While cruising itself is still a great vacation, getting to and returning from your ship often takes the shine off the whole experience. Overcrowded airports don't help, nor do the sky-high prices often charged by the scheduled carriers on many routes.
Plus, cruise-line air-sea packages often route you via more than one airport, and any deviation will cost you still more. Plus, with the major airlines demonstrating a vulnerability to problems ranging from snow to strikes these days, there's a sense of unease that creeps into many people's minds as departure day looms nearer.
Yet, there are viable alternatives to flying the major airlines to your homeport, especially for the European cruiser. Most notably, the options include budget airlines, rail journeys and ferry travel.
Budget airlines, such as Easyjet and Ryanair, now fly from 23 U.K. airports to many of the main ports of embarkation in the Mediterranean, mostly at a fraction of the price the big-name carriers are charging. This means you can usually bypass the process of connecting through another U.K. or European hub, and there's less worry about whether your baggage will get misplaced en route. Plus, the regional airports the low-cost carriers utilize tend to be smaller and less chaotic than big hubs like Heathrow and Gatwick.
Another even more leisurely process is travelling by train. If you have the time, a rail journey can be both relaxing and economical, as well as an adventure in its own right. From main hubs in London, passengers can take trains to the major ports of embarkation almost anywhere on the continent. For those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint at the same time, this is also a very compelling option, as trains emit far less carbon dioxide than planes on a per-passenger basis.
The final alternative is taking a ferry to your main port of embarkation, sometimes after a rail journey across mainland Europe itself. Ferries are fast and frequent, especially in the Med, and sometimes they're almost as comfortable as cruise ships. The convenience of having all your luggage in your cabin is also an obvious boon here.
Like everything, these forms of travel are not without potential pitfalls. Here are some of the things you might want to take into consideration when planning your journey. Some may be deal breakers, others not so much, but all are worthy of your consideration.
Budget air travel will almost certainly slash the cost of your journey, but bear this is mind: Charges for luggage can be considerable. Depending on how much you take, this extra cost could potentially wipe out any cost savings on a scheduled carrier. Check the airline's Web site properly, and definitely do your homework.
Flight times might be far from ideal as low-cost carriers sometimes have limited departures. Factor into your plans whether you'll need to spend any extra time in a departure or transit city before your scheduled embarkation.
When booking train travel, make sure to allow enough time to transit between platforms (or even stations) if you need to make a train connection to get to your destination. You might also want to check if there's frequent rail service to your homeport city, in case you miss your first train or connection and need to board a later coach.
In general, it's best to book train travel as far as possible in advance, but keep an eye on the schedules online. Some companies have different schedules for winter and summer, so exercise due care.
Many European trains and stations don't have porters these days. Even if you're in good health, you may not want to haul around the multiple suitcases you need for a long cruise. Plus, you'll likely have to stow your luggage in the train compartment (no checked baggage here). Figure out how many bags you'll be taking and how you plan to stow and carry them before you settle on train travel. (Same goes for ferry travel -- you'll need to haul those bags up a potentially steep gangway.) The hassles may not be worth the financial savings or may take away from the relaxing nature of a rail journey.
If you're set on an overnight train or ferry trip to your homeport, don't forget you'll need to fork out additional spends for food, drink, etc., just the same as if you were staying overnight in a hotel. (Although some first-class train hotels include meals in the price.)
Transfers to and from your ship will certainly not be included when you book air, train or ferry travel independently. Don't forget to factor the cost of transfers into your total vacation budget, and familiarise yourself with transportation options (taxi, bus, shuttle, etc.). Be careful of airport taxis, which are notoriously expensive abroad, as well as in the U.K. itself.
If time is a major consideration, it is easy enough to travel one way by train and the other by air. One-way flight costs between mainland Europe and the U.K. tend to be reasonable, especially on the low-cost carriers, but do keep in mind the caveats stated above.
A great resource for rail journey routings is seat61.com.
