Note: this is the fifth in a series of Baby Boomer Travel Guides. In our last post, we looked at the options for seeing the Caribbean. Today we focus on means of transport around the Mediterranean Sea.
When traveling around the Mediterranean region, you have a full range of options: taking a cruise ship or ferry boat, driving, taking trains, or flying between destinations.
(If you’re on a guided tour, you’ll most likely be traveling by bus, though other forms of transport may figure in as well.)
How you choose to get around this endlessly fascinating area is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make — maybe the biggest decision — regarding your Mediterranean trip. It will color your entire experience — for the better, we hope.
Each mode of transport has its pluses and minuses, and some have multiple options to choose from.
Cruising the Mediterranean
If you want to get a taste of the Mediterranean coast — as well as islands like Malta, Cyprus,.Sardinia,, Corsica, Sicily, and the Ballearics of Spain — then a cruise is by far the easiest way to go.
The coasts and islands of Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Greece, and Turkey are the main draws.
A bonus is that many Med cruises dip down into North Africa for port calls at Casablanca, Morocco; Tunis, Tunisia; or Port Said, Egypt.
Mediterranean cruises are most commonly one or two weeks long, though some are 10, 11 or 12 days, or even as short as three or four days. As a general rule, the longer the cruise, the more likely you’ll venture off the beaten track.
Western or Eastern Med?
Med cruises usually fall into one of two broad regional categories: Western and Eastern.
Western Med cruises focus primarily on the area between the Straits of Gibraltar along the coasts of Spain and France to the west coast of Italy and points south. These are ideal for first-time visitors to the region.
Eastern Med cruises often start in Venice, sail southeast along the Adriatic coast — mainly Croatia but also Slovenia and Montenegro — and on to the Aegean Sea and Greek islands, ending in Athens or Istanbul (recent unrest in Turkey has resulted in far fewer Istanbul port calls of late). Some Eastern Med cruises also take in Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.
Eastern Med cruises are ideal if you’ve already covered much of Western Europe, are a history or archaeology buff, or just want to experience some warm Aegean beaches.
The ships sailing the Mediterranean tend to be a bit smaller than the behemoths of the Caribbean, and many are mid-sized or far smaller. The Adriatic coast has become a hot spot for small-ship cruises, which can make port in some of the tiny, idyllic islands or coastal villages. Keep in mind that, in general, the smaller the ship, the higher the fare.
Ferries Are a Great Option
To visit the islands of the Mediterranean, you can take advantage of the quite extensive ferry systems that criss-cross much of the Med. You can even visit North African ports by ferry if you like.
You won’t find the amenities on ferries that you will on a cruise ship, but you can enjoy the same sea views, grab casual meals, and bring your car (if you have one) on many of them. Long-distance ferries usually have sleeping accommodations, which you’ll need to reserve.
Probably the biggest advantage of ferries over cruise ships is that you get to set your own schedule. But unless you’re making it up as you go along — which can actually be a lot of fun — that will require quite a bit of advance planning, since ferry schedules can be erratic.
Driving the Mediterranean Coast
Driving the Med coast is an alluring option if you like navigating winding roads with drop-dead gorgeous scenery along the way (but keep your eyes on the road if you’re driving, or the drop-dead part will be all too real).
Keep in mind that driving (starting with gasoline, but also tolls) can get very pricey in Europe, and some rental car agencies won’t rent to you if you’ve reached age 70.
Driving does allow you to stay in atmospheric hotels and dine in local restaurants rather than taking all or most of your meals on a ship — if that’s important to you, it’s a huge plus. You also have the luxury of staying longer in a particular destination if you choose — there’s no ship captain to blow the whistle.
Still, the Mediterranean is a very popular area, so you may have to stick to a stricter schedule than you like, just to reach your lodging that you’ve reserved for the night (reservations are highly recommended for April-October). And you may end up paying much more for lodging and meals than you would on a cruise ship.
The Lure of European Train Travel
Trains are almost always a good bet in Europe; they’re usually prompt, clean, and comfortable, and you can gaze out the windows as you go, freed from driving.
The downside to taking trains along the coast is that they’re often slower and make more stops than those traveling between the big cities to the north. Sicily, for example, has train service but it’s generally not up to the quality of that in mainland Italy.
You can check train schedules and fares and peruse deals on multi-country rail passes at RailEurope.
Flying Between Mediterranean Destinations
Europe has spawned a plethora of airlines, several of them cheap and stripped to the bone, with cramped seats and few if any amenities. Unless you’re traveling on a strict budget, you may want to stick to the somewhat more comfortable mainstream airlines.
Flying is the fastest form of transport, of course, but when you figure in the time it takes to get to and from the airports, and the frequent delays and security lines, it may take as long as than, say, an express train for some shorter distances. You also don’t get to watch the scenery except from 30-40,000 feet.
My recommendation is to relax, take a cruise ship or train, or drive if you like, and leave the flying for your trans-Atlantic crossings, unless you’re just planning to stay at one or two destinations. You’ll simply miss too much of the gorgeous Mediterranean ambiance when you’re up in the air.
Next Up: Getting Around Continental Europe