When I took my Mediteranean cruise on the Norwegian Epic last year some friends mentioned that it sounded like a great way to see Europe. Having done Europe by bus tour, cruise and a bit of independent travel I thought I would write about the pros and cons of a bus tour verses a cruise ship.
Disclaimer: the experience you have on any cruise or bus tour will vary greatly based on the company you use, countries you visit and the experience you book. You can’t compare a Disney Adventure tour for thousands of dollars a person with an inside cabin on a budget cruise ship. I will attempt to go with the middle of the line for both catagories for fairness sake. Think outside or balcony cabin on a mainstream cruise line like Carnival, Royal Caribbean or NCL and of a tour company along the lines of Trafalgar or Cosmos.
Accomodations: If you’re looking for space this category is going to a bus tour, if you’re looking for a nice new room, then I would give this to the cruise ship. Cruise ships have notoriously small rooms, with even smaller bathrooms. However, they tend to make good use of space and tend to get refirbished every few years. You’ll also have twice daily service to your room on a cruise ship. Hotels in europe tend to be very mixed. I’ve stayed in some really nice Holiday Inn’s in Germany and England. But I’ve stayed in some old crappy hotels with weird layouts in Italy. Hotel standards in Europe are very different then in the US, cruise cabins, although small, tend to be more in line with US standards.
Food: I’ll give this one to Cruise Ships, as far as included meals go. First, you get a much wider variety of food (and a menu), often on a tour you get what they make and put in front of you, or maybe a choice of 2 different meals. On a cruise for every meal you can have as much food as you want, and often 5-10 choices of food. And if one of those choices isn’t appealing to you the kitchen can usually come up with something for you. You have choices of buffet, sit down dining, room service. Tour food is usually made by a local restaurant or the hotel and can vary greatly. One place will make a bland chicken with some veggies. The next place may make a homemade local specialty, this may be better then cruise ship food, but it’s not guaranteed every night either.
Both cruise lines and tour companies will cater to those with special diets, results may vary.
Traveling Experience: I’ll give this one to the cruise ship. Sitting on a cramped bus isn’t fun, though it’s not bad either. On the cruise ship, any cruise ship, you’ll be more comfortable and there will be activities, shows, swimming, or taking a nap in a bed. But, you do miss out on the cultural experience of traveling by land, but I’ll talk about that later. Even worse, you miss seeing the countryside. Of course the traffic in the ocean is typically better then on highways at rush hour.
Cultural Experience: While this will depend on a lot of factors I’m giving this one to bus tours. I think that cruise ships tend to put people in more of a bubble then a bus tour (which does creates its own bubble), when you’re living in the country, you can’t avoid the culture. I’ll talk about this later, but on a tour you’ll typically spend more time in cities or towns.
When driving from destination to destination you’ll stop at rest stops or shopping centers for your breaks. Anyone who has tried to navigate an Autogrill in Italy knows the food is good, but the process is confusing. And you don’t mind paying for the toilet in Germany when it’s self cleaning.
At hotels you often have to deal with the hotel staff, who are locals. On a cruise you’re dealing wtih cruise ship staff who are generally trained to be as helpful as possible and they’re from all over the world – but rarely from the destination you’re visiting. When you’re staying in a hotel, the staff typically lives locally, and although they are usually helpful, they’ll also know the local area and customs. It can be subtle, but staying in a hotel gives a greater opportunity to interact with a local person instead of a cruise line employee. I will admit though that the hotels you stay at are used to and geared for tourists so they’re not necessarily authentic experiences, they just give a better opportunity, even if it’s just a simple conversation with a hotel desk clerk about local cuisine. You’ll also have the opportunity to walk around the area of the hotel.
The biggest variation with this category will be what you do when you’re in port. If you’re going to take an excursion (from the cruise line or independently) you’re often ushered from site to site to site. The best chance you’ll have for a cultural experience will be from your tour guide, you don’t typically have much other opportunity to interact with people outside your tour. On a bus tour you’ll usually get a city tour and then be on your own to explore, taking local transport or your feet from point to point. However, if you’re doing a port on your own you’ll have a more similar experience to someone on a bus tour.
Finally, on a bus tour you’ll be in the city overnight, this allows for a late night out, seeing a show, visiting bars and clubs – basically a chance to experience the nightlife of a city, you’ll rarely get that opportunity on a cruise ship.
Time in your Destination: You’re also typically in cities or towns longer on a bus tour. Even on a fast paced tour you’ll have a day and a half in a major city, sometimes more time. On a cruise, you’ll only typically be there for about 12 hours, which ends up being a lot less time when you need to factor in an hour or two of commute time from the port in cities like Rome and Florence. You have enough time to rush around and see the major sites and take nothing else in.
Comfort and Ease: I’ll give this to a cruise. You get on the ship, a few hours later your suitcase shows up, you unpack and are ready for your trip. On a bus tour you’re switching hotels every 1-3 nights. Packing and unpacking – depending on the comforts of the tour you may have to drag your suitcase to and from your hotel room. Instead of sitting in a bus for hours the cruise ship sails while you eat, sleep, drink and lay out at the pool sipping an umbrella drink.
The choice of taking a bus tour or a cruise in Europe is a personal choice. I have done both and they both have their advantages and disadvantages. For anyone who wants to expereince the countries I think a bus tour is a better option (though independent travel would be best). If you dream of seeing the major sites like The Colosseum, and The David then a cruise may be the better choice. But no matter which you choose, expect to be tired at the end!
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