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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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.