European Travel via Mediterranean Cruise – Tips and Thoughts
This write-up covers some tips and thoughts regarding European travel, specifically when taking a Mediterranean Cruise. Like a lot of the world, we haven’t traveled much over the last couple of years. Some small voyages occasionally, but my wife and I are fairly cautious people so we’ve been hesitant to take any major trips that couldn’t be avoided. However, this year marked our 10th wedding anniversary, so we were determined to finally jump back out there…and judging by the summer travel crowds, it seems like pretty much everyone is in the same mode. When my wife and I got married way back when, we took a trip to Europe for our honeymoon. So, we figured let’s do something similar for our 10 year celebration – this time with a couple of kids in tow.
The honeymoon trip was the United Kingdom and France, and it was your standard hotel-train-taxi type of journey. It was an awesome trip full of great memories. I’ve wanted to go again for quite a while, but life always seems ready to provide excuses and reasons for delay. So, I was very glad we were of like mind on taking a repeat trip! And what a trip it was; full of exciting new locations and things to explore. We had a great time, and despite the kids being fairly young, they were real troopers about the entire adventure. All-in-all, some wonderful memories and stories we can tell for a long time. One of the best signs of a great trip? As soon as we got home, we were all talking about how much we wish it had been longer, and when we can start talking about the next one.
I’m going to share some of my favorite scenery and food photos from this trip below. Then, immediately following the photo galleries, I’ll provide some tips and various other thoughts, presented in sort of a Q&A/Frequently Asked Questions format. I should also mention a great resource we leveraged extensively for this trip – Rick Steves. We referenced both his website and travel guide books quite a lot during our trip. I also wrote a separate post specifically about Rick Steves if you’re curious to read more on his European travel expertise.
Advice on the financial/cost aspects?
If you stay vigilant and plan ahead, you can definitely get some good discounts on most cruise lines. We booked about a year in advance and I periodically did price comparisons online and called Norwegian Cruise Lines to ask them to price it out again. I’m sure I was annoying, but ultimately knocked a couple thousand off the originally booked price (Edit: I think we actually saved more like $1500 this way, but folks we traveled with did the same and got more knocked off their price).
Another money-saver was booking the flight through Norwegian. By the time of our cruise, gas prices had gone through the roof and plane tickets to Europe were incredibly expensive. A downside though was our tickets were through Air Canada…which has somewhat of a spotty reputation at the moment. Overall, it was fine though considering the relatively low price.
How to prepare for the trip?
This is a tough one because there is quite a lot to do! Obviously, get your passports in order. We also carried copies of the passports, vaccination cards, and negative COVID tests. And we put copies of our itinerary in every bag and suitcase. And taped business cards all over the outside of the suitcases in clear, heavy-duty tape. Is that overkill? Maybe…but anything you can do to help prevent your luggage from being lost is good to try. I highly recommend hard shell cases that have wheels that can swivel in any direction; makes moving about the airport much easier. I also recommend taking a day or two off before and after the trip if you can, especially if you haven’t traveled overseas previously. The buffer days really helped me.
Onshore Exploring the Cities
Organizing restaurants, shops, and places to visit overseas?
Highly recommend getting mobile service during an overseas trip. I believe AT&T cost us $10 per day for unlimited everything. When in a new city, we used Google Maps to organize some restaurant ideas. We used the “Travel Plans” private list to find places to visit in each city. So, when we were hot and tired, it wasn’t too hard to find ideas near us. We also used Rick Steves’ book for major attraction ideas, but the individual shops and whatnot were easier to manage within Google Maps lists.
General dining thoughts in the Mediterranean?
Definitely try local wines and beers with your meals – they are great and surprisingly inexpensive. European chocolate is on another level from what you can get in the US in terms of flavor. Not only do I recommend trying it, but also get some to take home. If it’s your first time, try all the things cities/regions are known for: Get some pizza and pasta in Italy, cheeses and desserts in France, paella and tapas in Spain. I’ll cover more on specific cities below.
Specific recommendations in Florence, Italy?
The pasta in Florence is the best I’ve ever had. Not sure if that’s just coincidence because we happened to find an exceptional place or not, but it was quite remarkable lasagna. We’ve been home for weeks and I’m still talking about it. Others in our travel group also said their dishes were similarly incredible.
