Bonjour! I recently returned from an amazing 12 night British Isles cruise with Disney Cruise Line! It was my third European cruise and I learn something every time I go! For various reasons, I find European cruises take more planning than standard Bahamian and Caribbean sailings. I wouldn’t recommend going in unawares! So here are 10 things I’ve learned. Hopefully they’ll help you out too!
1. Rent Mobile Wi-Fi – I can’t even tell you how what a lifesaver this was, and I’d like to publicly thank a commenter on a post of mine last year who told me about these devices! There are a couple of options here, you can buy a device and pay a fee based on the number of days you use, or rent a device and pay by the day for the rental period. The data is unlimited and you can use up to 5 devices at once. If you’ve got a cell phone signal, these handy little mobile devices create a Wi-Fi network for you. We chose to rent the device from Tep Wireless and we picked it up and dropped it off in Heathrow. It was a super easy process. I’m all for unplugging as much as you can on vacation, and I did. I had someone covering for me at work and I didn’t even look at it! But I had Wi-Fi! So I knew if there was an emergency or a question, they could get a hold of me. Being plugged in actually helped me unplug if that makes any sense at all! Plus, what fun it was to post to social media at will?! Or google when we had last minute questions about where we were going and what we were doing, or downloading handy city-specific apps (see #6 below). It was wonderful! We named our device (Jeb) and may or may not have gotten a little attached to it, making that the only hard part of turning it back in.
2. Skype App – Now that you’ve got Wi-Fi, you can also make incredibly cheap international calls with the Skype app. Our flight was delayed repeatedly leaving the US, and I knew our transfer company in the UK wouldn’t wait at the airport indefinitely for us. Unfortunately, they had an international number and I was dreading how much it would cost me to call them. Until I checked out the Skype app. I bought a $10 Skype credit and called right from the app on my phone. Calls to most of Europe range from 2.3 to 10 cents a minute. A minute!! There’s also a connection fee around 5 to 10 cents with each call, but even so, that $10 is going to last me for a very long time! We ended up using it a few times while traveling. We had to make an emergency phone call back to the states at one point and it was a lifesaver having the Skype credit to enable us to do so without mortgaging the house. It even came in handy when we got back home and I realized a hotel had overcharged us and I needed to call back to clear things up!
3. Facebook Messenger – Whether you’ve rented Wi-Fi or are finding free Wi-Fi as you go, you’re probably going to want a good way for people to contact you. As much as we love our iPhones, we have found iMessage on Wi-Fi to be unreliable. First, both the sender and recipient must have iPhones. Believe it or not, not everyone has an iPhone. Shocking, I know! Secondly, even when both parties had iPhones and iMessage, sometimes messages refuse to send. Or worse, sometimes you think they sent, and they actually are not received for a day or more. The quickest and most reliable form of communicating via Wi-Fi we found was via Facebook Messenger. It’s incredibly fast, and you will know both when it is sent, and when the receiver sees it. Depending on how you have your notifications set up, you’ll also know immediately when a message comes in. And bonus, it uses very little data to send pictures to someone if you are limited or paying for it! If you are not a Facebook user (gasp), there are other messaging apps out there that are also good! While in Newcastle, we used WhatsApp to let our English driver know when he needed to swing back by Alnwick Castle to pick us up—and yes, we downloaded the app using our mobile Wi-Fi device that very day. That was much more practical then friending our driver on Facebook, friendly though he was.
4. Converters – If you are staying in a hotel in Europe before or after your cruise, you’re probably going to need to purchase a converter for charging purposes (or flat iron/curling iron purposes!). Now if you’ve got multiple teenagers whose lives may end if they are unable to recharge their devices at night, you may be wondering exactly how many converters you are going to need. I’ve got good news! Many hotels these days have USB ports in the rooms. Genius! Our Marriott in downtown London even had a US plug for us to make it even easier. And once you’re onboard, your room is full of good old American outlets.
5. Off Board Battery – Bring it! Even if you are just using your phone for pictures, you’re going to want it! Someone in your group is going to run out of juice. Don’t be that person! We also used the extra battery to recharge our mobile Wi-Fi device once or twice.
