This will be more tips and secrets versus what I liked and didn't like since that is what I was looking for when I was preparing for this awesome vacation.
Itinerary: It appears when looking at the itinerary you have 2 days in Venice followed by 1 sea day… you do not. If you are planning on arriving the day of embarkation you will have to be back aboard at 1230a for a 1:00 a.m sail-a-way. You then will have 2 days of sea, not one as appears. So depending on how much time you want in Venice, determine your arrival to Italy/embarkation time then off the ship to Venice. There were quite a few people on board that thought the ship stayed in port overnight giving them a 2nd day in Venice since that is what happens when then ship sails back the other way (Barcelona to Venice).
Don't worry to be on board for fire drill, they will make it up for you on the following sea day.
The ship does not have an adult only area or a thermal spa so depending on your lifestyle you may want to get up early and secure a spot for sea days.
This trip is all about the cities you will visit, so the most important thing is how to do this efficiently and without spending thousands of dollars of additional excursion monies. The hardest part of this trip planning was to figure out which ports my husband and I could do it yourself (DIY) or the ones we would need a planned tour… so here is how we did it, and after we tallied up our savings against what it would have cost if we booked every port with NCL, we saved almost $2400!!!! Yes… saved!
Greece: DIY. We disembarked and walked to the train station (about 15-20 min) but we could have probably taxi'd for about 5-10 Euro. I just continued to ask the locals "which way to train station?" I found it with little trouble. Train tickets to the Acropolis cost us 5E total. We got off the train and walked about another 3/4 of a mile up a slight graded hill which was located in a quaint area which had a few shops and restaurants. Both walks were leisure pace and we enjoyed taking in the scenes. Got to the Acropolis and paid for admission (24E total). We got there at noon…very busy-get there earlier if possible in summertime. Once up and inside, it is so large the crowds didn't matter. Bring water with you, very hot and dusty. We did not want to go into museum, so we left after touring the ruins and found a street cafe to have a few beers and lunch then train back to city (5E) and we taxi'd to port 5E. Total excursion 39E minus lunch. Another couple we talked to found a few other people to share taxi with and toured the city for 200E which if divided by 4 people isn't a bad option either.
Kusadasi (Ephesus) Planned Excursion. We planned a small excursion for this port since we wanted to see the Ephesus ruins, the house of the Virgin Mary and the Basilica where St. John is buried. There were 5 of us and it cost us $140 total. I found this group of 3 women on our roll call. Tour was booked through Curiotravel.com, Ephesus shuttle. We got off ship early and beat the traffic to the Virgin Mary house which was great. Hit up the ruins and basilica afterwards. This port requires some type of excursion, not a DIY city-things are too far away. Smaller group seemed better for this city.
Istanbul: DIY We got off ship and waited in the taxi area a few minutes until I found 2 other people heading into the city that wanted to share a taxi that was 20E. So we were able to get in for 10E. Dropped off at the Topkapi Palace-5 minute wait for tickets. Toured the Palace (30TL=$15.pp) and Harem (15TL=$7.50pp) make sure you tour both, the Harem was very cool and usually not included in NCL excursions. We left the palace and walked a block to the Hagia Sophia Museum which had about a 10 minute wait for tickets which were $15.00pp. Afterwards walked across the block to the Blue Mosque. Admission is free. From the Blue Mosque we walked about 5 minutes to the Grand Bazaar. We walked out the opposite side and the tram stop was right in front of us. Ticket back to ship was 2L. Total for the day was about $90 total for 2 people not including the fabulous lunch we had overlooking the Bosphorus for about 20TL. NCL had this listed for $239 pp and did not include the Harem. **Women need to have head/shoulders/knees covered, men knees** You can get some type of garb at the mosque, but it may be easier to DIY.
Mykonos: DIY. Small quaint island. We walked into the maze-like streets, found a cafe and had lunch. Walked along the shore taking some pix to the small church opposite the port and came back and found a spot by the water to have a few cocktails and look into the med. We did not get off early, and had no ambition to climb the hill to the windmill which from what other passengers said was "A HIKE". If you plan to do this, taxi it up/down. When you get lost inside the city, which you will do….follow the strong wind back to the shore….remember walk into the wind and you will find your way out. This city was designed to confuse pirates, so expect to get lost which is part of the experience. :)
Naples: Planned Excursion. We booked this excursion with Can't Be Missed (CBM) tours for 65Epp and it was an amazing day! Picked up the shuttle right outside the ship. We traveled first to the ruins in Pompeii and had a wonderful guided tour. After leaving we travelled to Sorrento for lunch and a quick on your own leisure of the city. We did not opt for the CBM restaurant, but instead took the 5-10 minute walk to the cliff that overlooks the med and Mt. Vesuvius. Afterwards, our bus took us through the winding road up through the Almafi coast to Positano for a 20-30 minute stop for pictures and to enjoy the breathtaking view. We spent 130E for excursion not including lunch and a few beers in Positano, NCL was listed at $329pp.
