Skip to content

Best Mediterranean cruise tips to enhance your European vacation

June 06, 2022
9 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The Mediterranean Sea is Europe's main cruise destination, stretching from Spain to Israel and covering many countries. Cruise itineraries here can combine all the greatest hits into one vacation.

While Mediterranean cruises are designed to make travel easy, choosing which cruise is right for you and deciding how to spend your time in ports such as Rome and Naples in Italy or Santorini and Athens in Greece can be a challenge. It pays to do some research and have a plan in place.

Here are my nine best Mediterranean cruise tips to get you started.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

For cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.

Be prepared for hot and crowded summers

(Photo by Owen Franken/Getty Images)

The Mediterranean cruise season is year-round, though the family crowd and a lot of other travelers go in the summer – which also happens to be when prices are highest and temperatures are hottest.

If you choose to cruise in the summer high season, be aware it's a given you will deal with crowds in popular places such as Italy's Sistine Chapel in Vatican City or St. Mark's Square in Venice.

The weather can also be hot — as in, 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You may have waited your whole life to see Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried by lava, but if you visit in July or August you might want to bring an umbrella for shade and lots of bottled water to stay hydrated. Slather on the sunscreen, too, as the rays are intense.

The heat will also be felt in places such as the uninhabited Greek island of Delos, off Mykonos. The mythical birthplace of Apollo, Greek god of the sun, lacks shade and is a better place to visit in September into mid-October than in August.

Related: Western Mediterranean vs. Eastern Mediterranean cruises: Which itinerary will I like more?

Don't pick a giant ship if your goal is 'go local'

If the goal for your cruise is to spend quality time on land and become part of the local scene, you probably don't need to be on a giant ship that sticks with big ports and disembarks thousands of passengers at a time.

Ask yourself which features you want on board. Do you care whether your ship has a water park, rock-climbing wall or array of restaurants if you plan to spend every minute you can off the ship? On the other hand, do you require a big casino and Broadway-style shows to keep you occupied once the ship sets sail at night, or will a bar or two meet your needs?

The size of ship in the Mediterranean, as with elsewhere, also influences where you go. If you want to dock in tiny harbors to visit off-the-beaten-path destinations, choose a small ship rather than a big one.

Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line

Look for late stays and overnights in port

You can easily visit three or four countries in a week on a Western Mediterranean sailing, but you won't be in any one port for more than a day, and the pace can be exhausting.

If your goal is lingering in one place, choose an itinerary that includes either late-night or overnight stays in ports. You can get off the ship, go to the beach and enjoy the nightlife — for example, pretending you are James Bond while trying your luck at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. A longer stay in port also lets you explore farther afield or combine an excursion out of town with in-port exploration without feeling rushed.

Give yourself time to recover from jet lag

Jet lag can be a dog, and where you will be traveling will be a considerable time difference from North America. If you are one of those people who can sleep on a plane, bring your favorite neck pillow and get as much shut-eye as you can. Flying to Europe is a good occasion to use points and miles for a lie-flat seat.

A better option is to plan to get to your port city at least a couple of days in advance so your body can catch up. Beyond the sleep benefits, the embarkation ports are fascinating places you don't want to miss. It would be a shame, for instance, to cruise from Civitavecchia, Italy and never actually see Rome. And you'll want to spend time exploring the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, not just admiring it as you pass by in a taxi on your way to the pier.

Watch out for marquee destinations that involve long bus rides

(Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

You may not have a lot of time in port, and in the Mediterranean, some key attractions are a considerable distance from the port. You will have to choose between shore excursions that involve long bus rides and skipping the big cities for tours closer to port.

For example, if you want to take a shore excursion to see Michelangelo's David at the Accademia Gallery, the bus ride from Livorno, Italy, into Florence will take about 90 minutes. The drive from the port city of Civitavecchia to Rome should take an hour — but often takes longer due to traffic. You may also find your bus stuck in traffic getting from the port city of Piraeus into Athens.

While the tours are the easiest way to go in these cases, adventurous travelers can also try to navigate the local train schedules to explore on their own or you can take taxis if you don’t mind a hefty fare. Just make sure you can get back to your ship well before departure time.

Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions

Come with a plan

You've invested big in your Mediterranean cruise once you add up your cruise fare and airfare. Get the most bang for your buck by maximizing your time in port. It pays to have an advance plan of what you want to do and see in each destination.

Don't be that person who spends more time looking at their cellphone deciding what to do than actually appreciating a port city. Do your research before the trip and figure out which attractions you want to see, which tours you want to take and which ports are best for independent exploration in town. Have a backup plan in case a museum or restaurant is closed or a winery tour is sold out.

Stop and smell the roses

Shore excursions are a great way to get to key sights, such as the Mediterranean's many UNESCO World Heritage attractions, but you don't want to bog yourself down just with escorted tours.

Make sure to reserve some downtime in port to walk around without a plan and see what surprises you find. Linger at a flower market in Nice, France. Look for the best leather handbag in Florence. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets of the Plaka in Athens. Hit the French beaches in Cannes or St. Tropez.

As someone who has visited the Mediterranean by ship many times, my favorite experience is getting lost in Rome, a city where there seems to be a surprise around every corner – whether that’s an ancient fountain or a shop selling the best gelato you've ever eaten.

Eat and drink like a local

(Photo by Daniel Limpi/EyeEm/Getty Images)

You really miss something in the Mediterranean if you don't stop and eat the paella — or moussaka, lasagna or escargot. Some of the best cuisines in the world come from France, Spain, Italy and Greece, and all are featured on Mediterranean cruises.

Plan a meal off the ship, whether simple or fancy, and accompany your feast with local wine or craft beer. Don't be surprised if at the end of your lunch or dinner the proprietor offers you a complimentary shot of something local such as ouzo or raki in Greece or limoncello in Italy. It's their way of saying thanks.

I also highly recommend stopping by local markets and shops to sample croissants, cookies and other baked goods, cheeses, crepes and other local specialties. Some local flavors you can even bring home, such as sealed jars of jams and honey.

Brush up on another language

You'll be surprised by how many people speak English in the towns and cities you will visit. If the first person you ask for directions doesn't, the second or third person likely will.

That said, a great icebreaker when traveling in Europe is to have a few local words you can use. Brush up on your high school Spanish or French enough to say hello, goodbye and thank you. Or look up the words online before you set sail.

If you plan to shop, particularly at local markets, you may also want to have in your arsenal "How much does it cost?" Usually the response, if the seller does not speak English, will be to take out a calculator to show you. Translation apps on your smartphone can also be helpful.

And don't be shy. Talking with locals can be the true joy of travel in Europe, even if you just have a chat while sitting on a bench in a public park.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

TPG featured card

Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 3X points
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points60,000 points
For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

Annual Fee

$95

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent, Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases
Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
    60,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent, Good

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases