One evening at twilight, on the deck of a cruise ship in the Aegean, I bumped into newlyweds from the USA who had recently been stationed in Germany. They told me they chose this budget cruise line for their first European vacation. They were big fans of our Rick Steves guidebooks and TV shows, and they seemed to be smart, adventurous travelers, so I asked why they weren’t doing the trip on their own. “Because there’s no way we could possibly visit five Greek islands in a week for this kind of money…unless we slept in youth hostels and ate only groceries.” They reminded me why I was there to begin with: Cruising can be a smart choice for budget travelers. But if you want to get the best value and the best European experience out of your cruise, it’s essential to be prepared.
A few years back, I went on a variety of cruises — from bargain-basement to high-end — in order to research cruising for Rick Steves’ Europe. That project resulted in our two Rick Steves Cruise Ports guidebooks (one for the Mediterranean, and the other for Scandinavia and Northern Europe); a series of travel talks on cruising, Mediterranean ports, and Northern European ports; and Rick’s brand-new public television special on Cruising the Mediterranean.
Over those many cruises, it was fascinating to see how different cruise lines handled their guests…and how they made their profits. One thing became clear: Especially for lower-priced lines, the strategy is to lure you in with a “cheap” fare, then bombard you with opportunities to pay more for this and that — and before long, the total price of your cruise has doubled. Some of those optional expenses are worthwhile. But many aren’t. And some are almost criminally rip-offs. It’s our job to help you figure out which is which.
This “consumer protection” mindset informed the way we wrote our cruising guidebooks, which are designed to empower travelers to take full advantage of their cruise experience, rather than the other way around. I’ve distilled those many weeks of cruising (and those two bricklike guidebooks) into these 10 key tips for wringing the maximum value out of your cruise: which things to skimp on, which things to splurge on, and how to most wisely invest your budget to turn your cruise into the best possible European travel experience.
Keep in mind that everything on board is marked up. Cruise lines make no money while you’re in port; if they could, they’d keep you on the ship the entire time. That’s because when you’re at sea, you are the very definition of a captive audience. And that means that anything you buy on board will be heavily marked up. This isn’t to say that you should skip all on-board expenses — just to choose wisely, knowing that you’re paying a premium. Sometimes it’s fun to splurge on cocktail hour. But if you’re going to want a Coke as soon as you get back to your cabin, pick one up at a convenience store for $1 — before returning to the ship — rather than waiting to buy one on board for $4. And skip the gambling, souvenir shopping, and overpriced photographs altogether; these are major moneymakers for cruise lines, and therefore, terrible values for travelers. Rather than ponying up $10 or $15 for a staged snapshot, get some of your selfies printed at Costco when you get home, for pennies on the dollar.
Understand your ship’s alcohol policy. Because of the high on-board markup — as well as for liability and safety reasons — many cruise lines don’t allow passengers to bring their own alcohol on board. If you do buy a bottle of local wine, you’ll need to hand it over to the cruise line, who will give it back only when you disembark at the final port. However, increasingly, cruise lines are allowing passengers to bring a small amount of alcohol on board, often one or two bottles of wine for the entire cruise. Considering that booze is one of the main profit centers for a cruise line, it’s worth it to max out on this allowance. Find out your ship’s policy, stop by a wine shop on your way to the ship (or buy it duty-free on the flight over), and save yourself some money.
Don’t assume you have to pay for official shore excursions. At every single cruise port in Europe, it’s possible to get into town and be your own tour guide for the day: Just hop on the public bus or tram, pay a dollar or two, and in a few minutes you’re at the main square. Or splurge on a taxi, which is still several times cheaper than an excursion. Our two Cruise Ports guidebooks (for the Mediterranean and Scandinavia and Northern Europe) are designed exactly for this purpose, with step-by-step instructions for how to get into town from every major European cruise port. This allows you to make an informed decision about whether an excursion is worth splurging on. (You can also get a port-by-port rundown by watching my travel talks on Mediterranean and Northern European cruise ports.)
Here’s an example: Stepping off my cruise ship in St. Petersburg, I’d already decided to skip the $250 cruise line excursion. Out at the curb, I was quoted a taxi fare of a $25 for the ride into town. But then a public bus pulled up just behind the taxi stand — and I hopped on. While designed for local commuters who work at the port, this bus also welcomes tourists. For $1, it brought me to a Metro stop, where — for another $1 — I zipped (under stalled traffic jams) directly to the heart of town…faster and for less than a tenth the price of a taxi.
Remember: Anytime you get off the ship, you can either head for those excursion buses…or head into town on your own. The choice is yours.
On the other hand, sometimes shore excursions can be a solid investment — particularly for reaching far-flung sights. Some outlying sights are a headache to connect by public transportation. For example, if you’re calling at the port of La Seyne-sur-Mer, in Provence, it’s possible to use trains and buses to reach a couple of the big Provençal sights…but that means spending part of your precious vacation poring over transit schedules. It can be much easier, less stressful, and more efficient to just let an excursion do the work for you. In contrast, in places like Naples, Tallinn, or Istanbul, where the ship lets you off a few minutes’ walk from all the big sights, I’d skip the excursions.
