The Long View: Seeing Europe By Sea - My Family Travels

FTF's cruise expert weighs in on the benefits of touring Europe by sea in an era of foreign exchange malaise and inflated prices.

Back in our great-grandparents’ day, a trip to Europe was often a once-in-a-lifetime event. Families who could afford it would embark, steamer trunks in tow, for weeks or even months at a time to sweep through the great capitals of the Continent, knowing they might not pass that way again.

With the euro making its steady, depressing climb against the dollar and airplane ticket prices at an all-time high, are those days coming back again? While none of us has a crystal ball, I suspect the answer is a mixed bag. Maybe those self-indulgent long weekends in Paris will fall by the wayside — at least until we figure out how to make planes fly on bacon grease or peanut oil — but family vacations to Europe with the kids will still be a priority for many of us, even if we have to do it less often.

One way to make that work is to opt for a Mediterranean cruise over a land-based journey. Yes, you still have to fly to your embarkation point, unless you favor a transatlantic voyage, but the cruise itself has the advantage of being pre-paid in US dollars.

A 12-day northern Europe cruise on the Carnival Liberty, for example, which is completely sold out for 2008, will be priced in 2009 from $1,949 for the first two guests in a stateroom; $899 for the third and fourth guests. These rates will apply to an ocean-view cabin, and trust me — you don’t want to save money by forfeiting your view in an inside cabin — for the June 2 departure out of a May 9 to Sept. 6, 2009 run.

What do you get for the money? Accommodations with private views of some of the prettiest ports in the world, near round-the-clock dining, including free room service, nightly entertainment, poolside fun and highly rated children’s programming.

What don’t you get? Shore excursions, which tend to be pricier in Europe than in the Caribbean, but again, the excursions are paid for in dollars. Plus, you can tailor the amount you pay for an excursion by the amount of guiding you think you’ll want. If your goal is to see Michelangelo’s David in Florence, I suggest taking the excursion. Your guide will get you to the head of the line, and the quality of the sights you’ll see are worth the expense. If you want to stroll the beach and get an ice cream in Cannes, however, just do it. You don’t need a guide for that.

One issue that comes up frequently in discussions about cruising in Europe is the lack of local dining. Since cuisine is such an important part of European culture, is it a mistake to have the kids experiencing all their meals on the ship? My answer is that you don’t have to.

Since the Mediterranean ports are so close together, passengers can be on shore nearly every day. Consider taking the kids out to lunch whenever possible on land, keeping in mind that in Europe lunch is often the most important meal of the day. Add in a few café stops, a gelato or two and you can get the flavor of European dining without breaking the bank.

Finally, while a cruise can’t replace renting a villa in, say, Italy or France, where you can get off the tourist track and enjoy the rhythm of local life, it can accomplish roughly the same function as those trips of old: your children will see the grand capitals and maybe even a small town or two, which hopefully will develop in them a lifelong taste for more.

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