Ted and I are going on a Baltic cruise this summer! It’s our first trip to Europe and also our first cruise together. We did a lot of research and planning for this trip, with information we found all over the web. I’ll be sharing our research here so future travelers will have an easier time.
To tour or not to tour?
Our Baltic cruise has eight ports of call, stopping in one city each day. The cruise offers official tours (they call them “shore excursions”) that you can book in advance. Tours cost an average of USD$100 per head; with eight stops, that’s already an additional $800! The big question we needed to answer before our trip was: should we pay for these tours or explore on our own? Here’s how we answered that question.
Make a list of what you want to see
Ted and I read through the official excursion list provided by the cruise line. This took a lot of time — the PDF was a whopping 93 pages long! The list highlighted the most popular attractions per city, and some that were off the beaten path.
From the list, I used Google Images to search for pictures of each attraction. It was easier for me to gauge my interest in a place by looking at a picture than reading about it. (If the place looked boring to me, it probably wouldn’t be more interesting in person — especially if I paid $100 for it!) From the pictures and the description in the PDF, I made my own list of must-see places and combined it with Ted’s.
Compute the cost
Now we needed to find out if going to those places on our own was cheaper than taking the official tour. Cheap doesn’t just mean money — it also means the time and effort it would take if we did it ourselves.
When computing the cost for an attraction, look for:
- Entrance fees (and hours; compare it with the time your ship is docked)
- Transportation fees
- Places to eat in the area
The cost difference can be quite staggering. For example, in Aarhus, the ship’s tour for the Den Gamle By Museum costs $130. But if we went ourselves, the entrance fee would only be $19!
Of course, tours are expensive because of everything else you get: the convenience of having pre-arranged transportation, a tour guide, and sometimes food. The most important thing you pay for is peace of mind — if you’re on an official tour, the cruise ship knows where you are, and will wait for you at port if you get delayed or lost. If you tour on your own, the ship will leave you if you don’t make it back in time. For many people, that sense of security is worth $100.
When computing cost, think of what you’re willing to pay for — the hassle might be worth the extra bucks. In our case, we decided to pay for tours in two places only:
- St. Petersburg, because we won’t need Russian visas if we take official tours
- Stockholm, because Ted wants to see the Ice Bar and it’ll only open in the morning for tours
For all other ports of call, we’re going to explore on our own.
The next thing to figure out was how to get around without a tour bus. For that, I went to the forums — specifically Cruise Critic and TripAdvisor. Forums were treasure troves of practical information, with numerous posts from people with the same questions I had. I also looked at each city’s official transport site, which tells you where to buy tickets, how much the fare is, etc. (While I usually love using journey planners, they weren’t that useful to me this time because not all the sites were in English.)
When writing down transportation notes, be as practical and specific as possible. You won’t have the luxury of getting lost — you have to make it back to the ship on time! For every city, I wrote down:
- How to get to the station from the pier (note that different cruise lines might use different piers)
- The exact name of the train, bus, or ferry to take, and its direction (not just the name of the stop)
- How much the fare would cost and where to buy it
- The first and last departure times, how long the trip would take, and the frequency in between arrivals
I also made separate instructions for the return trip, because all the names and directions would change. I’m not relying on memory for this one, as non-English words will probably not stick in my head (can anyone say Hauptbahnhof?).
Look for tourist passes
I made a wonderful discovery while researching on transportation: some cities offered tourist passes. These are special cards that give free unlimited public transportation (and entrance to attractions) for a specific period of time (e.g. 24 hours). We used one in Hong Kong that gave unlimited subway rides for three days, and I was pleased to find several places in Europe had them, too. If you go to a city’s official website, you can find out if they have a tourist pass and where to buy them.
To compute if the pass is worth it, add up all your entrance fees from your list of must-sees + all the buses, subways, and trains you need to take to get there. Chances are, the pass is still cheaper. Plus, you don’t have to worry about buying tickets for each place — just swipe your card and go.
We’re buying tourist passes in Oslo, Tallinn, and Helsinki. Hooray!
Look for hop-on, hop-off buses
Another discovery I found was that some cities had hop-on, hop-off (HOHO) buses. It’s a tourist bus that loops around the popular tourist destinations, and for a fixed price you can hop on and off at any stop in the loop. While nothing screams “tourist” than a HOHO bus, you really can’t beat its convenience — you can cover several sights easily, and it might even stop at the pier, which means you can always find your way back!
We’re taking the HOHO bus in Tallinn and Helsinki (it’s a tram there, not a bus). Bonus: our tourist passes cover the HOHO ticket, too.
Learn from other travelers
I’ve found that the best tourist information you can get is from people who’ve actually been there. They might be tourists, cruise aficionados, or actual locals. First-hand experiences make better reading, as they will tell you what it’s really like to explore a place on foot (is the walk uphill on a cobblestone street? is it easy to get lost? what’s the weather like? etc).
Some travelers even post do-it-yourself walking tours so you can enjoy the benefits of a tour guide without the hefty price. I found a great site called Istopoli that has walking maps for some ports of call. There are tons of more information on the forums if you look hard enough.
Weighing it all in
Everyone likes to travel differently, and it’s up to you how DIY you want to do it, or if you’d rather pay for a tour that takes care of everything. I’ve been on a cruise before, and had almost missed the ship in Rome when we explored on our own. (I have a clear memory of gulping down a pizza slice while running to the ship’s bus that was about to leave. The people on the bus burst into applause. It makes for a good story, but I’d rather not have the stress if I can help it 🙂 )
I’ll post our research per port once we’ve actually been there and confirmed the information. Until then, thanks a lot for reading!