Rick Steves' Travel Blog

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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On a cruise, after a couple days on the ship, you get the lay of the land. It’s good to give yourself a tour of each deck early on, to find the special places and find out about your various activities, eating, and drinking options. Here’s a quick look at how my cruise ship (Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas) was laid out.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.


When the sun’s out, there are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself on deck.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

A day at sea on a Mediterranean cruise might take you from Barcelona to Rome, or from Rome to the Greek Isles. This truly is a relaxing day, with nothing to do but eat, laze around the pool, and marvel at the vast and seemingly pristine nature of the open sea.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

On a beautiful day at sea, there’s lots to do. Today, I marveled at the huge blueness of the Mediterranean, and then took a unique tour that gave me a rare look at the inner workings of the day-to-day management of a cruise ship.

I was continuously inspired by the simple vastness of the Mediterranean, and how we could spend an entire day at sea and see no land and almost no boats. There’s a clean, dramatic, relaxing, screen-saver beauty to a two-tone-blue world of sea and sky.

A highlight for me on this cruise was the “all access” tour. Out of 3,700 passengers, a dozen of us opted to pay $150 for a three-hour tour that took us behind the scenes. We got to visit each department and talk to the officer in charge, gaining an appreciation for the complexity of running such a huge ship. This man managed the ship's food inventory, and was responsible for keeping the pantry and fridge stocked for 5,000 hungry passengers and crew for a week at a stretch. Each vast refrigerated warehouse had a particular temperature designed to keep a particular kind of fruit or vegetable fresh and crunchy for the longest period of time. The officer admitted that if bananas are on the "push list," you’ll see more banana smoothies at the poolside bar. How smartly he manages the produce inventory on the ship has a big impact on its bottom line. While they ship lots of items from their company depot in Florida (because things are much less expensive in the US), he made a point to say that since fruits and vegetables in Europe are simply tastier than ours in America, they purchased most of them here.

The bridge (the huge command center from where the captain and his crew run the ship) comes with a wing that juts out on the port and starboard sides and gives a great view back towards the stern. As part of our “all access” tour, we got a chance to see the ship’s state-of-the-art navigational tools in action.

When you dock in Naples, you don’t have to worry about how to take a train or taxi into town to see the sights. A tourist information desk near where you disembark can give you a map, answer your questions, and send you walking on your way to explore this gritty city.

Here in Naples, the ship docks right in the town center. As in every port we visited, there's a non-cruise-sponsored, tourist-information desk there staffed only when the cruise ships arrive. While the cruise companies are a bit conflicted about providing information to enable independent travelers to do their own thing smartly, these city tour desks are generally enthusiastic about providing practical info to help independent travelers figure out what to do and where to go. With the help of a city map and a felt pen for taking notes, you can walk into a city within minutes of disembarking.

Some friends that I made on board were new travelers. They walked 100 yards off the ship, went through the cruise-shop terminal, and peered into the urban jungle of Naples. They decided it was too much, turned around, and spent the day on the ship enjoying the pool. They even had a poolside pizza in honor of the city they were missing. Had they kept on walking for fifteen minutes, they would have found themselves in a classic Neapolitan world like this...without a hint of tourism.

Naples is a delight, even without the traditional sightseeing. Skipping Pompeii, Capri, and Naples' great museums, I spent most of my day simply wandering the streets of perhaps the most gritty and colorful city in Europe. As I found on several occasions, within minutes of disembarking, I was immersed in the wonders of this port town — without a hint of the mass cruise industry. The main downside to cruising: Limited time in each port. Still, you can accomplish a lot in eight hours.

Whether you’re docking in Nice or Monaco, or tendering in from Villefranche, getting around the Côte d’Azur is a snap by train. You may encounter congestion that has nothing to do with the cruise crowdsas we did here in the Nice train station. When there’s a human crush like this in Europe, I like to settle into a peaceful nook and just enjoy a little people-watching until the jam clears.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

If you make a point of it, it’s easy to avoid the cruise mobs both on and off the ship. For example, in Villefranche on the French Riviera, I skipped breakfast and “tendered” into port as others were hitting the breakfast buffet.

The only time we didn’t actually dock at a pier was in Villefranche, our springboard for the French Riviera. There we “tendered” in with a big shuttle boat that seated about 200. To avoid congestion (as lines to get off the cruise ship onto the tender can be very long), I skipped breakfast, caught an early tender (about 8:30), and found breakfast in Villefranche. I had expected congestion and waiting in line to be a daily part of the cruise routine. But even though our ship was sold out, I never noticed congestion. Both onboard the ship and on shore, if you make a point to get away from the mobs, you can. For example, I enjoyed being all alone on the bow of the ship at night under the moon. After dinner, the top deck was all mine. A few ports (like Dubrovnik) can be inundated by cruisers when several ships are in port at the same time. But in each of the ports on this cruise, I could be on my own — without a hint of the cruise industry — within an hour of finishing my onboard breakfast buffet.

Here is the view from where our tender dropped us off. Thousands of cruise travelers wash in and out of ports like Villefranche daily throughout the season. It’s like a tide bringing in nutrients: the locals make a few bucks and the travelers are free to either glob together in tour-bus groups or get lost on their own. Throughout the cruise, I found a very healthy and efficient “find a need and fill it” energy in ports accommodating the demand for whatever cruise travelers might want: Internet access, taxi service, hats to provide shade, and small shops renting electric cars or bikes.

Here are some of my photos of Livorno, along with some tips cruise travelers might consider to save money or time (or both) while visiting a port.