Rome: Planned Excursion: We booked again with CBM for 65E pp. Took shuttle out to where the busses were parked (5 minute/free). CBM took us first to Colosseum (long wait even with skip the line) then to a stop that included a walk by the Trevi fountain (sorry but it is empty and under construction until July 2015), we then walked to the Pantheon and then stopped for lunch. After lunch we continued a walk through the city for a short ways until our bus picked us up and drove us to the Vatican. This was the most chaotic of anything we did on our trip. Our guides's LONG winded explanation of the Sistine Chapel which took about 30 minutes cut our time short and the lines trying to get in were unexplainable. Due to a mother taking her child to the bathroom during our cattle like walk through to the Chapel we ended up waiting inside until our guide finally found the again 45 minutes later! This of course used up the rest of our tour time so we were not able to do anything more than see St. Peter's for a quick picture. Disappointing but not entirely CBM's fault. I would have needed less time talking outside about the Chapel and more time left for St. Peter's. If your intentions are to really just see the Vatican, then book something that gets you there EARLY. I would rather have had the majority of the day inside the Vatican, rather driving around and seeing the skeleton of stone inside the Colosseum. In my opinion and will be my review to CBM, they should head directly to Vatican and hit the Colosseum in the afternoon before heading back to port. This tour was listed at $349 pp, we paid total for 2 people130E for tour and 70E for skip the line entrance tickets from CBM + lunch.
Florence: DIY. This was my masterpiece. I wanted to see both the Statue of David in Florence and climb the Tower of Pisa. I had created a tight itinerary prior to leaving the states which included train times to Florence, from Flo to Pisa and then Pisa to Livorno. It was much easier than I ever thought it would be. The only fail was not getting on the 1st train out of Livorno to Florence due to a glitch in my plan to get off ship as soon as we were cleared, find a taxi to train station to board the 8:52 train. We met a couple waiting to get off ship and decided we would split taxi to train station. When we got off, there were only a few taxi's in the area, so we followed this couple "outside" where they were sure taxi's would be waiting…NOPE, not 1! We ended up walking to a bus station that took about 20 minutes and when we finally figured out you couldn't buy tickets on bus, we ran for tickets at market. By the time we got back, the express bus to train had filled and we were forced to wait for 2nd bus which then got us to the station late. We ended up taking the next train and got into Florence at 10 a.m. The train station is only a 5 minute walk to the museum. We had skip the line passes for entrance into Academia (HIGHLY SUGGEST or you will wait for hours) and we were in/out within about an hour with plenty of time inside. We walked to the Cathedral (did not go in) and toured the outside. Found a pizzeria nearby for lunch and then headed to train station. Got to Pisa in 45 minutes, came out, got in line for bus to Pisa across the street. Bus ride 10 min or so dropped us off right in front of the entrance. We had tickets to Cathedral/Pisa Tower. Toured Pisa, climbed the tower and had a few cocktails at a cafe before heading back on to the bus to train station-train to Livorno (20 min) and then found 5 people to split a van taxi which ended up costing us all about 4E pp. We spent $60 on Academia skip the line and $36 on Pisa skip the line tower climb plus train and bus for a total of about $130.00 total for 2 people. NCL listed for $299.00 pp.
Toulon: DIY. We had planned to rent a car and travel to either Marseille or St. Tropez, but due to the short tine in port and the very long 3 days we had just covered Italy in, we decided against that and just went into the port. We walked the streets, toured their giant farmer's market where we bought 1/2 Kilo of assorted olives, a panini sandwich and a few beers. We walked the waterfront and headed back on board. The tours we heard were backed up by traffic and construction and most of them were cut short or the guests were stuck in traffic for hours. We were happy to have a down day.
