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Cruising as an Independent Traveler

The Carnival Magic

The Carnival Magic

Last May I was invited onboard the Carnival Magic for its inaugural cruise from Venice to Barcelona. With that cruise I have now been on a whopping 3 cruises in my life, which probably takes me out of the category of a rank novice but a far cry from the 100+ cruises that many people I met on board have been on.

Before my first cruise I assumed that I would hate the ship and would enjoy the shore excursions. Three cruises later, to my shock and surprise, I find my views to be the exact opposite of what I original supposed: I like being on the ship and I loathe most of the shore excursions I’ve been on.

I would go so far as to say cruise ships are my favorite means of transportation. They are more enjoyable than traveling by train (more room to move around) and far superior to traveling by plane. Unfortunately, cruise ships really are not designed to be modes of transportation in the 21st Century. With the possible exception of the Southampton to New York City route by Cunard, cruise ships today are destinations in their own right, not a means of going from A to B.

I’ve found the food on ships, even on budget lines such as Carnival, to be above average to fantastic. One of my favorite activities on a cruise ship is to talk to the crew. On my most recent cruise on the Carnival Magic I counted crew members from 48 countries! My waiter at dinner was from Brasov, Romania where I was going to visit after the cruise. He gave me some great tips on places to visit.

Buses lined up to take ship passengers on shore excursions

Buses lined up to take ship passengers on shore excursions


The fact that I have disliked the majority of the shore excursions I’ve been on is what really took me by surprise. I figured being an extreme traveler I would find being on shore to be the highlight of a cruise.

To give you some background, let me list all the shore excursions I’ve done all all three of my cruises. I’ve been to the Caribbean with Princess in 2009, Acapulco to LA with Cunard in January 2011, and the above mentioned Carnival cruise in May 2011.

  • Princess Cruise: Private island in the Bahamas. Nothing to do other than lay on the beach and drink. Brett Roundsaville and myself took a hike into the island to see what we could find, which turned out of be nothing. Grade D.
  • Princess Cruise: SCUBA diving in the Caymans. Small group of people from the ship went SCUBA diving. This was actually a pretty good experience. If it was a 2 tank dive I’d give it an A. Grade B+.
  • Princess Cruise: Roatan, Honduras. Went with several other bloggers to visit a school and give kids school supplies. We drove around the island, had lunch and did what we wanted. Not bad considering it was raining all day. Grade A-.
  • Princess Cruise: Cozumel, Mexico. I didn’t even bother to do anything because I didn’t feel well. I got off the boat and walked around a bit but everything was so touristy I went back on the ship to read and sleep. Grade Inc.
  • A throng of people packed into the Vatican Museum. An hour later, it was gone.

    A throng of people packed into the Vatican Museum. An hour later, it was gone.

  • Cunard Cruise: Cabo San Lucas. Bus trip to some nearby town, stopped off at the obligatory place to by pottery. It was a mob of people being trucked around to boring spots. Grade D-.
  • Carnival Cruise: Dubrovnik, Croatia. I paid 8 Euro for a round trip ticket to the old city. I spent the day exploring by myself and taking photos. Basically, this is exactly would have probably done if I was in Dubrovnik and not on a cruise ship. Grade A.
  • Carnival Cruise: Taormina, Sicily. WAAAY too many people trying to cram into this village at the same time. There must have been 5 cruise ships with people visiting Taormina at the same time. Everyone shows up at about 10-11am and stays for a few hours before leaving. I bet the town was empty by 5pm. Streets were crowded and whatever charm the town had was lost by the throng of people. I managed to spend about 2 hours walking Messina by myself which redeemed the day somewhat.Grade D+.
  • Carnival Cruise: Naples/Pompeii, Italy. I’ve always wanted to see Pompeii and so I just signed up for the Pompeii excursion without really thinking about it. It was the same experience as I found in Taormina, except all crammed into a smaller space. It was rushed and I had to follow the herd everywhere I went. I did spend 2 hours in Naples by myself as the port is near the city center. Grade D-.
  • Carnival Cruise: Vatican Museum. Absolute worst experience I’ve had traveling in 5 years. The tour guide didn’t know what she was doing. Once we got in the museum we made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel where we stopped for 15 minutes before moving on directly to St. Peter’s Basilica. I’ve been to the Vatican Museum before I know you can spend an entire day there easily. There were so many people all taking the same route it ruined the entire experience of visiting the museum. I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera bag into the museum, so I had to check it and run all the way back once the group got to the Basilica. No photos for me. When I did get back to the museum entrance, the line that stretched around the block was totally gone. All the tour buses had shown up at the same time. Had we arrived an 60-90 minutes later, it would have been a totally different experience. To top things off, the group wasn’t waiting where they said they would, so I found myself without a way back to the ship in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. Grade F-.
  • Carnival Cruise: Cinque Terra, Italy. Another bus trip, but at least there weren’t as many other buses. Most people chose to visit Pisa or Florence. The 5 towns of Cinque Terra are spread out enough that it didn’t feel as crowded as Taormina did. You did still have to follow the group, which I do not enjoy. Grade C.