Each morning our ship arrives in a new port — today we're in Livorno, the port for Florence. I stood on my little deck and surveyed the scene as buses, taxis, and security forces waited for the cruisers to disembark. When you're on vacation and in a cruising mind-set, it’s easy to be oblivious to the fascinating economic metabolism of the cruise industry.

Aggressive cabbies smell easy money when a ship docks — but it's still a competitive business and taxi drivers are eager to deal. Plus, more and more local governments are regulating taxis since rip-offs give a city a bad reputation. If you can organize a group from the ship ahead of time, a good plan for a day in Florence is to hire a mini-bus taxi that holds eight people and split the (otherwise high) cost of hiring a taxi. While spending 400 euros for a day trip into Florence from Livorno is costly for two, for a group of eight, it’s just 50 euros per person — which is a steal. While you could certainly go cheaper by bus or train, with a shared taxi you’re dropped off in Florence in an hour (twice as fast as the train), picked up at an agreed-upon time, and zipped back to the port.

While the initial cost of a cruise vacation may seem too good to be true, cruise operators earn their gravy with extra profit centers: mostly drinks, gambling, onboard shopping, kickbacks from shops on land, and excursion tours to places of interest within an easy bus ride from the port. I was struck by how most cruisers are happy to pay the inflated prices ($150 to $200) for an excursion. Anyone willing to hop the shuttle bus to the main square of the port town and survey the options for local sightseeing tours could easily plan their own day trip — and save around 50 percent. Here in Livorno, right on the main square where the shuttle buses drop off passengers going ashore who aren't taking the cruise excursions, is a tourist info kiosk staffed with an English-speaking person happy to explain your options. In most ports, there are nearly always local buses, shared taxis, and small tour operators offering plenty of good options to those who want to see a lot without spending a lot.

I found that the various ports (Civitavecchia for Rome, Livorno for Florence, and Toulon for Provence) had their own surprising charm. While all three are generally panned as boring industrial ports, I found each had a gritty harbor character, a long maritime history, were substantially bombed in World War II, and are legitimate urban representatives of their respective regions — just without the famous sights. In other words, if you’ve already seen Florence's famous art treasures, save yourself three hours of bus time and just enjoy slice-of-life Italy in Livorno.

Cruise travelers generally stampede through Livorno to head for nearby Pisa (20 minutes away by train), Lucca, or Florence. But the city of Livorno has a rough charm with a “Little Venice” district that is built around canals. A €10 hour-long boat tour leaves from the port's tourist info center, right where the cruise shuttle buses drop off visitors.

Massive cruise ships keep a graceful rhythm at sea: sailing through the night, docking in major ports at dawn, and letting their passengers off to frolic on land until about 6:00 p.m. and return to enjoy evenings on their floating home at sea. This video shows the view from my little deck as we arrived in Civitavecchia, the port of Rome. Rather than going into Rome, I spent today nailing down all the details of this port and figuring out good travel strategies. Rome is an important cruise port because many cruises start or end here, and many travelers just get a single day in the Eternal City during their cruise.

As is the case in so many great ports, at first it seems complicated to get into the main city (an hour away by train), but actually, it’s really easy. From the huge dockyard in Civitavecchia, you take a free shuttle bus from your ship to the cute little gateway to the port, walk ten minutes to the Civitavecchia train station, and then catch the train into Rome (1-hour ride, 2/hour, €4 ticket). My challenge in fine-tuning this book is to find the smartest plan (for example, a €9 day pass covers your round-trip train ticket into Rome — plus all your bus, tram, and Metro travel within the city). Once you reach Rome, get off at the Ostiense train station and then hop on the subway; in two stops, you’ll land on the Colosseum’s front door. After you do some frantic sightseeing for the day, walk from St. Peter’s Basilica to Rome’s San Pietro train station and catch your train back to Civitavecchia. Do it once and it’s a snap. My hope is that with my guidebook, it can be a snap for you on your very first time.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Our ship is big: 200 feet tall and over a thousand feet long…longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. It's basically a floating city — with a population of 5,000 made up of about 1,500 crew serving 3,500 passengers staying in 1,800 staterooms.

A great thing about cruising is that you really notice the sunset (and — if you happen to be up that early — the sunrise). Our ship has a Jacuzzi (shown above in the photo), built both dramatically and romantically out over the top deck, which seems to be a popular hangout. For the first time in my life, I spied the elusive “green flash” at sunset. This tiny green flare can only be seen on a clear evening at the moment the sun disappears into the sea.

The ship (Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas) was a floating cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas with a flair for splashy design. I couldn’t stop marveling at the wild, womb-like lines of the staircases in the huge “main street” core of the ship.

We produced a new thousand-page guidebook to the top Mediterranean cruise ports, and I’m pleased at how quickly it’s been embraced by cruise travelers. It’s selling well, and I meet lots of people using it on our ship. Cruise travel is booming and this book fills a great little niche. Ninety percent of Mediterranean cruisers visit the same predictable ports, and since we already had solid chapters for nearly all of these in our various country guidebooks, making this book was a natural. Of course, cruising is — in many ways — anathema to the “back door travel” philosophy that I’ve been preaching for 30 years. But my goal with this new book is to enable (or even empower) people who want the ease, economy, and fun of a cruise — if that’s their style — to travel efficiently and independently in the ports. And as always, I encourage my traveling readers to be destructive — rip up the book and go ashore only with the chapter you need tucked in your pocket. On this trip, I have a pile of the ripped-out cruise-port chapters and am passing them out to travelers who need information, in the hopes of getting their feedback at the end of each day.