The ‘Book Excursions’ button has been activated on my P&O Cruise Personaliser for our Azura cruise in September. It’s a standard P&O 14-night cruise from Southampton the western end of the Med, calling at Vigo, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Ajaccio and Cadiz; eight ports of call in all.
When we first started cruising I took a lot of advice about destinations from the various cruise forums and from other websites, and as a result we generally tried to do our own thing in port. Partly this was from a desire to prove that we were experienced travellers (even though we weren’t) who could handle themselves in a strange port, and partly this was from a desire to save money! The classic example was (and is) the difference between the cost of a couple of BIRG tickets up to Rome from Civitavecchia – about €12 or so per person – and the cost of the ‘Rome on Your Own’ excursion – currently advertised for our cruise at £42 per person, or around €56 each. You can buy a lot of gelato with the difference between those two amounts….
But – there’s also a lot of extra effort and hassle in the DiY option. Let’s take the Civitavecchia to Rome example. First, you have to get from the ship to the station. Yes, there is a handy port shuttle bus that runs to the port entrance, but since last year that’s become less convenient as construction work at the traditional port entrance means that the shuttle bus now drops people off in a car park in the middle of town, further away from the station. Then you have to walk from there to the station , which is now almost a mile from the drop off point. Then you’ve got to go through the business of buying your tickets. Then there’s waiting for a train, followed by the scramble to get on one. Then there’s the slow journey into Rome – the regional trains on which the BIRG ticket is valid stop at a lot of stations. And finally, at the end of the day you have to work out which train to get back to Civitavecchia. In Val’s case this is certainly the train before the absolute last one, and possibly even the train before that. In other words, you expend a lot of effort, experience a lot of stress, and don’t get as long in the city, all to save some money. Whereas if you pay for the excursion you are taken by coach direct from the ship to a spot in central Rome, and all you have to do is get yourself back to that same spot at the due time. It doesn’t matter how busy the roads are or what incidents might arise on the journey, if you’re on an excursion you don’t have to worry. And I know from personal experience that strange things can happen with Italian trains – read this account of a failed journey by local train back to Fiumicino airport at the end of a (non-cruise) visit to Rome.
So as we’ve done more cruises our attitude to excursions has changed. For our cruise this year I’ve just booked excursions in five of the ports (Vigo, Lisbon, La Spezia, Civitavecchia and Cadiz). In some of them the excursions are less than full day so we should be able to wander round the port on our own after the excursion has finished – we certainly hope to do that at Cadiz. Alternatively, the early finish will allow us to hit a shoreside restaurant before going back to the ship; or perhaps we’ll go back on board and simple enjoy the peace and quiet of the ship while it’s in port. For the other ports – Gibraltar, Villefranche and Ajaccio – we will do our own thing. It helps in those cases that the port town is suitable for exploration, or is very small, or has easy transport links.
Don’t get me wrong, I look back on some of the DiY trips we did in various ports with a significant degree of satisfaction. We did Civitavecchia to Rome a couple of times, I think; we’ll probably always do our own thing in Barcelona; there were days on Platy Gialos beach at Mykonos, and Oia on our own at Santorini; and we had good days ashore at Stockholm and Copenhagen on our Baltic cruise last summer. My favourite exploit of all was when I worked out how to use the trams in Istanbul and made sure we had Turkish Lira to do so. As a result we were able to get ourselves quickly and easily into the historic parts of Istanbul and had really good visits to the Topkapi palace and Hagia Sophia. But there have been other times when we’ve gone ashore on our own because we weren’t prepared to pay for any excursions, and as a result just wandered around, unsatisfactorily.
Finally, a couple of caveats. First, I recognise that this is partly a function of us getting older – as we do so, we relish the easy option more and more. And secondly, I also recognise that we are in the fortunate position – at least at the moment – of being able to afford the excursions. If we were a family, or were cruising on a tighter budget, or were just younger with more energy, we’d probably tilt the balance back towards DiY.