Travel Skills: Cruising

Setting sail on the Mediterranean, we'll explore the ins and outs and pros and cons of cruising. We'll learn how to get the most out of a cruise and exercise our independence to make smart use of limited time on shore by planning well, avoiding lines, and eating quick-but-local meals on the go. Along with the joys and efficiencies of cruising, we'll consider the downsides, including the inevitable congestion and commercialism that comes with mass tourism.

Script

Hi, I'm Rick Steves. I've spent the last 30 years exploring Europe from every conceivable angle. And now it's time to check it out the way millions of people are: Yep, we're on a cruise ship and we're sailing the Mediterranean. Welcome aboard!

Cruising is really popular these days. In this special I'd like to explore the ins and outs and pros and cons of this travel option. Sailing from Barcelona to Athens with stops along the way, I'll toggle from floating resort to exciting days on shore — nearly each day in a different country.

Massive cruise ships serve as both transportation and a floating hotel. From our ship, we'll visit some of the great ports of the Mediterranean and venture inland to some of Europe's iconic sights. We'll savor romantic island getaways and some lazy time on the beach. We'll learn how to make the most of the cruising experience — avoiding lines, eating quick but local — while exercising independence to get the most out of limited time on shore. Along with the efficiencies of cruising, we'll show the downsides — the inevitable congestion and commercialization that comes with mass tourism. And, as we sail from port to port, we'll enjoy our time on board the ship — a virtual playground at sea. While these skills work on any cruise itinerary, we'll be cruising the Mediterranean.

I'm not here to promote or put down cruising. For some people, it's a great choice, and for others it's not. Cruising can be economical with your transportation, room, and meals all included in one price. It can be ideal for those who want everything taken care of for their vacation. And it can also be an efficient platform for independent types who want to shape their own adventures each day.

Ships can be huge. Ours has about 3,000 passengers with 1,500 crew scrambling to keep everyone well-served, safe, and happy. Is it good travel? It's up to you. The way I see it, of the guests on this ship, a third of them are just looking for a floating alternative to Las Vegas, a third of them are "bucket list" tourists just checking things off their list, and a third of them are independent-minded travelers — well-prepared, and eager to hit the ground running as soon as that gangway hits the pier.

Wherever you start, you'll need to pack a little extra patience. It's a big logistical challenge to get several thousand people and their bags into their staterooms on the first day.

Once on board, I do one thing right off the bat: move in thoroughly.

Staterooms, while thoughtfully designed, are tight, so make things ship-shape: If you use all your available storage space, and are constantly on guard against clutter, there's plenty of room. I rarely use drawers in hotel rooms, but this is my home for my entire vacation. You just move in once — so do it right away, move in fully, and establish your ship-shape standards.

On a cruise, you can get away with packing heavier; I bring more clothes than usual. How dressy you need to be is a matter of which cruise line you choose and your personal style. As cruising has become accessible to the middle class, it's also become more casual. This is as dressy as I get.

Most people pack three kinds of outfits: smart casual for evenings, leisure wear for poolside and relaxing on the ship, and practical travel clothing for time on shore.

OK, I'm moved in and we're on our way. We'll be in the French Riviera in the morning. We're settling in to the rhythm of a Mediterranean cruise: sail at night and explore a different port each day. By the way, have some fun with the key nautical terms: I'm standing near the front — that's the bow. The back? It's the stern. Left: port, and right is starboard. And remember: It's not a "boat," it's a "ship."

Make a point on departure day to get to know your floating home. Take advantage of the signage to understand the layout. Modern ships are smartly designed. This ship has 1,500 staterooms on 12 decks gathered around a central atrium, where you'll find places to shop, hang out, eat, and drink.

In this floating resort, the top deck — with its swimming pool — is the equivalent of the beach. When it comes to fun-in-the-sun, poolside seems to be center of the universe.

But if you crave the tranquility of a park, this ship has actual grass. I don't know what happened to shuffle board, but a little bocce ball will do just fine.

Cruising can work well for families and for groups traveling together. Each person can pick and choose how much to see and do both on land and at sea, and still get together for dinner every evening. And cruising also works for people who can't walk well or who are less active — the entire ship is as accessible as any modern resort.

