Image: Cruise ship leaving Venice
Andy Newman  /  AP file
The Carnival Liberty departs Venice, Italy, on June 28, 2006. Liberty is the first ship for Miami-based Carnival sailing on European voyages for an entire summer.
By Editor, Cruise Critic
updated 7/24/2006 2:03:45 PM ET 2006-07-24T18:03:45

Having spent six weeks cruising on three different ships, we learned a few "hard knocks" lessons on getting the most out of cruising Europe.

The first was that visiting Europe via cruise ship was easily the most intensive sightseeing cruise experience ever. In the Caribbean, sure, there's history, but you can also mix and match laid back beach outings and boat trips (and not feel guilty). Alaska, most definitely, is all about the wilderness, but much of it can be passively explored -- from a seat on everything from a dog sled to a helicopter.

Popular European cruise itineraries offer a head-spinning array of choices. The first piece of advice? A day per port is by no means enough time to see anything, much less everything. The best way to stay sane is to treat each day as a "sampler" -- if you like it, plan to return for a lengthier stay another time. And if you don't -- and trust me, there will be ports that don't ring your chimes -- the good news is you haven't invested time and money in a long stay.

Europe's such a big place that on Cruise Critic we've divided it up into four basic regions (though you'll find that many itineraries will combine various ports from these regions). By and large though, here's a quick (and hopefully helpful) guide to choosing an itinerary:

Eastern Mediterranean: These cruises primarily feature ports of call in Croatia, Greece and Turkey. Embarkation and disembarkation points are commonly located in places like Piraeus (for Athens), Venice and Istanbul.

Western Mediterranean: These itineraries focus on Italy's west coast (with port-of-call stops that service cities like Rome and Florence), France's glittering Cote d'Azur, coastal Spain (from Barcelona all the way east to Cadiz/Seville) and Portugal (Lisbon).

British Isles and Western Europe: On these cruises -- which quite commonly do pull from various regions such as the Western Mediterranean and Northern Europe -- you'll sail to places like Belgium (Brugge/Brussels), Amsterdam, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris/Normandy and Hamburg. The most common embarkation point is London (Dover, Harwich, Southampton and Tower Bridge).

Northern Europe: There are two distinctly different types of itineraries in Northern Europe. The first is Norway's west coast, where the prime attractions are its gorgeous fjords. Cruises often turn around from Copenhagen or London. The second is the Baltic region, one of Europe's major centers of art, culture and history; key destinations there include Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Copenhagen. Common ports of embarkation/disembarkation include London, Copenhagen and Stockholm.

You'll appreciate a 'day off'
Other lessons learned on our European cruises?

Wear comfortable shoes (pack several pairs) and plan on walking. A lot. Those charming cobblestone streets (ubiquitous throughout Europe) are hard on feet.

When shopping for a specific cruise, look carefully at the itinerary to see if there are any days at sea. You will appreciate the occasional "day off" between bouts of frantic sightseeing in port.

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Strategize your sightseeing by varying activities. If Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are on the docket three days in a row, intensive city tours in each place will be overwhelming (and get monotonous). Look for the occasional alternative -- in Belgium go to medieval Brugge instead; if Paris doesn't appeal, take advantage of the proximity of its port (Le Havre) to major attractions in France's gorgeous Normandy region. The Baltic cruise is another region where it's a good idea to try out more "innovative" explorations because many of the Scandinavian cities, in particular, feel somewhat similar. Try a walking tour of Oslo, a kayaking-the-canals approach to Copenhagen, and just hanging out in easy-to-maneuver Stockholm.

Avoid sightseers' guilt. You only have a day in each destination (with a few exceptions -- cruise lines often offer overnights in Venice and St. Petersburg). You can't see everything so narrow down your choices -- and if you're tired of museums and just want to have a long lunch at a sidewalk cafe, well, that's a great experience too.

Seasonal timing is important in choosing the right trip for you. Hate crowds (but don't mind mercurial weather)? Plan to sail April through early June and then again in September through October (fares also tend to be lower then). August is dicey because lots of restaurants and even attractions shut down for yearly vacations; if you're limited to school holiday times, try for late June through early July.

Beware of the visa issue. Making that once-in-a-lifetime trek to St. Petersburg and intend to explore independently?  Russia requires U.S. citizens to obtain a visa in order to wander the streets (an exception applies to those booked on ship-sponsored excursions or through independent tour operators with the appropriate registration), and you must obtain it in advance of your trip (you will not be allowed off the dock without it). The cruise line has little incentive to help passengers on this issue, according to an executive at one line who said they profit much more if travelers buy their shore excursions -- and, perversely, the cruise lines usually supply the forms with your travel documents, which often arrive fairly close to your departure date.

Shop like a local
The cost of a visa ranges from $70-$150 (depending on whether your turnaround time is two weeks or overnight), and it must be obtained from the Russian embassy or a Russian consulate. Also consider a visa service, such as Zierer, which charges an extra fee. In this case the fee may well be worth it because qualifications are very exacting. You will need to submit two passport photos. For more info: www.visittorussia.com.

Independent tour operators with the appropriate registration can provide customers with an "invitation" (also known as sponsorship) if you book in advance (allow at least two weeks). We tried that on our last visit and had a wonderful experience with Red October (http://www.redoctober.spb.ru/), one of St. Petersburg's best-known tour companies.

Head for the supermarket and shop like a local. Looking for off-the-beaten-track souvenirs? Great buys can be found on everything from locally made ceramics (Stockholm) to wine (France and Italy) to chocolate (Belgium), and you'll spend far less than at touristy shops. Another great spot is a locale's department store, for fashions and home furnishings like distinctive candlesticks and vases. Many cities have upscale handicraft boutiques for discerning (and generally quite affordable) "art." If you are buying tourist trinkets, do try to nab them at the destination. Cruise ship staffers frequently will pick up touristy tchockes to sell in the onboard shops with quite a high price markup.

Beware of shopping for items like pirated CDs and DVDs (huge in St. Petersburg) and Cuban cigars that are illegal to bring back into the U.S.

The independent-minded travelers' conundrum: when to book ship-organized shore excursions...and when it's more fun (and cheaper) to explore on your own. Some of the most interesting European destinations are located a fair distance, anywhere from an hour to three hours' drive, from the port itself. Among these? Le Havre (Paris), Civitavecchia (Rome), Livorno (Florence/Pisa), Dover, Harwich and Southampton (London), and Cadiz (Seville). In these ports, cruise lines offer basic bus transportation to the main city; this is a good idea because, should the bus return late to the dock, the ship will wait for you. Another time when shore excursions can be a good idea is in a place where you the language and customs are utterly foreign; in this instance, we recommend taking a ship tour the first day in St. Petersburg (and exploring on your own the second). Easy ports for independent exploring include Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen (all have very sophisticated tourism offices that provide as much information -- historic or cultural -- as you'd probably get from a tour guide), all very walkable cities. Venice, Dubrovnik and Brugge are also good do-it-yourself destinations, easy to navigate and understand.

Europe's got a terrific mass transportation infrastructure -- trains, buses, boats -- that makes renting a car, unless you are venturing somewhere really off-the-path, completely unnecessary. In most cases, mass transit extends to major port areas, or cruise lines offer shuttle service to the nearest train station.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

Cruise Critic has been honored by the Society of American Travel Writers with its Lowell Thomas Award and was named in Travel + Leisure's "Best 35 Travel Sites" list.

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