Want to know what your options are for alternative air, rail or ferry travel to the major Mediterranean cruise homeports? Here's what you need to get started, broken down by destination port.
Barcelona is arguably the busiest single port for cruise turnarounds anywhere in the Mediterranean. Most cruise ships sail from the Moll Adossat, about a 20-minute cab ride from El Prat airport. Smaller lines, such as Silversea, usually sail from the World Trade Centre berth, which is almost literally at the bottom of the Ramblas.
The city itself offers a raft of world-class attractions like La Sagrada Familia (Gaudi's amazing, still unfinished church), the largely pedestrianised thoroughfare of Las Ramblas, and Montjuic, the mountaintop with brilliant vistas over the city that can be accessed by a dazzling cable car ride direct from the World Trade Centre.
The following low-cost carriers fly to Barcelona from U.K. airports. Check their Web sites for flight times and prices.
easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Barcelona from Belfast, Bristol, Doncaster, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Newcastle. These flights generally arrive at Barcelona's main international airport at El Prat.
Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies into Barcelona's Girona airport from Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Dublin, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow Prestwick, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Stansted and Newcastle. It is worth noting that, although advertised on Ryanair's Web site as a Barcelona hub, Girona is actually about 100 kilometres from the city, and you will incur considerable transfer costs and spend a lot of time in transit.
Ryanair also flies into Barcelona's Reus airport -- again quite a way out and actually closer to Tarragona -- from Birmingham, Bristol, Cork, Dublin, East Midlands, Glasgow Prestwick, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted.
Jet2 airways (www.jet2.com) flies into Barcelona from Leeds-Bradford.
BMI Baby (www.bmibaby.com) flies into Barcelona from Birmingham and East Midlands.
Barcelona by Train
This is, out of necessity, an overnight journey but is a viable option to flying.
You'll need to take a Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) train from London's St. Pancras station to Paris Gare du Nord. The two-class trains run every hour, seven days a week, with a journey time of around 2 hours and 15 minutes.
When you arrive in Paris, transfer to the Gare d' Austerlitz, either by metro or taxi. The latter is probably better if you have a lot of luggage. There, you can transfer to the overnight train hotel, known as the Jean Miro, for the journey to Barcelona. For any station transfers in Paris, it is best to allow a minimum of 40 minutes.
This train hotel runs daily, has a restaurant and bar car, and offers berths in four-bed tourist cabins. For an extra fee, upgrade to a two-bedded Gran Clase compartment that has a shower and toilet. This more comfortable option also includes dinner with wine and breakfast in the price. Arrival in Barcelona is generally around 8:25 in the morning, allowing you time to leave your luggage in storage and see a little of the city before an afternoon embarkation.
Palma de Mallorca tended to be mainly a stop on the Mediterranean cruise circuit until the mid-'90's, when first Airtours and then Thomson and Ocean Village realised what a great embarkation port it could make in its own right. With extensive air links from all over the United Kingdom, Palma has proved a huge success. The port itself presents an exciting and dramatic "sail-out," with the mighty Gothic cathedral and 14th-century Bellver Castle looming on the skyline as you sail into the dusk.
With the demise of Ocean Village, now Royal Caribbean, NCL and Thomson are the main homeporters in Palma.
Palma by Air
The following low-cost carriers fly to Palma de Mallorca from U.K. airports.
easyJet flies to Palma's main airport from Bristol, Belfast, Doncaster, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Newcastle.
Ryanair flies to Palma from Birmingham, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow-Prestwick, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool and Stansted.
Jet2 flies to Palma from Belfast, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Leeds- Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.
BMI Baby flies to Palma from Birmingham, Cardiff, East Midlands and Manchester.
Flybe flies to Palma from Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow International, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton.