Along with the advantages, cruising has its downsides: Many would say it can insulate you from the "real Europe." You're going to the most famous places and seeing them at the same time with thousands of other tourists. That's just the nature of cruising.

Those who don't make a concerted effort at minimizing the crowds may come home with memories of congestion and lots of wasted time. Cruise ships drop large numbers of people in the same place at the same time. Small ports can be overwhelmed by crowds when the ship's in port, and even worse when several ships are there on the same day. And then, when the ships sail away, the port suddenly becomes less crowded and more romantic — something cruisers won't experience because they're back on the ship heading to the next port. Many cruisers are not very energetic sightseers. If you are, get out as early as possible and come back late as you can. Doing this, you'll enjoy fewer crowds and more unforgettable moments.

Because ships sail at night, you rarely enjoy a characteristic dinner on shore or the romance of a town after dark. Having said that, I enjoy the evenings on the ship — hanging out with new friends and thinking about tomorrow's destination.

Rick: So, tomorrow it's the French Riviera…That's right.

The cruise line sells a selection of excursions for every port. Early on, it's good to review what's offered, decide which tours — if any — are right for you, and book them. The excursion desk is dedicated to explaining, and selling, the many on-shore tours and activities.

With each port you've got sightseeing options: You can take the organized bus tour and be on their time table, or, you can hire a private guide. You can use a guidebook and be your own guide, or you can just hang out and be thoroughly on vacation. There's no right or wrong — it depends on your mood and your style.

Many cruise travelers invest in the cruise line's shore excursions. Excursions can be active or easy, fully guided, or just providing transportation and free time. While pricey, they can also be a time- and cost-effective way to cover those must-see sights and experiences. And there's usually a bus-tour option designed for people with limited mobility. But, as these tours target the touristy clichés, and many buses hit the same sights at the same time, you'll often be right in the thick of the crowds.

If you're not purchasing the cruise ship's sightseeing package, you've got an array of fine alternatives. Mediterranean ports seem to be designed as springboards for independent travelers.

In most port terminals, you'll find reputable local companies offering essentially the same tours as the cruise lines for a fraction of the cost.

Another option: Book a private guide in advance. It's a comfort to be met at the port with a warm personal welcome. Legions of private guides earn their living serving cruisers directly. You can book a guide and share the cost — four people hiring a guide with a car costs about the same as four people taking the cruise excursion. And with a guide, you get your own private teacher, you're sure to know the way to the summit, and you enjoy the freedom to go at your own pace.

And you can simply be your own guide. You'll find helpful tourist offices, and most ports are well-served by public transit.

Independent types and those on a tight budget can use a guidebook. There are handy guidebooks designed to help you get the most out of your time in port, and taking advantage of apps featuring self-guided walks on your smartphone empowers the independent traveler with plenty of good touring information.

In many big cities, hop-on-hop-off companies offer do-it-yourselfers economic and efficient transportation. Buses meet the cruise ships at the port and offer big loop tours, connecting major sights, letting you hop off and on all day long, and dropping you back at the port.

And remember, you're on vacation. You have the option to do…nothing. Anyone can simply walk or catch a ride to the town center and just enjoy a free day — shopping, browsing, sipping a local drink, or soaking up some sun on the beach.

Be creative. Mix it up. Your goal: to get the most out of your vacation time and money, enjoy the best experiences, and have fun.

Some stops feel made-to-order for town hopping. For example, the French Riviera. Many ships put in at Nice or Monte Carlo. But we're dropping the hook in Villefranche, and "tendering" — or, shuttling — in. And this fabled coastline is ideal for the well-organized independent cruiser. With the help of the tourist office in the port and the handy coastal train connections — towns are about 20 minutes apart — we split our day between the three delightful towns. In Nice: Browse the morning market, stroll the elegant promenade, and hang out on the beach. In Monaco: Check out the toy-soldier changing of the guard in the tiny country's palace, lose some money at the casino, and browse the yachts we'll no longer be able to afford. And back in Villefranche, within sight of our ship, enjoy the last hour at the beach, and run out the clock exploring the old waterfront.

