Why Plan a European Cruise
Europe is a marvelous cruise destination for several reasons. A European cruise can be a great vacation option for a first-timer or for someone who has been to Europe many times. I think a European cruise is an especially good fit for travelers who want to see the history, art, and natural beauty of Europe without having to navigate the roads and train stations or spend a lot of time planning where to stay and where to dine. Let's look at why you should plan a European cruise.
Important European Sites are Accessible
First, many of the most popular sites in Europe are accessible to cruise travelers either on ocean-going or river cruise ships. Most of Europe's major cities were built right on the water and are impressive to see from the deck of a ship. The few sites not accessible from the water are usually only a short bus or train ride away.
European Cruising Is Efficient
Next, Europe is relatively compact and travelers can see many cities or sites efficiently. Most cruise ships sail at night and arrive in the next port of call early in the morning, allowing passengers a full day to see the sights. Cruise ships offer guided tours to most of the important sites in each port, or passengers can explore on their own. Either is more efficient than trying to find a place to park a car or navigate between cities on your own.
European Cruising Is Comfortable
Unlike a bus tour, independent driving vacation, or train trip, you only have to unpack once on a cruise, whether it is an ocean cruise or a European river cruise. The comfort factor also applies to those who are somewhat reluctant to tour in countries where English is not the primary language. Although I am constantly amazed at how many Europeans speak English, knowing the native language is not as important when you are cruising as it is when traveling independently.
A European Cruise Is Economical
Currently, the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and European currencies is not good for travelers (although some currencies are better than the past few years). European hotels and restaurants are much more expensive than comparable North American accommodations or food. Since most cruise ship fares and onboard prices are based on the U.S. dollar, the cost does not seem as high as when items are priced with the local currency.
The Downsides of European Cruising
There are only three possible downsides of a European cruise vacation. The first is that you will not have much interaction with the local citizens without some effort on your part. If you are eating and sleeping on the ship and touring with the other cruise passengers, your contact and exposure to the local culture are limited.
The second downside is timing. It is difficult to go all the way to Europe (a 6 hour or more time difference) and just be away from home for one week. It takes at least one day each way to travel, and the jet lag effects on your body are tiring for most people. Most travelers going to Europe stay longer, so many cruises are 10 days or more. Even those going on 7-day cruises will usually extend their European stays or go early.
The last downside is that although you are seeing many European cities, you do not spend much time in any one port of call. Think about traveling to any major U.S. city such as New York, Washington, or San Francisco. You could not begin to even scratch the surface of things to do and see in just 10 hours! When you are planning a European cruise and realize that you cannot do all the "musts" in one day, you will just have to convince yourself to return one day. On the other hand, I like to think that a European cruise is like a wonderful little box of chocolate candy.
Plenty of small bites to sample and treasure, but no opportunity to eat more if you fall in love with just one kind!
These three downsides are manageable for most travelers, and the joys of European cruising far outweigh the inconveniences listed above. Now that I've convinced you that Europe is a wonderful cruise destination, let's look at the decisions you need to make to choose the best cruise for you.
When to Go on a European Cruise
April to November is the best time of year to cruise Europe, and you will have the widest selection of ships during this time. Note that a few cruise lines operate in the Mediterranean year round, so if you must travel during the winter, there will be a ship available. June through August is the "high season" for most itineraries, with the prices during the other months being lower. Depending on where you are cruising, the spring and fall may be actually preferable since it won't be so hot. Sometimes tourist facilities close during the off season or have shorter opening hours, but your savings could be substantial.
The time of year is somewhat driven by where you want to go on your European cruise. Just remember that the best time to go to each destination is usually the most expensive.
Mediterranean - Best temperatures are in the spring and fall. Greece, Turkey, the Rivieras, and southern Italy and Spain get especially hot in the summer, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees away from the ocean.
Scandinavia and the Baltics - Cruises usually run to northern Europe only from late May to early September, with the late summer providing the best weather (70s or higher). Mid-June to early July is particularly interesting because of the midnight sun, which only disappears for 3-4 hours each night. Hurtigruten operates its Norwegian coastal voyages year-round along the western coast of Norway, so you can see the midnight sun in the summer and the Northern lights in the winter.
Great Britain and Ireland - Late summer and early fall are the sunniest months. Temperatures are generally much cooler (only in the low- to mid-60s) than on the European continent.
Rivers of Europe - River cruise ships operate on the great rivers of Europe from early spring through November and again for the Christmas markets in early December. Summer is the best weather, but the fall colors are spectacular and the temperatures are moderate. "Tulip" cruises operate in the Netherlands from March through mid-May, with April the best month for tulip-maniacs.