Night time on the Crown Princess

Night time on the Crown Princess

You can probably notice a trend with all these shore excursions: anything which requires getting on a bus….sucks.

I should note for the record that I was probably the only person on the ship who felt as strongly about going on bus tours. Most people didn’t seem to really care, but then again, most people don’t travel around the world by themselves for 5 years. If you are reading this blog, however, you might just have a similar mindset as me.

The key to enjoying a cruise as an independent travel is to stay independent. Do whatever you can to say away from the herd when they get off the ship.

Here are some tips for shore excursions I’ve developed from my own experience. I’ll be using these on all future cruises I go on:

  1. Lower your expectations. If you are on a cruise ship which is visiting a place like Rome, don’t for a minute think this is going to be like visiting Rome on your own. It isn’t. I spent over a week in Rome and still didn’t come close to seeing everything I wanted to. You certainly aren’t going to do it in one day. Have a limited schedule and expect to come back later. Think of a a cruise as a tasting menu of travel.
  2. Walk off the ship. If the ship docks in a port where you are close to the city center or whatever it is you want to do, do that. A day spent exploring a city on foot will be almost exactly the same experience as you’d have if you came into town on a train. I don’t think my Dubrovnik experience would been much different if I had arrived on something other than a ship.
  3. My favorite shore excursion was one I did with other travel bloggers in Honduras bringing supplies to school children

    My favorite shore excursion was one I did with other travel bloggers in Honduras bringing supplies to school children

  4. Organize a private tour. This might be a bit more pricey of an option (but then again it might not). See if you can find people before the cruise starts who run tours in the port you are visiting. One company I highly recommend is Context Travel, who does walking tours in many major European cities. If it is too expensive to do alone, find other people who will be on the cruise via the Cruise Critic Message Board.
  5. Do your homework. Don’t just look at where a shore excursion is going. This was the mistake I made in Pompeii and Rome. Ask the cruise director which tours are most popular and avoid them. Also figure out how much space you are going to be crammed into. Instead of visiting Pompeii, which was packed, I could have visited nearby Herculaneum which is just like Pompeii, except fewer people visit.
  6. Take a bus into town. The ports of Livorno and Civitavecchia are where you go for Florence and Rome respectively. However, there is nothing near the port. They are industrial areas. The Carnival cruise I was on had an option for “Rome on your own” which was just a bus ride into Rome. That is what I should have done. They had an independent option available, but I didn’t take it.

Some of the best travel deals you will see are for cruise ships. It isn’t a substitute for going and exploring on your own, but it is hard to beat the prices you can find.

Be smart about what you do BEFORE you get on the ship and you’ll have a much better time on shore. If you are savvy about what you do off the ship, it doesn’t have to be the mass market tourism experience you fear.

  • 13 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Cori K. says:

    Having done a number of cruises, I have to say I agree. I don’t like crowds, and I certainly don’t like paying a lot of money for the privilege of dealing with crowds. Find what people don’t want to do, and go do that. They want to swim with dolphins, you go swim with stingrays, which I guess creeps people out. (FYI, they’re like cats at feeding time, only instead of rubbing against your ankles, they’re slamming full on into you for attention.) Finding something offbeat to see and do is well worth the effort.

    The only good bus tour I was on was a trip through New Brunswick–it was pouring rain, but everyone was feeling pretty good after the Moosehead Brewery stop!

    And yes, the crew members are great to talk with when they have the chance. The last one I was on, I chatted with all sorts of people and even got grad school advice from a young man from England.

  2. Bart says:

    Hey Gary,

    I’ve never been on a cruise and have always shied away from them for the reasons – and horror stories – you talk about. I like traveling alone, too, preferably to new places with 2-3 books, but occasionally to old friends like Cozumel or other great dive spots.

    Maybe I’ll try one.

    Keep up the great blog.

    Bart
    TravelBart

  3. You hit it on the spot i had a familiar experience when i boarded a ship that was not that good looking on the outside but the inside was magnificent i really enjoy it ~good day~

  4. I’ve only been on a couple of cruises but both times had a great experience with my excursions. True the destinations can be crowded and I don’t have time to see everything I want, but I use cruises as a way to get a taste of a city or country and then plan trips back to the ones I want to see more of.

