lounging on our balcony, just enjoying the sea.

I’m going to take this opportunity to do a review of the ship!

The Food:

The Norwegian Epic has several free dining options – that is, options that are included with your cruise fare at no additional cost. They have two main dining rooms, one buffet, one 24hour bar & grill, and one Chinese noodle bar. There are also a bunch of specialty restaurants that cost extra, which we didn’t partake in.

We had breakfast in Taste, one of the main dining rooms, a few times –


We also had dinner in both Taste and the Manhattan Room, the other main dining room, alternatively every night –





The Shows:

The Norwegian Epic has a ton of nightly shows but their two main theatre shows were Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Burn the Floor. 

Both were absolutely amazing! Priscilla is the Norwegian take on the Broadway show while Burn the Floor is a dance spectacular. They both play twice during the duration of the cruise, so if you can’t make the first showing, there’s always another one!

The Room:

We stayed in a balcony stateroom, which was a bit cramped for the three of us, but manageable. They clean your room twice a day – once in the morning and once again in the evening for turn-down. We always came back to a towel animal!



And I leave you with the sunset on our first day on the cruise – at Civitavecchia Port.


And the sunrise on our last day on the cruise – also at Civitavecchia Port.



Day 7 – Barcelona, Spain

Day 7 – Barcelona

Our fourth port of call was Barcelona, Spain. We actually docked at about 5am since more than half of the ship’s passengers were disembarking early that morning.

Look at the beautiful sunrise colors over the harbor!


The first stop of the day was the famous Sagrada Familia, designed by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Although incomplete, Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered one of the highlights of Barcelona. Construction began in 1882, but Gaudi took over the project in 1883, transforming it with his style, combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. At the time of his death in 1929, less than a quarter of the basilica was finished. It’s estimated that construction will finish in 2026 – exactly 100 years since the death of Gaudi.


The inside of the church is just as impressive, if not more so, than the outside.


After Sagrada Familia, our next stop was a nice stroll through Las Ramblas, the main tourist stretch leading down from Placa de Catalunya to the Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell. There is so much to see and buy along Las Ramblas – it’s also a beautiful walk without car traffic.

We then walked along the harbor to our lunch spot, Can Sole. Can Sole, established in 1903, has been serving paella and seafood for over 113 years. We, of course, had to have the paella! Throw in some jamón ibérico (ham from Black Iberian pig) and pan con tomate (tomato paste bread) and it was one of the best meals of our trip!


The paella was so big it didn’t even fit into a single shot! It was jam-packed with squid, octopus, mussels, clams, and shrimp. Between the three of us, we finished more than 3/4ths of it, which I think is an accomplishment.


Dessert was at Eyescream and Friends, which serves up shaved gelato. It’s a very easy process – you pick your gelato flavor out of six options and then grab two toppings of your choice. They’re so cute I didn’t want to eat it! Shaved gelato is smoothier and creamier than shaved ice, so I definitely am a huge fan.


If I had more time in Barcelona, I would’ve definitely had more sangria and more ham. The sangria is so cheap! 2.50€ for a large glass!  


Day 6: Marseille, France

Day 6 – Marseille, France

The third port of call on our Western Mediterranean Cruise was Marseille, France. Marseille is one of France’s main ship ports with its huge cruise terminal. From Marseille, one can take a day trip out to Cassis, Aix-en-Provence, or Avignon. If you’re in Marseille in the month of July, be sure to make the trip out to see the lavender fields.

Since we only had a few hours in Marseille, we decided to stay local and DIY the day. Our day started off with a taxi from the cruise terminal straight to Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica. The Basilica was built on the foundations of an ancient fort that stands at the highest point in Marseille.  it’s definitely a good idea to take a car up. The walk is no joke!


If you climb all the way to the upper church (there’s an elevator as well), it offers a gorgeous view of Marseille and the Mediterranean.


We walked our way down from the Basilica to the Vieux Port, or the former port before the new port was built. The walk was very pleasant and we got to see the winding pathways and side streets of Marseille.

The highlight of the Old Port is their Ferris wheel! At 7€ per person, it’s a bit pricey, but the view is quite nice.


Our late lunch was at Les Halles de la Major, a covered gastronomic food market located in the vaults of Marseille’s La Major Cathedral, which has been remodeled to a retail area. There are a bunch of food options inside the market and the best part? Your food gets brought to your table after you order! My sister opted for a juicy, rotisserie chicken. I had a gorgeous burger while my mom went tapas style and had a bunch of pickled and cured veggies.


Be sure to stop by L’Esperantine de Marsille, a boutique chocolatier nearby Les Halles that is famous for their olive oil green chocolate. Look at this gorgeous chocolate!  


Day 5: Cannes, France

Day 5: Cannes, France

The second port of our Western Mediterranean cruise stopped at Cannes, France. Because the dock in Cannes is too small to accommodate large cruise ships, we had to tender to the port. Basically this means that the cruise ship will stop within a 5-10 minute boat ride away from the dock and use its life boats to ferry passengers to shore.