We've caught the last tender. Security on board is taken very seriously, and it's efficiently organized. Because everyone swipes in and out with their identity cards, at any given moment the staff knows exactly who's on the ship and who's still on shore. With everyone back on board, it's time to haul anchor and sail away.

I'm into the rhythm now. After a full day of sightseeing, I'm ready to relax: stowed my wallet in the room, got comfortable, and I'm looking forward to dinner and an evening at sea. By the way, even with so many people on board, I'm impressed by how it rarely feels crowded. If you want quiet, you can find it.

If you're in the mood to socialize, you can enjoy an impromptu balcony party with friends you've made on board. And, if you want more action, there's always lots going on. It seems any excuse for a party is good enough: Full moon tonight…yep, it's the "full moon party." One thing I like about cruising is how easy it is to meet people — people who are young at heart.

Many major cruise destinations are actually landlocked and far from the sea. For example, Florence. Our ship docks in La Spezia, a couple hours away by bus or train. Like in many cruise ports, we arrive in a gritty world of shipping containers and cranes. And from this springboard, lots of eager travelers are up and out early to catch their tour buses.

Like thousands of other travelers today, we're heading into Florence — and most of us have the same great sights in mind: Michelangelo's David and the Uffizi Gallery.

Taking the cruise line's tour, I know I'll get a quick blitz of the great sights of Florence. The tour includes transportation, reservations for the big attractions, a professional guide, and the assurance that we'll make it back to the ship on time.

Florence is one of those places everybody wants to see…and almost everybody wants to see the same sights. You won't be alone. While those without reservations will waste lots of precious time in lines, with a tour you'll be more efficient — certain to see the glories of the Florentine Renaissance: Brunelleschi's magnificent dome, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo's David.

Cruise ships are businesses…they need to make money, and there's not much profit in the base cost of a trip. So, they need to make more money from land excursions and from extras you buy while on board — things like gambling, photography, shopping, and alcohol. As smart consumers, it's important to understand the game plan.

It's possible, technically, to do the entire cruise with no extra expenses on board. But extras are enticing, they're cleverly sold, and your purchases can really add up. It's a cashless world on the ship. Along with getting you into your stateroom, your handy ID card is how you buy things.

On board there're lots of temptations. And purchases feel painless — like it's almost free…until you check out and get the grand total for your final bill.

As the sun rises over the volcano Mount Vesuvius, we reach our next stop, Naples. It's one of Europe's most intense yet rewarding cities, and the cruise terminal is right downtown.

Naples is a jumping off point for many great sites. You can tour Pompeii, the ancient Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, enjoy the jaw-dropping beauty of the Amalfi Coast with a stop at chic Positano, and visit the romantic Isle of Capri with its famous Blue Grotto. Or, simply venture into the city center from the cruise terminal. A short walk takes you into the heart of this urban jungle with neighborhoods bursting with Naples' distinctive basso living — or, "life in the streets" — and the best pizza you may ever taste.

The food on our ship is good, but it generally ignores the cuisine of whatever port we're visiting. So, for lunch, rather than fast food or some forgettable sandwich, choose authentic local food designed to be eaten quickly. And here in Naples — it's gotta be pizza.

Each country has its quick and easy go-to meal. It's tapas in Spain. My favorite Barcelona tapas bars are Basque style — you just grab what looks good and then count the toothpicks on your plate to figure out how much you owe. In France, I love a good salade niçoise. What better lunch in Nice? In Greece, a souvlaki pita is fast, tasty, and cheap. And in Istanbul, it's fresh fish right off the big, tipsy dinghy.

Lale: [speaks Turkish]
Vendor: [speaks Turkish]
Lale: [speaks Turkish]
​Rick: So, this is Istanbul fast food?

Occasionally, when the distance between ports is longer than an overnight ride, the ship spends an entire day at sea.

You know, one of my favorite things about a Mediterranean cruise is the day at sea — sleep in, leisurely brunch, read a book, just hang out by the pool.

For activities on board, each evening a printed program with a busy schedule for the next day lands on your bed. Cruise lines work hard to make time on the ship enjoyable. They arrange something for everyone: Poolside is ground zero for fun and relaxation outdoors. Every day is filled with ship-sponsored activities, like dance classes. And there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the sunny hours on deck.

