Having spent six weeks cruising on three different ships, we learned a few “hard knocks” lessons on getting the most out of cruising Europe.
The first was that visiting Europe via cruise ship was easily the most intensive sightseeing cruise experience ever. In the Caribbean, sure, there’s history, but you can also mix and match laid-back beach outings and boat trips (and not feel guilty).
Popular European cruise itineraries offer a head-spinning array of choices. The first piece of advice? A day per port is by no means enough time to see anything, much less everything. The best way to stay sane is to treat each day as a “sampler”—if you like the port, plan to return for a lengthier stay another time. And if you don’t—and trust me, there will be ports that don’t ring your chimes—the good news is you haven’t invested time and money in a long and expensive visit.
Europe’s such a big place that on Cruise Critic we’ve divided it up into four basic regions (though you’ll find that many itineraries will combine various ports from these regions). By and large though, here’s a quick (and hopefully helpful) guide to choosing an itinerary:
- Eastern Mediterranean: These cruises primarily feature ports of call in Croatia, Greece, Turkey and eastern Italy. Embarkation and disembarkation points are commonly located in places like Piraeus (for Athens), Venice, and Istanbul.
- Western Mediterranean: These itineraries focus on Italy’s west coast (with stops that service cities like Rome and Florence), France’s glittering Cote d’Azur, coastal Spain (from Barcelona all the way east to Cadiz/Seville), and Portugal (Lisbon).
- British Isles and Western Europe: On these cruises—which quite commonly do pull from various regions such as the Western Mediterranean and Northern Europe—you’ll sail to places like Belgium (Brugge/Brussels), Amsterdam, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris/Normandy, and Hamburg. The most common embarkation point is London (Dover, Harwich, Southampton, and Tower Bridge).
- Baltic and Northern Europe: There are two distinctly different types of itineraries in Northern Europe. The first is Norway’s west coast, where the prime attractions are its gorgeous fjords. Cruises often turn around from Copenhagen or London. The second is the Baltic region, one of Europe’s major centers of art, culture, and history; key destinations there include Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Copenhagen. Common ports of embarkation/disembarkation include London, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. We also include in this category the increasingly popular ports in Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes.
Lessons learned on our European cruises
Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your next cruise to Europe.
- Wear comfortable shoes (pack several pairs) and plan on walking. A lot. Those charming cobblestone streets (ubiquitous throughout Europe) are hard on feet.
- When shopping for a specific cruise, look carefully at the itinerary to see if there are any days at sea. You will appreciate the occasional “day off” between bouts of frantic sightseeing in port.
- Strategize your sightseeing by varying activities. If Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam are on the docket three days in a row, intensive city tours in each place will be overwhelming (and get monotonous). Look for the occasional alternative—in Belgium go to medieval Brugge instead; if Paris doesn’t appeal, take advantage of the proximity of its port (Le Havre) to major attractions in France’s gorgeous Normandy region or the charming fishing village of Honfleur. The Baltic is another region where it’s a good idea to try out more “innovative” explorations, because many of the Scandinavian cities, in particular, feel somewhat similar. Try a walking tour of Oslo, a kayaking-the-canals approach to Copenhagen, and just hanging out in easy-to-maneuver Stockholm.
- Avoid sightseers’ guilt. You only have a day in each destination (with a few exceptions—cruise lines often offer overnights in Venice and St. Petersburg). You can’t see everything, so narrow down your choices—and if you’re tired of museums and just want to have a long lunch at a sidewalk cafe, well, that’s a great experience too.
- Seasonal timing is important in choosing the right trip for you. Hate crowds (but don’t mind mercurial weather)? Plan to sail in April through early June and then again in September and October (fares also tend to be lower then). August is dicey because lots of restaurants and even attractions shut down for yearly vacations; if you’re limited to school holiday times, try for late June or early July.
- Family cruising is enjoying huge popularity in Europe—particularly in the Western Mediterranean and, more recently, the Eastern Mediterranean and Baltic regions (Regent offers a family program here).
- Making that once-in-a-lifetime trek to St. Petersburg and intend to explore independently? Beware of the visa issue. Russia requires U.S. citizens to obtain a visa in order to wander the streets (an exception applies to those booked on ship-sponsored excursions or through independent tour operators with the appropriate registration), and you must obtain it in advance of your trip (you will not be allowed off the dock without it). The cruise line has little incentive to help passengers on this issue because, of course, they profit much more if travelers buy their shore excursions—and, perversely, the cruise lines usually supply the forms with your travel documents, which often arrive fairly close to your departure date.
The cost of a visa ranges from $131 to $200 (depending on whether your turnaround time is two weeks or overnight), and it must be obtained from the Russian embassy or a Russian consulate. Also consider a visa service, such as Zierer, which charges an extra fee. In this case the fee may well be worth it because qualifications are very exacting. For more info: www.visittorussia.com.
Independent tour operators with the appropriate registration can provide customers with an “invitation” (also known as sponsorship) if you book in advance (allow at least two weeks). We tried that on our last visit and had a wonderful experience with Red October, one of St. Petersburg’s best-known tour companies. Check out our story What to Expect: An Independent Traveler’s St. Petersburg.
- Looking for off-the-beaten-track souvenirs? Head for the supermarket and shop like a local. Great buys can be found on everything from locally made ceramics (Stockholm) to wine (France and Italy) to chocolate (Belgium), and you’ll spend far less than at touristy shops. Another great spot is a locale’s department store, for fashions and home furnishings such as distinctive candlesticks and vases. Many cities have upscale handicraft boutiques for discerning (and generally quite affordable) “art.” If you are buying tourist trinkets, do try to nab them at the destination. Cruise ship gift shops may feature destination-specific merchandise, but it will cost you more.
- Beware of shopping for items like pirated CDs and DVDs (huge in St. Petersburg) and Cuban cigars that are illegal to bring back into the U.S.
- The independent-minded travelers’ conundrum: when to book ship-organized shore excursions … and when it’s more fun (and cheaper) to explore on your own. Some of the most interesting European destinations are located a fair distance, anywhere from an hour to three hours’ drive, from the port itself. Among these? Le Havre (Paris); Civitavecchia (Rome); Livorno (Florence/Pisa); Dover, Harwich and Southampton (London); and Cadiz (Seville). In these ports, cruise lines offer basic bus transportation to the main city; this is a good idea because, should the bus return late to the dock, the ship will wait for you. Another time when shore excursions can be a good idea is in a place where the language and customs are utterly foreign; in this instance, we recommend taking a ship tour the first day in St. Petersburg (and exploring on your own the second).
Easy ports for independent exploring include Stockholm, Helsinki, Oslo, and Copenhagen (all have very sophisticated tourism offices that provide as much information—historic or cultural—as you’d probably get from a tour guide), all very walkable cities. Venice, Dubrovnik, and Brugge are also good do-it-yourself destinations, easy to navigate and understand.
- Europe’s got a terrific mass transportation infrastructure—trains, buses, boats—that makes renting a car, unless you are venturing somewhere really off-the-path, completely unnecessary. In most cases, mass transit extends to major port areas, or cruise lines offer shuttle service to the nearest train station.
- Several cruise lines now offer voyages year-round (in fact, Costa’s new ships are custom-designed for sailing Europe throughout the year).
- Been there, tired of the same old, same old? Try a trip on a European cruise ferry.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Cruise Critic. SmarterTravel.com is published by Smarter Travel Media LLC, which also owns Cruise Critic.