Palma by Train and Ferry
For train travel, refer to the section on trains to Barcelona. From the port of Barcelona, take one of the daily ferries from the main ferry company Transmediterranea. These sail straight to Palma's harbour. The overnight crossing takes around eight hours on comfortable ships that offer a variety of bars, restaurants and cabin accommodations.
The following low-cost carriers fly to Malaga from U.K. airports.
easyJet flies to Malaga from Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle and Stansted.
Ryanair flies to Malaga from Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cork, Dublin, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow Prestwick, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool, Stansted and Shannon.
Jet2 flies to Malaga from Leeds-Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.
BMI Baby flies to Malaga from Birmingham, Cardiff and East Midlands.
Flybe flies to Malaga from Belfast City, Dublin, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow International, Humberside, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton.
Malaga by Train
Like the trip to Barcelona, train travel to Malaga is achievable as an overnight journey by combining a Eurostar service with the overnight train hotel through to Spain.
Take the Eurostar service from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. The two-class trains run every hour, seven days a week. Change, by metro or taxi, to the Gare d'Austerlitz.
Embark on the evening train hotel with restaurant, bar car and second class-sleepers with four berths. As a luxury alternative, upgrade to Gran Clase. This gives you two-berth accommodations, plus dinner with wine and an early-morning breakfast included in the price.
You will arrive in Madrid's Chamartin station. Transfer from there by cab to the main station at Atocha, and take the 2-hour-and-40-minute AVE service to Malaga, arriving in the late evening.
While the journey is comfortable and pleasant, be aware that you are required to change trains twice, and your arrival into Malaga will be so late in the evening that an overnight hotel stay will be necessary. If you are carrying a lot of luggage and/or travelling solo, these factors might make this option a bit of a stretch.
Louis Cruises allows the option of embarking Louis Majesty year-round from there, as well as Orient Queen for much of the summer season. Costa and Silversea also have occasional embarkation options from the French port.
Marseille by Air
The following low-cost carriers fly to Marseille from U.K. airports.
easyJet flies to Marseille from Bristol and London Gatwick.
Ryanair flies to Marseille from Dublin, Edinburgh and Stansted.
Marseille by Train
There are a couple of options for this route. One is to take the Eurostar from London St. Pancras station to Paris Gare du Nord. The two-class train runs hourly, seven days a week, and averages a journey time of two hours and 15 minutes.
From the Gare du Nord, transfer by metro or taxi to the Gare de Lyon, and take the TGV service, arriving in Marseilles that same evening.
You can also take Eurostar from St. Pancras to Lille, a journey of less than two hours. There, you simply change platforms for the TGV to Marseille. Again, this option arrives in the early evening, allowing you an overnight stay in the city.
A third, more sedate option is to take the overnight Lunea train, obviating the need for an overnight hotel. These accommodate mixed sexes in four-berth first-class and six-berth second-class couchettes, although they can be reserved by individuals for a supplement. These trains also offer individual, second-class reclining seats.
A beautiful and hugely underrated city, Genoa has a maritime history going back to the days of Christopher Columbus. It boasts a beautiful waterfront aquarium and a wealth of stunning gothic architecture that opens out right along the waterfront. Even today, it enjoys one of the most scenic and dramatic settings of any Mediterranean port.
It acts as a year-round homeport for MSC Cruises, as well as an all-year base for Louis Cruises. High summer sees several turnaround visits from companies like Silversea and Costa.
Genoa by Air
The only budget airline flying directly into Genoa is Ryanair, from a sole U.K. hub at Stansted. Other options include flying into Nice and taking the three-hour journey to Genoa by rail as outlined below.
The following low-cost carriers fly to Nice from U.K. airports.
easyJet flies to Nice from Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Luton, Newcastle and Stansted.
Ryanair flies to Nice from Dublin only.
Jet2 flies to Nice from Manchester only.
BMI Baby flies to Nice from Birmingham and East Midlands.
Flybe flies to Nice from Belfast City, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow International, Inverness, Leeds-Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton.