The port of Athens is Piraeus, another industrial springboard serving a popular destination. While Athens is perfectly tourable for the independent traveler, many opt for the cruise line's excursion.

Cruise lines excel in efficiency. Before leaving the ship, tourists meet in the theater, get their tour group number, are escorted to their awaiting bus, and meet the guide. Within minutes, they're on their way as he narrates the ride into town with information about the leading city of ancient Greece — the home of Socrates and Plato. And everyone's got their sights on the Acropolis.

Our group converges with other groups, and everyone clamors up the famous hill. While cruisers are unavoidably a part of this crush, guides do a good job of managing the cruise-ship rush hour each morning. Once on top, tourists marvel at the iconic Parthenon as guides do their best to bring the ruins to life. And, from the summit of this historic bluff, all are rewarded with a commanding view of sprawling Athens.

After each day of sightseeing, back at the ship, passengers enjoy the ritual "welcome." A cool cloth and a refreshing drink…and they're back home in their floating resort.

Our last two stops are fabled Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.

The isle of Mykonos comes with a classic whitewashed Greek port. While a small island with a small main town, it's a standard stop for the big cruise ships. As always, it's smart to get an early start.

We caught the first tender — beat the crowds and beat the heat.

It's easy to enjoy Mykonos town with no planning, no tour, and no guide. This is a stop that lends itself to unstructured free time — just lazing on the beach, wandering, and browsing the shops.

Like most Greek islands, Mykonos offers a range of beaches. The most trendy is Paradise — one of the ultimate party scenes in the Aegean. The Paradise action is nonstop. The DJ is busy all day as the cruise set joins backpackers from around the world to make the scene. As is standard around here, beaches rent comfortable lounge furniture with umbrellas. Just plop onto whatever appeals — don't worry: Drinks will come to you.

Back on the ship, we set sail for our last Greek island. By the nature of a cruise schedule, dinners are at sea. Food is unlimited, and generally included.

Traditionally, there's one big dining room where cruisers have a set table and dining time, with the same tablemates, and a chance to get to know their server. But that's changing as people want less formality, and more flexibility. Now there are more choices: cafés, snack bars, and a burger grill poolside. The standby is the sprawling cafeteria with a huge and efficient selection of food available at almost any hour.

And ships also offer a variety of higher quality specialty restaurants. These are more formal, often require reservations, and come with a surcharge. If you don't mind the extra fee, they can be a romantic and tasty splurge.

Many cruise lines still have "formal night" about once a week — usually on the day at sea. While this is becoming more optional, the personality of the ship changes on these evenings. On our ship, the dress code was called "casual chic" rather than "formal." If you don't want to dress up, no problem — just steer clear of the formal areas. But for many people, this is the time to put on a suit and tie or a glamorous gown. When you're dressed up, a moment like this at sea by moonlight is especially romantic.

The isle of Santorini is like none other. About 1,600 years before Christ, it blew its top, leaving just its dramatic caldera, or flooded volcano crater. Santorini is everything you imagined in your Aegean dreams — whitewashed villages with evocative windmills, a ruined Venetian fortress, black-sand beaches, and your own getaway for a quiet lunch. It's an island you could explore for days, but with even a short visit, you sail away so glad you came.

A cruise can be what you make of it — a pre-packaged travel cliché…or a springboard for the independent spirit. Whether you took the cruise excursion, or hopped a donkey, or just had lunch in the port, you'll take home unforgettable memories. A cruise allows you to explore this unique and historic region in a way that suits you best — whether that's touring ancient sites in Greece, crossing off some of those must-see highlights in Italy or France, or just relaxing on the beach of your dreams. Like with travel in general, for cruisers, life-long memories such as these can be yours when you know your options and then match them with your personal style of travel.

Our cruise is nearing its end, and I'm savoring our last evening at sea. While we've enjoyed a quick look at a selection of Mediterranean ports, there are plenty more. We'll be back in the real world in the morning.

There are many ways to explore Europe. For a lot of people, taking a cruise — especially if you know how to do it smartly — can be a practical mix of efficiency, economy, and fun. I hope you've enjoyed our Mediterranean cruise. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.