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 CruiseCritic.com

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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.

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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.

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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 CruiseCritic.com 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 ItalyDriver.com 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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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 –

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

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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!

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

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

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