Also, don’t assume that you have to take an excursion offered by your cruise line. A wide range of third-party companies meet arriving ships selling essentially the same itineraries the cruise lines sell, and often cheaper. Or you can hire your own private guide or driver to show you around; especially if you split the cost among four or six people, this can be significantly less (per person) than official shore excursions, while tailored specifically to your interests.
Don’t be terrified about missing the ship. The cruise lines’ main motivator for selling excursions is the dire warning: If you don’t make it back to the ship by “all aboard,” we’ll leave without you — and you’ll have to find your own way to the next port. While this is, indeed, an enforcable policy, several crew members on various lines have assured me that it’s exceedingly rare for someone to get left behind. Trust yourself to manage your time smartly enough to make it back on time. (If you are perennially late, then tell yourself the ship leaves an hour earlier than it actually does.) I make a point of being the first person off the ship each morning, and the last one back in the evening…and I have yet to miss the boat.
One strategy for ensuring you’ll make it back on time is to hit the farther-flung sights first, then work your way back toward the cruise port, so an afternoon traffic jam doesn’t leave you stranded in the boonies. For example, in Barcelona, in the morning I’d tour Gaudí’s Sagrada Família — located in the distant suburbs — and then work my way back to the Ramblas and Gothic Quarter, which are within sight of my ship.
Choose cruises in expensive places. Since your costs for accommodations, transportation, and most food are set, cruises are a particularly good value in very expensive places, like Scandinavia. It can be demoralizingly expensive to visit the Scandinavian capitals on your own — with sky-high train fares, hotel rates, and pricey meals that can add up fast. But a cruise connecting Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki lets you experience those places for one fixed price. And each of those cities is well organized for cruises, with a port either right in the center (within easy walking distance), or an easy public-transit ride away.
Have lunch in port. On the face of things, this is the opposite of a “money-saving tip” — why not just head back to the ship for a “free” lunch? But in terms of overall travel experience, having lunch on shore is an excellent investment. It saves you the wasted time of returning to the ship. Better yet, it gives you an opportunity to sample authentically local cuisine. (Remember the great lament of any cruising foodie: The food you’re served on board most ships is generic international fare.)
Take it a step farther, and challenge yourself to find something fast, affordable, and local (don’t just grab a Big Mac). Figure out the local version of a hot-dog stand or pizza by the slice — for example, in Nice, get a socca (chickpea crêpe, piping hot from the oven); in Athens, grab a souvlaki (kebab of grilled meat); and in Venice, drop into a cicchetti bar to munch some tapas-style small plates.
Don’t skimp on the tip. One place where you should not try to economize is when it’s time to tip the crew. Most cruise lines “insource” low-wage workers from the developing world, who work incredibly long shifts (12-14 hours a day), seven days a week, without days off, for their entire multi-month contract. (Seriously.) They’re away from their families and working hard, and their base pay is minimal — most of their income comes in the form of tips. In an acknowledgement of how important this tip income is, most cruise lines levy an “auto-tip” that is divided among the crew. While they set a default amount (usually around $12/day), some cruise lines will lower it at your request. Don’t do it — the people working hard for you need this money. In fact, use some of the money you’ll save from the other nine tips here to fund generous additional tips for the folks who make your cruise experience so special.
Shop thoughtfully…even on land. Souvenirs sold on a cruise ship are obviously marked up. But you might not realize that what you buy in port also includes a substantial kickback. Cruise lines hand out an “information sheet” for each port, listing the “recommended” or “endorsed” merchants in that town. Of course, these businesses are paying the cruise line for the privilege of being “recommended.” And in some cases — for example, the carpet sellers in Turkey — they also pay a hefty commission for anything that they sell. (When you return to the ship, you’ll hear an announcement: “If you bought a carpet in Kuşadası, bring the blue copy of your receipt for a raffle. You could win an iPad!” This is the cruise line’s way of keeping track of which carpet sellers owe them a commission.) For the best prices, do some research on your own to find better value, without the built-in cruise industry markup. In general, assume any “advice” offered by your cruise line is clouded by a profit motive.
Do your homework. Most of these tips have a common thread: To have an “A” cruise, be an “A” student. If you just show up, unprepared, and throw yourself at the mercy of the cruise line, you’ll pay far more to experience far less. It’s that simple. Instead, do a little homework to wring the maximum value out of your cruise.
Spend some time preparing for your trip researching online reviews (such as on Cruisecritic.com), reading up on how you can visit ports independently (in the Rick Steves Cruise Ports guidebooks, on the Mediterranean and Scandinavia and Northern Europe), watching my travel talks and Rick’s new public television special about cruising, and asking your friends and social media contacts for their best tips. There’s a vast subculture of Americans who cruise year after year, and who geek out on the ins and outs of cruising. You probably know some of them. Find them…and learn from them. Pretty soon, you’ll be the one everyone is asking for advice.