Genoa by Train
The most practical way to reach Genoa by train is to take the hourly and daily Eurostar from St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Transfer to the Gare de Lyon, and take one of the routes and services outlined in the Marseille section above.
At Marseille, take the regional Cote D' Azur train to Ventimiglia, via Nice. The double-decker French train generally has only second-class accommodations, but the views along the meandering French Riviera are absolutely stunning. Pass through Cannes, Monaco and Nice en route.
At Ventimiglia (Vintmille in French), simply transfer to the Italian coastal train that will be waiting at the opposite side of the same platform. This has first- and second-class coaches, each with six seats arranged in semiprivate compartments off a main corridor. You must validate your ticket for the French sector before boarding in Marseille and, when buying your through ticket to Italy, you will be given a definite seat assignment.
The journey onward to Genoa is a little longer than two hours after leaving Vintmille (three from Nice) and meanders past some delightful little seaside resorts, such as Alassio and San Remo. A refreshment trolley passes along the train at intervals.
Editor's note: These Italian trains have no baggage cars, and you'll have to climb four or five steep steps with your luggage to board the train. There are no porters, and luggage racks are either of the overhead variety in each compartment or at the end of each coach. If you have mobility issues or struggle with luggage, this is worth bearing in mind.
In addition, make sure you alight at Genoa Principe, the main station for the city. There are numerous stations called "Genoa" on the outskirts. Ignore them all. From Genoa Principe, the cruise ship terminal at Stazzione Maritima is literally 10 minutes' walk, or you can hail a taxi.
Also worth knowing is that there are no border checks as the train leaves France for Italy, so you can keep your passport safely under guard.
This option can also be used for Costa cruise ships sailing from the port of Savona on the same main line. Be aware that Savona is the train stop before Genoa when travelling across to Italy from France.
This journey can also be undertaken from Nice by rail. If flying in, make sure you arrive at Nice-Ville main station and not Ricquier. From there, take the hourlong SNCF train arriving from Marseille, and change at Ventimiglia as described above.
Many of the big ships of Costa and MSC use Venice as a starting or finishing point, as do some of the more upscale lines like Regent and Silversea. These all sail from the main Venice cruise terminal near Piazzale Roma and Santa Lucia station. Many water taxis leave from Piazzale Roma for nearby attractions that include the Accademia and St. Mark's square, about half a mile upstream.
Venice by Air
The following low-cost carriers fly to Venice from U.K. airports.
easyJet flies to Venice Marco Polo airport from Bristol and London Gatwick.
Ryanair flies to Venice Treviso airport from Bristol, Dublin, East Midlands, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool and Stansted.
Note: Treviso airport is actually some 19 miles from central Venice. Incoming Ryanair flights are complemented by extra-charge coach connections into Venice proper. The journey time is between 35 and 70 minutes, depending upon traffic.
Jet2 flies into Venice Marco Polo airport from Edinburgh, Leeds-Bradford and Manchester.
BMI Baby flies into Venice Marco Polo from East Midlands.
Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) flies into Venice Treviso from Luton.
Venice by Train
Another epic land journey from London to Venice can be achieved by taking several overnight trains, including the ultimate -- the Orient Express. Possibilities are outlined below.
You can take the hourly, daily Eurostar service from London St. Pancras to Paris. From there, transfer by metro or taxi to Paris' Gare du Bercy station, and take the sleeper train, complete with restaurant car, overnight to Venice's Santa Lucia station.
The sleeping cars come in one-, two- and three-berth configurations and are generally same-sex arranged. You can book individual berths in these coaches. Alternately, you can opt for a shared berth in either a four- or six-berth couchette, but note that these can be occupied by mixed sexes. In any event, arrival in Venice is usually around 9:30 in the morning.
The other, far more salubrious option is to take the famed Venice-Simplon Orient Express (www.orient-express.com) from London. The Pullman carriages depart from London's Victoria station and, after a coach transfer through the Channel Tunnel, you board the continental train at Calais main station. The train generally runs once a week in each direction from May through November.