  5. Amy says:

    Although I don’t have your extensive travel resume I can say I have always been an independent traveler. So, for a long time I had a very negative view of what a cruise ship would be like, despite knowing people who had been and enjoyed it. I think I wouldn’t mind a 4-5 day cruise somewhere warm if I went with the expectation of a vacation that consisted of laying out in the sun tanning, drinking, and eating, which in all honesty can be a nice thing to do sometimes. But I wouldn’t expect much more than that, especially having spent ample time in St. Thomas I can say the area they drop the cruisers off at is one of the worst areas of the island: touristy, dirty, and not particularly safe.

    Also, having lived just outside of London for a while and now living in the Boston area, which is a big US tourist hub I can say it’s nice to do the odd tour when visiting a city; some can be quite fun like the literary pub crawl in NYC. Or do a quick bus tour for just a couple of hours if you want to take a quick assessment of things you’ll want to go back to. But generally I advocate people get out of the main areas a bit more. Even go to smaller towns just outside of the city (if you don’t have time for longer day trips) and if there’s decent public transportation. That’s where you’ll get the really good restaurants worth going to, the cute little parks, the quirky museums, and just get a general feel for daily life in that part of the world.

  6. Crissy says:

    I agree that tour excursions can be hit or miss at best. I’ve had the best experiences on the small group tours, usually 20 people max, sometimes 8 people. The tour guide has a little more flexibility and you don’t feel like you’re being herded around so much. But they do usually come with a much higher price tag.

    Also, in Civitavecchia on my NCL Cruise the bus transfer was $99. The train, slightly less convenient, was only 9 or 15 euros (local vs express/fast train). As Durant said, there did seem to be a few little things to do here if you wanted to get off the ship but not make a trek into Rome.

    Finally Carnival would be considered a “main stream” line, not a budget line. It’s probably the most budget of the “main stream” lines but budget cruises are their own category in cruising.

  7. Kris Koeller says:

    Great writeup. I’ve had mixed feelings about cruises. People I know have had a terrific time, but others have been overwhelmed by the crowds. I think I would fall into the latter. I’ll keep it on my Someday list.

  8. Alex says:

    What a coincidence, I’m also writing about cruising this week. I had the same impressions you did about shore excursions and at one port did a detailed price breakdown of what the cruise line was charging vs. what it cost to do it ourselves. It was kind of shocking!

    At the same time I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed cruising. I won’t be so quick to judge in the future.

  9. Faraz says:

    Your tip to ask the Cruise Director which excursions are most popular and avoid them is fantastic. I’ll have to try that on my next cruise.

    Also, I’ve done a few private tours and they are about 15-25% more expensive than the cruise line shore excursions but 100X better in terms of experience. A small group of 4-6 can easily book a private tour – so if you were a couple, you’d need to find 1 or 2 more couples. Cruise Critic is a good resource – another one is MeetOnCruise.com. Most people come to our site to find people to share tours with.

    Enjoyed your post. Thx.

  10. You know, we have been on 25 cruises, so it was interesting to read your blog post about your experience, and we couldn’t agree with you more.

    First, it’s a great way to explore a destination to see if you would like to visit for an extended amount of time, but get to know it intimately, forget about it!

    Same experience as you in Pompeii and visiting the Vatican, to many people, WAY to fast. We feel a need to go back… which isn’t a bad thing.

    Private tours or on your own is definitely the way to go!

    Nancy & Shawn

  11. Laura says:

    I totally agree with not enjoying cruise shore excursions. It’s almost always more enjoyable to make your own plan or just explore rather than being herded around. I too was pleasantly surprised by the things to do on cruise ships as well as the great food!

  12. All things are looking very nice from parking of buses to how children are learning in their school.

    From my point of view if somebody wants to take full and unforgettable enjoyment of travel experience then i think he should prefer journey via Ship or cruise.

    Because when you are on traveling where many people also along with you so that time you will feel like that you are residing in a small town in sea so that moment make your journey unforgettable.

  13. About the port of Civitavecchia: From the port entrance, where you can go by free port shuttle bus from your ship’s berth, it’s a short walk to the railroad station. There, you can buy an inexpensive roundtrip ticket and go to Rome by commuter train. But don’t underestimate the attractions of Civitavecchia itself: The small city is pleasant, has a couple of museums and several ruins, and offers a waterfront promenade and a beach club or two. Unless you have a compelling urge to go into Rome for the day, i’d suggest wandering around Civitavecchia (and maybe doing an excursion by taxi or public transportation to nearby sights).

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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