Also, buy something leather in Florence – they are well known for their leatherworking and have a ton of great shops. Just be cautious of tourist traps that are linked with tours. The quality of leather should be stamped on what you buy, from best to worst: pieno fiore (full grain), parte grano/cuoio di grano (top grain), vera pelle/vero cuoio (genuine), or cuoio rigenerato (bonded). I bought a wallet that I absolutely love; it’s so soft and always has that distinctive leather smell.
Specific recommendations in Naples, Italy?
Eat pizza in Naples. Well, really everywhere in Italy in my opinion. But especially in Naples, as they are proud of their pizza prowess. It’s really amazing and surprisingly inexpensive. I was expecting the bread to be great, because that’s often a good pizza narrative, but the vibrant, flavorful sauce was a really memorable hallmark. We spent a lot of time in a shopping area called Via Toledo, which was easily walkable from the cruise port. The pizza place we found was down an alleyway off of the main street and was exactly the sort of Italian pizza experience we were hoping for.
Specific recommendations in Ajaccio, Corsica, France?
Maybe just personal preference, but Ajaccio, Corisca was one of my favorite ports. The city center is right at the port, and there are a ton of street vendors and cool shops almost as soon as you get off the boat. We also took “Le Petit Train” to a beach which was definitely worth doing. Just don’t badmouth Napoleon there, as they really love the guy. As for food, one of my favorites at French lunch spots is the croque monsieur sandwich, which did not disappoint in Ajaccio.
Specific recommendation in Rome, Italy?
If you’re docking at the cruise port in Civitavecchia, I definitely recommend booking a shore excursion ahead of time. We decided to wing it to some extent, taking the train to Rome. It worked out okay, but would have been much easier to have things arranged ahead of time. We booked in advance for Florence, which is similarly far from the cruise port, and it was significantly easier. Also fair warning: The taxis are pretty wild in Rome. Many roads and roundabouts downtown don’t seem to have lanes…which makes things interesting.
As for food, we also had pizza in Rome. It was very good, but a bit different than Naples. The sauce wasn’t quite as vibrant as it was in Naples, and the crust was a bit thicker in Rome. Still excellent pizza, but not quite the same.
Specific recommendations in Cannes, France?
We found the trains in Cannes to be incredibly confusing compared to Rome. In Rome, as with every other train station I’ve seen, the train numbers and destinations are listed on boards at each platform. Even if you don’t speak the language, it’s still relatively easy to figure out. But we didn’t see any such thing in Cannes. Basically, you could ask someone to get information, but the boards at platforms didn’t show times or train numbers. On the flip side, the taxis in Cannes are inexpensive and shockingly nice.
The beach is beautiful in Cannes, but the city seemed to be geared largely towards the very wealthy, with tons of high end designer shops everywhere. That’s not really my scene, but there were some cool cafes close to the water. In hindsight, it would have been better to book travel in advance to another nearby city on the French Riviera like Nice.
Advice for Mediterranean travel with young kids?
Just be patient and go into it knowing you won’t be able to go full speed ahead. But if you get them used to travel, even young kids can be surprising little road warriors. It’s good general advice not to overestimate your ability to walk places, but it’s especially true with kids. In some places, like Rome, expect you’ll have to take taxis. There were a couple of instances we tried to walk to a destination, but the area wasn’t suitable or the kids weren’t up for it.
I also definitely recommend preparing a good walking day bag with water, portable fan(s), various meds, napkins, some small activity packs (like crayons/coloring books, pipe cleaners, etc), a few snacks, possibly a change of clothes. With my kids, as long as we kept them hydrated and fed, they were pretty well up for whatever.
Any advice for booking sites and major attractions?
Always book museums and attractions ahead of time! Even if it’s not part of an excursion, you can usually do it online. For example, we booked the Coliseum in Rome ahead of time – our line was about five minutes, while people who didn’t had to wait in two massive lines which were several hours long. I can’t emphasize this aspect enough.
As I mentioned above, some ports aren’t at the actual destination cities – for example, the port at Civitavecchia is just over an hour from Rome by train. Only two of our seven stops were like that, but I definitely preferred the stops that didn’t involve extra travel. I highly recommend arranging excursions ahead of time for those. You can figure out trains/transportation on your own, but it’s a bit more stressful.
