Most of the time, cruises and tours provide sharply different experiences and are not true alternatives for any given vacation. In a few cases, however, you might find a trip that you could do either way. A reader recently asked about one such case. “I’m trying to decide between an escorted tour to Italy and Greece or a Mediterranean cruise—what do you think?” Here’s my take on that question.
The cruise experience
Overall, the typical cruise visits a different port each day. You stay, at most, 10 to 12 hours, and often only a half day at each port. The advantages:
- You get to see lots of different places—usually, as mentioned, at least one a day. On a 10-day cruise, you’d see nine or 10 different places.
- One-day visits are probably adequate to give you a good feel for many of the Greek islands. Beyond overall sightseeing, there isn’t much to do on many of them except lie on the beach, and that’s a very different sort of vacation.
- You get to stay in the same accommodation for the entire trip, which means no schlepping in and out of hotels; no time wasted checking in, checking out, packing, unpacking; and all the other “overhead time” of frequent hotel changes.
- Your cruise line can arrange tours in each port you visit, meeting you at and delivering you to the ship. Or, for less money, you can arrange your own excursions.
- For island hopping, a cruise is usually far easier, more convenient, and more efficient than flying or taking local ferries.
But cruising is primarily a mechanism for sightseeing, rather than visiting—for looking at places, not for exploring them. Doing an area solely by cruise ship entails some real sacrifices:
- A cruise confines you to port cities. In Italy, a Mediterranean cruise will most likely stop at some combination of Genoa, Rome (through Civitavecchia or Ostia), Naples, Bari, Brindisi, and Venice. Inland cities like Florence, Bologna, or Milan, or the lake country, are more difficult to reach.
- A visit of just four to 12 hours is woefully inadequate to cover Rome, Venice, Athens, or any other important Mediterranean city, especially when the port is a considerable distance from the city center by tour bus (as in the case of Rome). At best, you get a drive-by view of the important antiquities, monuments, museums, cathedrals, and all those other places that really warrant an extended visit.
- If most of your dinner meals are onboard the cruise ship, you miss the fabulous experience of dining in local restaurants: an important loss in Greece; a disaster in Italy.
The tour experience
In many ways, the advantages and disadvantages of a tour are the converse of those for a cruise. Here, of course, I’m talking about the sort of tours that cover a bunch of individual stops over a period of one to two weeks—the modern version of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.” The big advantages:
- An escorted tour of Italy will almost certainly include two to three days in Rome, two to three days in Florence, and a day or two in Venice, at a minimum. Longer tours will provide a day or two in the Naples/Vesuvius area, some of the hill country, and likely some combination of Bologna, Milan, and the lake country. Each of those places could easily warrant a multi-week stay in themselves. At least on the tour you’ll have a chance to spend some time in the areas you’ve read about for so many years in your history or art books. Your stay in Athens will give you time to explore the Parthenon and other historic sites, plus a side trip to Delphi and maybe another to the Peloponnesus.
- You’ll get to sample the delights of local restaurants and nightlife.
- You’ll at least have a chance to mingle with the locals in piazzas, squares, parks, shops, and avenues.
The big disadvantages, compared with a cruise:
- You won’t see as many different places within the time you have to spend.
- You’ll spend a lot more time packing, unpacking, checking in and out, and waiting for buses.
If you agree with those advantages and disadvantages, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion as I would:
- The better way to see a variety of Greek Islands is on a cruise.
- The better way to visit Italy is on a tour.
Your choice depends on which is the more important component of your trip to you and how much time you have. Or, ideally, you might find a package that combines a land tour of Italy and a cruise to the Greek Islands.
The principles that apply to Italy and the Greek Islands are equally applicable to other important vacation areas:
- Cruises beat tours for visiting a handful of Caribbean islands. In fact, I know of no tours that involve island hopping in that area. If you want the local experience, you go to one destination resort; if you want to sight-see a bunch of islands, you take a cruise.
- In Alaska, cruises are the best way to visit the panhandle towns such as Ketchikan, Skagway, and Wrangell, where there isn’t much to do beside take a quick look. But a land tour is the best way to see Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Mt. McKinley/Denali. That’s why so many Alaska programs combine both elements.
- In Russia, the river/canal cruises between Moscow and St. Petersburg are actually combinations. You spend three days at each end, using the cruise boat as you would a hotel, and you pay short visits to the river/canal towns, such as Yaroslavl, that probably aren’t worth more than a quick visit.