The continental train has three dining cars, where dinner and lunch next day are served. Each coach contains small but opulent sleeper compartments with washing facilities. Breakfast and a mid-afternoon snack are served there.
An elegant Art Deco bar car, complete with baby grand piano, keeps the action going until the last passenger retires. It's a fabulous experience, but check your times -- on average, the VS-OE does not arrive into Santa Lucia until late afternoon. This might necessitate a pre-cruise overnight stay in Venice proper. This is hardly an ordeal but certainly worth knowing.
You can also take the VS-OE on the reverse route back to London, which generally works out slightly cheaper but takes a similar schedule.
From Civitavecchia Rome, is about an hour and 15 minutes by rail. Most visitors flock to Rome for its ancient ruins, elaborate fountains, shopping and dining choices, and the Vatican. However, Civitavecchia itself boasts a pleasant waterfront promenade with several atmospheric bars and cafes, as well as some vast, imposing waterfront fortifications, built by Michelangelo, that are almost completely intact.
Civitavecchia by Air
The very busy port is served by two main airports: Fiumicino (once known as Leonardo da Vinci) is the main international airport, while Ciampino is a hub airport for many budget flights.
The following low-cost carriers fly to Fiumicino or Ciampino from U.K. airports.
easyJet flies to Rome Fiumicino from London Gatwick. It also flies to Ciampino from Bristol and Newcastle.
Ryanair flies to Rome Ciampino from Dublin, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow Prestwick, Liverpool and Stansted.
Jet2 flies to Rome Fiumicino from Leeds-Bradford and Manchester.
Civitavecchia by Train
You can take an overnight train to Rome by using the same type of overnight sleeper service described in the Venice section. The train to Rome usually arrives in the city's main Termini station at around 10:12 the next morning. Please note that there is no Orient Express option here.
From Rome proper, trains run out to the station at Civitavecchia every hour or so, and the journey takes about 90 minutes each way. On exiting at Civitavecchia, simply take a taxi to your ship.
The port of Athens is Piraeus, but the two cities are so close now that they're almost joined at the hip. In fact, there is a direct metro link in from the main airport to the waterfront at Piraeus itself. Piraeus is generally not as photogenic as Athens, which boasts the magnificent Parthenon, as well as the bustle and nightlife of Omonia Square and a raft of world-class museums that are worth taking a few days out to see pre- or post-cruise.
Piraeus hosts regular, port-intensive voyages to the Greek Isles by Louis Cruises and is also a busy embarkation port for everyone from Crystal to Royal Caribbean and Oceania to Celebrity. Both one-way and roundtrip voyages start and/or conclude in Greece's capital.
Editor's Note: Greece, especially Athens, has been experiencing a series of general strikes that began in 2010 and continue into 2011. Regardless of how you plan on travelling to Athens, you may want to plan to arrive a day or two in advance to ensure that airport or railway closures do not prevent you from missing your ship.
Athens by Air
easyJet is the only budget airline that flies into Athens' international airport. Flight time from London Gatwick or Manchester is generally four and a half to five hours.
Athens by Train and Ferry
Train travel from the U.K. to Athens is achievable but time-consuming, and you'll need to combine the rail journey with ferry travel. Start by travelling out on the Eurostar from London St. Pancras to Paris before transferring, by taxi or Metro, to the Gare du Bercy. From there, take the Italian sleeper train to Bologna, with accommodations and facilities as outlined in the Venice section. On arrival in Bologna, take the local Eurostar train to the port of Bari before embarking on the overnight ferry to Patras.
The ferry has a decent range of cabins, restaurants and bars. Next morning, you will arrive in the Greek port of Patras, from where another four-hour rail journey will take you into Athens proper.
This trip might sound romantic, but it takes as much stamina as it does time, and it can be a bit of a tenuous route.