Along those same lines, even though they seem expensive ($120-150 at the lowest), shore excursions are still a solid deal just from a financial perspective when accounting for paying taxis, trains, and so forth. All those extras bought piecemeal add up, and the peace of mind having arrangements in place is really nice.
Thoughts on panhandlers, hustlers, con artists, etc. who approach tourists?
Be cautious when random people are trying to engage you. The person approaching you to sell a trinket or talk may be working with another person who is after your wallet, purse, or whatever else you have. Don’t be afraid to be a bit rude telling people you aren’t interested and to go away – abruptly cutting them off and not engaging is the best course. Keep in mind, people can probably tell you’re a tourist, which puts a target on you. There’s no need to stress about it, but keep your radar up.
A couple of funny stories. I had one panhandler in Barcelona come up to me while I was trying to buy ice cream for my kids. I brushed her off, and she yelled at me! Interesting side note – she looked like Anya Cholatra from The Witcher. So…Yennefer called me a MFer in Spain in front of my children, which is a hilarious thing to write. Another interesting one; I had several African dudes try to come up to me in Rome and say variants of “hey you’re from Africa” and “where are you from in Africa?” It was very bizarre, but I brushed them off and didn’t engage with them. I found out later these guys were probably using the team/partner method and had someone with them.
On The Cruise Ship
Thoughts on cruise ship cabins/rooms?
Highly recommend a balcony on cruises. We had one on this trip and it’s a huge space multiplier. The kids especially loved hanging out on the balcony in the evening before bed. And it was nice to be able to have people on the balcony when someone is trying to get organized inside.
In terms of storage, there’s lots of space under the bed, store suitcases under there! Our room had lots of cabinets, so it was good to unpack clothes and get the suitcases out of the way. I don’t usually unpack in hotel rooms, but on the ship it was good to maximize our space. Speaking of space, stagger getting ready in the morning if sharing a room with multiple people. Have people who are ready for the day head out of the room, perhaps to breakfast or something.
Also, highly recommend bringing an extension cord/power strip. Our room only had two US-style outlets and we could have definitely used additional charging capabilities.
Advice regarding drinks?
When we booked, Norwegian gave us a free drink package which covered any beverage (except Starbucks) up to $15, which pretty much captures everything but top shelf liquor. Mixed drinks onboard don’t have much alcohol. It wasn’t a huge deal to me, because I feel like I was always thirsty and found the drinks refreshing regardless. But, if you’re looking to party hard, consider getting beer or wine. Or, you could get a mixed drink plus a shot.
The coffee situation on Norwegian Cruise Lines is not great, unfortunately. You can get free coffee in only one place; the buffet. Otherwise, it’s Starbucks, which isn’t free (a double disappointment). As a big coffee drinker, this was a negative that crossed my mind multiple times during the trip.
Food recommendations on the ship?
If eating on the boat, we found the free full-service restaurants to be the best options (Taste and Manhattan on the NCL Epic). We tried a “premium”/paid restaurant and it was surprisingly not as good. And the buffet is just okay; not amazing, but also not bad. Otherwise, the best food is definitely off the boat.
Don’t be afraid to order extra food for yourself at the free restaurants! If you want to try different appetizers or whatever, go for it! But don’t order adult food items for the kids, because apparently that costs money. But you could always get it for yourself then let the kids take a bite.
Other thoughts on leaving or returning to the ship?
Don’t wait until the last minute to return to the ship, especially for ports that involve a tender (smaller ship to ferry you to the cruise ship). The lines to return can get really long if you’re trying to do it during the rush. We found NCL to be very efficient and well-organized, but it’s still quite a lot of people.
Also, if you are on an excursion booked through the cruise line, they very likely won’t leave without you. But if you’re out on your own and miss the deadline, the cruise ship will leave without you! In that case, it will be up to you in most cases to figure out how to catch up to the cruise ship at the next port.
Another thing to take note of: When the ship is docked at a port, much of the stuff onboard is closed. This includes the casino, bowling, shows, etc. Pretty much everything except for food and the pool. So, if you were thinking about taking a break during one of the stops, during the day you won’t have access to everything the ship has to offer in the evenings (unless it’s a planned “day at sea”).