Barcelona: DIY. We disembarked and got the shuttle the city 5E pp. DO NOT TAKE THE TAXI! It is very expensive, they apparently charge you for your luggage on top of fare. Once inside the city, we walked up Las Ramblas to our hotel NH Calderon. Walk took about 30 minutes with luggage, longer than I would have liked, we started for the 59 bus which would have taken us there but the walk along the street was so enjoyable, we had gotten 20 minutes into it before we started to wane. We dropped luggage at hotel and walked to Sagrada Familia. We did not go inside (you may want to look for skip the line for this venue) but it is overwhelming from the outside. We sat across the street and enjoyed a paella and took in the sights.
We originally flew into Zurich nonstop from Miami, stayed 2 nights-included a day trip to beautiful Luzern with Zurich Tours for $130 total. Beautiful drive through countryside and day inside city. We took the train through the Swiss Alps to Milan-then to Venice. We stayed at Hotel Rialto 1 night in Venice prior to boarding the ship on Monday.
Upon Disembarkation Saturday in Barcelona, we stayed overnight, caught the 6 a.m. train to Paris and stayed 2 nights there which allowed us to see the Arc de Triomph, go to noon day mass and tour Notre Dame (bought 24 hour subway pass) and of course go to the summit of the Eiffel Tower. If you were to go…reserve your time/tickets ahead. We used Fat Tire Bike tours. We walked over a few blocks to tower, entered without wait, got the elevator to the top without having to stand in line for 3rd level tickets and was out within about 1:15 minutes with all the time we wanted at the top.
-Plan your port days ahead, they save you valuable time and money! I had a small group of file folders listed for each city/hotel and then for excursions, plane/train etc to keep everything straight. Highly suggest this as it becomes overwhelming-especially when you're away from a computer.
-If you book hotels online and pay up front, immediately email the hotel to confirm. There are reviews of various websites that bookings are not taken care of leaving guests without lodging upon arrival.
-Ask your travel agent booking the cruise to check on airfare, we saved $1200 over DIY expedia listing.
-Book small group tours if possible-find people on your ship through CC roll call site.
-Wear appropriate clothing. I am not a skirt/dress person, but found that it helps for you to blend in with locals better and you're good in religious tours. My husband found some lightweight clothing from ex-officio which he loved. Pants/shirts all had unnoticeable zippers and they were easy to clean.
Get good walking shoes, not necessarily white gym sneakers as that will spotlight you as a tourist and make you easier prey for gypsies and pick pocketing.
-If you're carrying a back in port, make sure it has a zipper and if you're using a backpack-lock it. We had a small lock on our rucksack that held my camera/water bottles/hats/umbrella/sunblock etc. but if you're standing in line or crowds, you will not feel anyone rummaging through your bag.
-Get in line early to get off the ship when in busy ports
-Breakfast in the morning at Raffles buffet is CRAZY, so get up, go get your coffee/breakfast and then back to your room to prepare-not the other way around.
-Exchange your dollars to euros in the states after checking with places for the best rates. ATM will charge you $10.00 per transaction and give you 6% less on your money.
-Call your credit card company and find out what the surcharge is for charging euro's. Capital One has zero charge so that is the only card we used while away.
-Ask the locals for help, they are very cordial and try to help as much as possible.
-Research tipping guidelines in Europe! We found out the last day that tipping is included in their "tax" and in most cases on top of the tax/tip another surcharge is added for service so you do not need to tip additionally as we did….we know have 2 Turkish waiters, 3 Italian and 1 waiter from Spain that we were forced to adopt…. LOL One server in Paris told us we had just bought food for his children, so that made our 100E over-tipping error seem not so horrible…
-Pack light….PACK LIGHT…did I say PACK LIGHT? If you're flying in/out and don't have much movement otherwise it will only be a major task for you to carry heavy, large suitcases, if you are doing any type of additional travel as we did…train, subway, bus, boat, taxi then you will want to invest in a smaller hard cover suitcase with very durable wheels and zippers. I picked up 2 25" Samsonite cases for $89 each and was very, very happy I did. That was well more than enough to lug around in addition to my tote and husbands rucksack.
-Food on the ship is mediocre, spend a few extra $ to enjoy sushi or asian fusion or italian on board-well worth it!
-Take a European power converter if you are planning on a hotel stay prior to or after the cruise as all outlets are 220, not 110. You may need flat and insertable depending on how old/new the hotel is.
Ok…. I now need to get ready for my carpal tunnel surgery… lol. Hope this helps, asks questions and i will try to help. We had a blast planning this but it was also very helpful once we were there. CC has great info so search, search, search! :)
Enjoy your travel!