Since we weren’t really interested in a day trip to Nice or Monaco, we opted to stay in Cannes and explore the town on our own. A 3 hour walking tour with the cruise ship would’ve $55 per person, so we decided to DIY it!


Cannes was one a small fishing village, but is now a glamorous and expensive seaside town that’s considered one of the social hubs of Europe. It’s the host to the International Film Festival as well as a popular vacationing spot for celebrities.

Our first stop on shore was the Marche Forville market, a covered food market that’s open daily from 7:30am to 1:00pm. It’s a great spot to shop for fresh produce as well as food souvenirs. We had some delicious baby bananas and mini strawberries and picked up some homemade olive paste to take home.


After snacking at the market, we headed through the Le Suquet (Old Town) area and up to Notre Dame d’Esperance, which is located at the top of Suquet Hill. The walk up is filled with stairs, so definitely pace yourself!


Right next to the church is the Musée de la Castre, or Castre Museum. The museum is located in the ruins of an old medieval castle that belong to the monks of Lérins. It now hosts collections belong to the city of Cannes with primitive arts from the Himalayas, Tibet, the Artic, pre-Columbian America, Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. The museum has a medieval tower that offers a 360 degree view – if you want to climb 109 steps! In my humble opinion, it really is worth it, even for those of us who don’t like heights!


The Old Town offers excellent souvenir shopping opportunities as well as restaurant options. We walked around for a few hours before stopping for a very late lunch at Café Bohéme, located close to the water. They’re one of the restaurants that continue serving throughout the day, as some restaurants in Cannes stop lunch service around 2pm. Their lunch special is to die for! An appetizer + entrée is about 18€, which is a steal when you see how big the portion sizes are. None of us finished our meals! I had a very delicious smoked salmon appetizer, followed by the fish of the day with a plate full of steamed sides.



Dessert was at Amorino, because we just had to see if there was a difference between Europe and NYC. The end result? They are definitely more precise about the flower-crafting, which resulted in a prettier flower. Maybe it’s just me – or maybe it’s just because I’m in Europe, but it definitely tasted better too!


Stay tuned for our next day!


Day 4 – Florence, Italy

Day 4: Florence

Our first port of our Western Mediterranean cruise took us to the Italian city of Florence, or rather to the port of Livorno. There is plenty to do in Livorno, but we had our hearts set on Florence. So I booked a Joe Banana Limo round trip transfer (Pro-Tip: Share your excursion on CruiseCritics Roll Call in order to fill up your tour!) and took the 1.5 hour ride to Florence for the day.

Our driver suggested a pit stop at the Piazzale Michelangelo, a hill on the south bank of the Arno River, just east of the center of Florence. It offers a stunning panoramic view of the city – and has a replica of the David. I am so glad that our driver made the stop because it was beautiful. Early morning overlooking the city of Florence was absolutely stunning!


After getting off the van, the first stop we made was for coffee! Gilli, opened by the Gilli family in 1733, is one of the oldest coffee bars in Florence. Located in the Piazza della Repubblica, it is a great café to stop in for a quick drink or for a sit-down meal. Be sure to pay the cashier and then bring your receipt to the coffee counter to order. We started and began our day at Gilli – coffee to go in the morning and a sit-down coffee at the end of the day.


Our first stop was the famous San Lorenzo Markets, which hosts both indoor and outdoor markets selling local art, leather goods, clothing, and other souvenirs. There are a lot of unique gift items to be brought at the San Lorenzo Market – and even if you’re just shopping for yourself. I picked up some handmade notebooks with Florence paper and some leather bracelets for myself.

Lunch was at the Mercato Centrale – the indoor food market section of the San Lorenzo Markets. The Central Market has two parts. The first floor sells fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meats, cheeses, fish, and condiments. A lot of locals do their grocery shopping on the first floor and you can too! A lot of the vendors will vacuum-seal cured meats and cheeses for you if you tell them you’re traveling internationally. The second floor hosts a food court with lots of different vendors. I had a prosciutto and buratta plate while my mom had Florence’s famous beef tripe sandwich. My sister had a pasta dish and we rounded it all up with some pastries – all from different vendors!


After lunch and a very successful shopping trip, we made our way back to the center of town and visited Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower. The Basilica houses the Duomo di Firenze, a magnificent Renaissance dome that’s a symbol of Florence.

We also made a quick stop at the Piazza Della Signoria to take a look at another David replica. While they are replicas, they are no less impressive in their size and stature!


Then we began the journey down to see the famous Ponte Vecchio, the oldest and most famous bridge over Arno. It is the only Florentine bridge to survive World War II.


And last but not least, what’s a day in an Italian city without some gelato! We had ours at Venchi, one of Florence’s oldest chocolatiers, established in 1878. The gelato in Italy is just so cheap and delicious!


Stay tuned for our next stop – Cannes, France!