How To: Improve the Cruise

The marketing for cruising recently has really exploded and prices seem so reachable that you may be considering this as a vacation option. Today cruising has become such an amazingly affordable experience which many people chose as a way to enjoy various locations without having to “change hotels”.                                 

Small ships with passengers under 300 tend to be more expensive but offer fewer amenities; the up side is that their size permits them to visit areas where the larger ships can’t travel and many customized shore excursions are included in the price.  Travelling on a small cruise ship may appeal to people who want a specialized trip, such as a canal cruise in Europe, or exploration of the inlets and fjords of Alaska.

Large ships tend to offer lower prices than smaller ships and amenities often include multiple restaurant choices, shopping, movie theater, casino and more.  The flip side of all that is that you are one of so very many people that need to be taken care of; you become part of the hoard.  You may think you are getting decent service, but individual attention is not part of it.  In addition, the cost may appear to be lower, but when you add in separate and additional costs for options such as land tours, they begin to look more expensive.  

To improve the cruise experience you have several aspects that you need to spend time to research.

  1. Find out your ship’s itinerary and when it will be in each port it visits. Go to that port’s website and determine how many ships are scheduled to be there at the same time and the estimated number of visitors that will hit that town the same time as you.
  2. You also HAVE to plan your shore expeditions beyond what the cruise line offers. Use the tours offered to you only as a tool to see what can be done in the time you have ashore. The providers are not the only ones offering the service. They just happen to have contracts with the cruise line. As such, they may or may not offer the best financial opportunity, but you can almost guarantee they will not give service of the highest caliber. They can’t, because they are handling a huge mass of people in a short amount of time.

Two summers ago I happened to spend ten days in Croatia. As you know, one of my friends retired there a few years ago and we had a chance to visit and explore. Because she is there and she and I chat a lot, I am aware of the issues experienced when living in a tourist town.  This area between Venice and Greece is a cruise destination with growing popularity. It is a beautiful area to explore, full of ancient history and a vibrant culture that is different enough and yet understandable enough to be comfortable in its “foreign-ness”.


Any area with ancient streets will be overwhelmed with a huge influx of people if there is not careful management by the local authorities.  This monstrosity is not even the largest cruise ship that visits Dubrovnik. The MSC Musica boasts all the wonderful amenities that entice cruisers….and can accommodate between 2500 and 3100 people on board. Cost range per person from $1800 upwards for a 7-day cruise that includes a 6-hour stop at Dubrovnik, although some deals can be found that cost less.

However, because of the growing popularity of cruising the Adriatic, the problem is the crowds.  One very obvious factor in our time in Dubrovnik was dealing with the amazing amount of people who entered the town almost every day. In 2010 the town attracted 836 cruise ships with over 1.1 million passengers. That’s a lot of people during cruise season (May-October). (Travelling outside of the main season may provide you smaller crowds, but it also will restrict access to some places of interest that have shorter hours or are even closed off season.)  One day this past summer over 10,000 people visited the Old Town at the same time.  It was so crowded that police had to be called in to direct the foot traffic. I feel so bad for those people. They paid good money to go on their cruises, expecting a quality experience….and it could not have been.  No one had the kind of visit they expected and deserved.

The water is deep enough outside the Old Harbor at Ploce and passengers from cruise ships that moor out there are brought to the Old Harbor by tender.

The new harbor was built in the Gruz area of Dubrovnik to offer quayside berthing,

Since Dubrovnik has a long history of seafaring, construction of a new harbor with modern facilities made economic sense.

                                                                              Most people take the shuttle offered by the cruise line and get dropped off 15 minutes later at the Plaza above the Old City. There they will see tour guides who hold up signs for  “English” or “German” or “French” and then take crowds of 20-40 people through the Old City, using electronic megaphones that were unintelligible 10 feet away. I felt very bad for the last guy in line, who followed the herd, not understanding what he was seeing. 

                                                               It seems that many cruisers do nothing more than walk the top of the Wall and then up and down the Stradun, eating gelato, never understanding the history of what they are seeing.

What is particularly sad is that these cruisers then tell their friends or actually post advice on the internet telling people that Dubrovnik “can be done” in a couple of hours. They didn’t do much and to spread that kind of message is very misleading.  Have you ever visited any city, let alone one with thousands of years of culture, for four hours and feel you have done it all? Be careful not to trust these people’s insights.


So, what can you do to make sure your time on shore is a quality experience?

You obviously are internet savvy—you are here, reading my blog! Use that expertise and plug in the names of the ports where your cruise will stop. Read about those place and then pick one or two that truly intrigue you and start to work.  Most have visitors’ bureaus that provide a lot of information about things to do and see.  Check to see if there are any special  events scheduled for the time of your visit that may need advance purchase.

Read other tourists’ comments about what they experienced but please remember that you have no idea if that person has similar interests to you so their likes and dislikes may be different. If you feel you don’t have the time to do the research, don’t cave in and just do the easy thing by accepting the choices from the cruise-line, or worse, do nothing at all. Ask me for specific help.  You are spending a lot of money for that wonderful cruise vacation…..make it extra memorable. Be able to talk more about it than the food on the ship and the sun and the sea….that is same old same old. Be able to share a tidbit of something you learned.

I’ve mentioned before the value of a private guide and tour companies who offer very small custom tours. While custom tours are perhaps a bit more expensive than what you would pay for a ship sponsored tour, the quality of the individualized attention and customized locations enhance the experience above and beyond what that poor guy at the end of the 40 people who can’t understand a squawk the guy is muttering. If you can’t afford a customized tour at each port, plan one at least at some of your stops.

Compare these two pictures and decide which experience you want.

Next time you travel, whether you are lucky enough to cruise to an exotic location, or you are on a drive somewhere here in the US, most visits can be enhanced with a local expert hired just by you and your family. The magic of being shown hidden gems is there for you to discover.

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3 Responses to How To: Improve the Cruise

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