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
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 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.
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!