Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Taking a Cruise Vacation: Reflections...

I am about as far from being an expert as there could be, but I've had so many friends ask me about our experience and look for advice, that I thought it would be helpful to share some of the things we learned and any "advice" we might be able to partake.  I have several friends that have made cruiselines their favorite mode of travel as they have been on several or go on one every year.  They will undoubtedly have so much more to offer for advice and I hope they provide any comments where they feel it would help compare information.

We went with MSC Cruiseline primarily because it was a family friendly budget cruise, but also because they had the itinerary that we wanted that left out of Venice and cruised through the Greek Islands (including Santorini), and also visited Dubrovnik in Croatia.  MSC was a great company to travel with.  The ship was incredibly huge, so it felt like we were on a floating Las Vegas hotel with people from all over Europe, the US, Canada, Australia...  I have only been on one other cruise before this one, and it was a Caribbean cruise that I went on with my family a loooong time ago.  The experiences barely compare, but they were both fun in their own ways.

Honestly, taking a cruiseline vacation was a little contrary to our usual mode of travel, but in the end, it really was a great way to travel with a family and see many amazing destinations without having to change hotels, worry much about transportation or food, and keep it somewhat on a budget.  Our usual speed is more of a backdoor approach with our B&Bs and off the beaten path walking tours, so it took a tiny bit of getting used to staying on a grand ship that was basically a luxury hotel on the water.  Each destination translated into being one among the crowds.  There really was no avoiding it, but you do start to get used to it, and you are so busy trying to see as much as possible while the ship is in port, that your just go with the crowd.

Big R and I were crazy busy with school and work before the cruise that we didn't have much time to research anything about the trip or the ports of call on our itinerary.  We had a million questions, and I think I drove our travel agent crazy because I kept emailing him for information and advice.  Since we had the questions, I have no doubt they are similar to the ones everyone else will have, too.  So, here's what our experience taught us...

If you live in Europe and take a cruise that embarks from Venice, it is absolutely worth it to park at the port.  The cruiselines give you a deal on parking for the week you are gone.  All around it was the cheapest and easiest option.  You reserve your parking place online before you arrive, and the rest is all too easy.  You literally park right next to the ship, which couldn't be more convenient if you are traveling with several pieces of luggage and little ones in tow. 


We got a cabin with a deck because we felt it was worth the money to enjoy the evenings after dinner together on the deck while the boys slept.  We only had two nights that were too cold to sit outside, so we really got our money's worth.  Two of the mornings we had late ports of call, so I even did yoga on the deck those two days.  It was fabulous.  The ocean view cabins seemed fine as well. If you are doing a northern excursion, the evenings would probably be too cold to sit outside anyhow.

It was actually really hard to balance on a moving ship!

I loved our evenings on the ship together

The cabins are far more spacious than we expected.  Some folks complained about the space, but I guess we assumed being on a ship meant the rooms would be small, so we were pleasantly surprised.  If you have a baby, definitely bring a pack-n-play or have one reserved for you on the ship.  We didn't know this was an option, and decided to bring ours at the last minute.  The fold out couch worked perfect for little r without being made into a bed.  We just put sheets over the couch and he was happy. That left enough room for baby c to sleep in his pack-n-play.

Drink Packages and Food

A huge mystery is whether it's worth it to do a drink package, and if you do, which one is the best deal.  The cruise pretty much gives you all the food you can possibly handle.  If you don't want to eat the "Free" food, which was decent, but not luxurious, they had other restaurants on our ship that offered more top of the line dining. So, the food is free (mostly), but the drink are not.  You have to pay for every drink you consume on the ship, including water (unless you opt to drink the tap water, which is possible and perfectly safe).  The cost for the drinks is pretty much what you'd expect.  Not cheap, but not over the top either.  Where the cost tends to add up when you do a pay as a go purchase for drinks is in the service charge.  I think it was around 12% for every drink, which can really add up.

Our typical dining experience on the ship

We had thought about doing a wine and water bottle package, but we weren't happy with the options for the price.  In fact, we had almost decided to just pay as we go and forget about the package, and then we made a spur of the moment decision before boarding the ship to splurge for the all inclusive drink package.  It was a pricy choice, but in the long run, I think it was the best choice for us.  We were able to indulge as we wanted without constantly trying to do the math.  The package included all the ice cream and gelato we wanted, bottle water was completely free, and we could order the better coffee options.  Could we have gone cheaper? Absolutely.  Based on what we actually consumed every day though, we definitely saved big and got our money's worth.  One bonus with the package is that you do not have to pay any of the service charges.  That really made a huge difference.

So, that's how we made our decision.  We were able to enjoy sparkling water on our excursions, cafe lattes for breakfast, a prosecco on the deck in the evening before dinner, a glass of wine with dinner if we wanted, and there was still room to bring a glass home to enjoy on our deck when the weather was gorgeous.  All of little r's drinks were included in ours as well, and he definitely liked all of the ice cream.