Atlantic Islands, Portugal, and western France - Cruise ships often visit Madeira and the Canary Islands as part of Caribbean/Mediterranean repositioning cruises in the spring and fall. These islands have good weather and moderate temperatures year-round. Ports of call in Portugal and western France are popular in the late spring and early fall when ships are repositioning between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. Temperatures are moderate during these times and it may be rainy in the spring.
Now let's look at where you should go on a European cruise. What are the differences between eastern and western Mediterranean or Baltic and coastal Norway?
Where to Go on a European Cruise
Cruises to Europe are very different from cruises to the Caribbean or Alaska. Like these popular cruise destinations, Europe has beaches and spectacular natural beauty, but it also has history, art, and cultural sites in most ports of call far too numerous to see in just one day. Most cruises to Europe fall into one of these categories -
Eastern Mediterranean Cruises - Greece, the Greek Isles, and Turkey are the highlights of most eastern Mediterranean cruises. Venice, Italy and Croatia (especially Dubrovnik) are also very popular ports of call on eastern Mediterranean itineraries, and a few cruises include stopovers in Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, or Egypt. The ancient archaeological sites of this area, combined with the natural sun-kissed beauty of the islands of Greece make the eastern Mediterranean a wonderful cruise experience.
Western Mediterranean Cruises - The area of the Mediterranean from the southern tip of Italy to the straits of Gibraltar are included in these itineraries. Sicily and towering Mount Etna are fascinating, as are the remains of Pompeii near Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Capri, an island near Naples, is a picture-perfect place to spend the day. Architecture buffs and art lovers will especially enjoy Rome, Florence, and Barcelona. The French and Italian Rivieras, Mallorca, and Monte Carlo feature beautiful beaches and lots of sun.
You can also rub elbows with some of Europe's rich and famous along the Rivieras and shop in some of the world's best boutiques.
Scandinavia and the Baltics - Most of these cruise itineraries cover the northern capitals of Europe--Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Oslo, Tallinn, and Riga. These cities are each different, with friendly citizens and interesting architecture and historical sites. The perfect summer weather and long days are relaxing and invigorating. St. Petersburg has so much to see and do that most cruise ships spend 2 or 3 days in port.
Coastal Norway and the Fjords - If you heart is set on seeing the magnificent fjords of Norway, don't get confused and book a northern European cruise that does not go to western Norway. Oslo (on the eastern coast of Norway) is on a fjord, but the countryside is hilly, not mountainous, and the fjords are not as dramatic as on the western coast. A Norwegian fjord cruise will usually include Bergen and perhaps Flam, Trondheim, and the North Cape on its itineraries. The island of Spitsbergen above the Arctic Circle is also a popular summer cruise destination.
European River Cruises - Many wonderful European cities were built on rivers, and these cities are accessible to river cruises. You can cruise all the way across the heart of Europe from Amsterdam on the North Sea to Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea via a river ship. River cruises also take passengers from Normandy to Paris or to southern France. Others include Berlin to Prague or Moscow to St. Petersburg. A good rule of thumb is that if there is a major city and a river nearby, there is probably a European river cruise!
British Isles - Cruise from London to Wales, Ireland or Scotland and all around the British Isles. The natural beauty of these islands mixes well with the excitement of London (as a pre- or post-cruise extension). For those who love nature, some small ships like the Hebridean Princess sail the Scottish Isles, with lots of hiking and exploring included along the way.
The Black Sea - Cruise ships sail from Istanbul or Athens into the Black Sea, with ports of call in Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria. These ports mix history and different cultures with ports of the old Soviet Union states.
Islands of the Atlantic Ocean - Several islands make interesting cruise destinations in the Atlantic Ocean. The Canary Islands and Madeira are year-round destinations, and the north Atlantic islands of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Shetland Islands are included on summer cruises. These islands all have great natural beauty and interesting geological features such as volcanic or geothermal activity, mountainous terrain, or quiet beaches.
Repositioning Cruises from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean - The cruise season in the Mediterranean is almost year-round, but ships only sail the Baltic and northern Europe from May through September. Repositioning cruises between the two parts of Europe are interesting and often a good deal. Ports of call between the UK and the Mediterranean often include Normandy, France with a day trip to Paris; Bordeaux, Bilbao, Lisbon, and some of the islands of the Atlantic Ocean or Gibraltar.
Whichever cruise destination in Europe you choose, your cruise will be a memorable one!