6. Use Local Apps – If you are doing any traveling in Europe on your own, even in ports, downloading a few useful apps before you go will be an immense help. The first app I’d recommend is CityMaps2Go. Download maps from the cities you are visiting in advance. You can use it even when not connected to Wi-Fi. Next I would look for train apps (especially useful in countries like the UK which have extensive rail networks). While I’m experienced deciphering Metro maps, the Tube app for London and the Metro app for Paris still saved us a ton of time and made getting around so much easier. No more standing in front of the giant map deciding your best route while you may be missing your train. Plug in your destination and the app will give you your best possible route with every connection and detail you may need. While traveling in Paris, we were asked three separate times to help others with the metro. With my giant camera, we had tourist written all over us, but I would assume the fact that we looked like we knew what we were doing gave people enough confidence to ask us.
7. Day Passes or Ticket Booths – While I highly recommend public transportation, let me assure you, it’s not as cheap as you’d like. It’s convenient, fairly easy, and almost always cheaper than a taxi, but still not cheap. Do a little research to find the best way to do it. In London, you may want to get an Oyster card or a Day Travelcard. We found a Day Travelcard with unlimited rides in the same day worked great for us. In Paris, buying a ticket book will get you multiple trips for less. In Rome, we saved a great deal buying a BIRG pass. Just a little bit of googling will save you time and money once you arrive.
8. Go On Your Own – Disney Cruise Line offers some amazing excursions, and I don’t want to discourage you from using them—and we use them as well. But sometimes they’re sold out! Other times they’re out of your budget. And sometimes you just want to do your own thing. Do it! I wouldn’t recommend it if your intended destination is very far away from the port, unless you leave a lot of wiggle room! Recently Disney ended up leaving roughly 30 passengers in Dublin, when traffic kept their bus from arriving back to the ship on time and the tides dictated that the ship couldn’t wait. Luckily for these guests, they were on a Disney excursion and Disney took care of getting them to the new port the next day. Heed that warning. If you are on your own, not only will Disney not wait, they have no responsibility to get you to the next port either. Having said that, on European cruises we end up doing our own thing about 50% of the time. It’s easy to figure out what we want to see and then figure out if Disney has something that fits those needs. If we are completely unfamiliar with a city, we google “Top 10 things to do” in that city and we’ve got a great starting place. In Newcastle, we couldn’t find a Disney excursion that fit exactly what we wanted to do at a price we were willing to pay, so we hired a private car in advance using recommendations found on the internet and had a wonderful experience. In Liverpool, we bought Hop On, Hop Off tickets online (on a Groupon special actually) and it was a great way to see the city. In Guernsey, we found it was very easy to walk to the places we were interested in seeing, so that’s exactly what we did. There are so many great options out there! Don’t be afraid to use them and plan the day that will make you happy.
9. Rick Steves – I’m a big Rick Steves fan. That man has saved me more time and money in Europe than I can count. I’d definitely suggest checking out his books and/or website (and don’t forget videos!) for tips for your destination. For Paris, we learned about the Museum Pass which saved us both money and a good couple of hours in line. In Rome, we learned about the direct exit from the Sistine Chapel to the Vatican which again, saved us a great deal of time. In other cities, we’ve learned both what to see and what we probably didn’t want to take the time to see. This man knows his stuff. He’s done the work, so you don’t have to!
10. Pack Light – This is absolutely the hardest for me, but it’s so necessary in Europe if you are doing any traveling before or after your Europe cruise. Trust me, you do not want to be getting on and off metros with large suitcases–and not all the train stations have accessible platforms for people needing mobility assistance. We took a train to Dover and while our luggage was manageable, we encountered several people struggling with large luggage that was not—including having to negotiate two big staircases. After our cruise was over, we were lucky and were able to send all our checked baggage back with my husband when he headed home to the US while we left for Paris for a few days, but even still we had to pack light to do that. We found escalators very hard to come by in Paris metro stops, so we were extra thankful to only have small rolling carry-ons to pick up and carry up the stairs. As I packed, I truly asked myself with each item I packed if it was worth the space it was taking up. For about 3 pairs of shoes (that would have looked better than the ones I brought, but the ones I brought didn’t look bad), that answer was no! Did I need three different jackets or was one really good enough? It was. Was one cardigan enough for layering purposes, or was it necessary to bring multiple ones? It wasn’t. I packed less and I made it! Now my husband probably should have spared some space for black dress shoes instead of the brown ones he brought for his dark suit, but in the spirit of low packing – we’ll forgive him! And maybe photoshop those formal night pictures…
Have you been on a cruise in Europe? Or even traveled in Europe? Do you have any tips for us?
Tammy Whiting is the owner of Storybook Destinations. Did you know Storybook Destinations offers a complimentary subscription to TouringPlans with qualified Disney and Universal bookings? Click here for a no-obligation quote on your next vacation.