Everyone will ask, and we were definitely among that group, whether the excursions are worth it.  We got advice from "we NEVER take excursions" to "we take one at every port."  The advice was all over the place, and now that we have been on a cruise, I can completely understand why that is the case.  The excursions through the cruiseline are very pricey.  Depending on the location, it might be worth it.  If nothing else, it'll be a way to ensure that you make it back to the ship before it leaves port.  The folks we shared our dinner with in the evening took a private tour of Santorini. It was apparently amazing. They saw most of the island, didn't feel rushed, and felt it was worth every penny.  They did have a big scare though when they almost didn't make it back to the boat.  This is a risk you take when you go off on your own.  If you take an excursion through the cruiseline, they will ensure you are back in time.

Now that we have done this, some things we would do differently is not be wary of taxis.  They are available at every port, and I think for nearly all of our destinations, the cab was a good deal to get to the sights.  This is especially the case in Athens.  If you stop there, do not pay for an excursion or get talked into the hop-on-hop-off bus (like we did).  The excursions rush you and we heard nothing good about them.  The hop-on-hop-off bus would be a deal if you could actually use the bus line to see the city.  Honestly, you aren't in port long enough to use it, which makes it expensive.  The cab fair should only be 15 Eur each way.  That's super cheap if you are with a group and it's a lot cheaper than any of the excursions.

My advice would be to look at the different excursions and if you see one that sounds like something you'd enjoy and it isn't too pricey, go for it.  There were several "wine tours" or other fun adventures that would be difficult to do on your own, so those could be worth it.  We took one excursion when we were in Corfu.  It was 39 Euro a person, and little r stayed on the ship in the kids club.  We picked it because it took us to the other side of the island to a highly recommended area.  We were glad we did the excursion, but in hindsight, staying in Corfu City would have been wonderful, too.

Dining Options

When you take a cruise, they give you the option to eat dinner every night in the dining room.  There is an early and a late seating, and the food is decent (but not terribly different than what they serve for the buffet).  One thing I wish I had been more prepared for was the formal dining.  It's not a huge deal because they will serve you no matter what (on MSC anyways), but people really go big on the gala nights, and dress up to the nine's.  I couldn't figure out what to wear that would allow me to strap baby c to my chest, and packing shoes is never something I'm good at. Big R looked really amazing for our formal nights.  He brought slacks and a couple of blazers.  Unfortunately, he forgot a tie, but he was able to buy a nice one on the ship for pretty cheap.  At the very least, I wish I would have brought a pair of heals to help me feel more dressed up.

The other nights are very relaxed and pretty casual.  Some people show up like they are going to dinner at a nice restaurant, where others were very casual.  I don't think you are allowed to wear shorts, but you can definitely go to those dinners in jeans. They have other theme nights, but I'm not sure how you would know what to pack for them unless you found out the themes in advance (i.e., 80s night; red, white, and green night, etc.).


The ship has internet available that you can buy once they set sail.  Wireless is only available in the wifi zones, but you can hardwire a computer to the internet inside the cabins.  Depending on how much you need to be on the internet, quite frankly, you can use your cell phones at every port of call and also most of the time you are at sea because you are never too far from land.  We were also surprised at how many free wifi zones you could find in each of the cities.  So, unless you need to conduct work (or have internet for school), this is probably a good opportunity to take a break from technology and really enjoy your vacation.

Other fun notes about the ship - swimming, kids club, spa

I was pretty excited to let little r swim, but I wasn't sure how warm it was going to be.  It was a little chilly most of the days, more than that though, he didn't want to swim because all of the pools were salt water.  I don't think most adults really care (and honestly, the European kids seemed unphased), but little r was not a fan AT ALL.

If you take an MSC cruise, getting a massage is worth every penny. I'm not sure I've ever had a massage as good as this one.  Those "Bali" massages are incredible.  Also, just as a side note, the deals get better with each day of the cruise, so by the last day, they offer a 50% off for many of the services.  it's a steal!

The kids club was probably one of my favorite parts of the ship.  We decided that we would let little r tell us when he wanted to do something with us or go to kids club.  He stayed on the ship for two of the ports and for three of the dinners.  At first I think it was confusing to him that we were off on the ship doing something without him.  It helped when we let him come along a couple of times because he was no longer worried about what he was missing.  The day we got back from our trip into Athens, he had been working with his teachers and the other kids on a show that we got to watch before dinner.  It was classic and so much fun.  He is such a crack up!


I hope this is helpful in some ways to those of you that are thinking about doing a cruise.  Whether you go with MSC or another cruiseline in Europe, I highly recommend (if you are military) taking advantage of the USAA Military Cruise Deals.  Friends of ours also mentioned that SATO travel can get you some pretty great deals as well.

Let me know if you have any questions and I'll do my best to answer them.  Like I said, this is our first cruise, but you can learn a lot in one week.  For my friends that are stationed in Europe, I really hope you decide to go on one!!! It is so worth it and such a great time!

Here are some more stunning photographs from the ship that I wanted to share:

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