Earlier this year, my husband and I took our two kids – ages 6 and 8 – for an extended trip through Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Our journey was meticulously planned and lasted nearly three weeks from beginning to end.
We saw jaw-dropping sights including the buried the city of Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and the towering Swiss Alps while enjoying some of the world’s most decadent food. We climbed actual mountains, laughed and played, and ate so much gelato it just isn’t right. I would also say the trip was somewhat educational since my kids saw many major attractions they’ll eventually study in world history classes, from the Roman Colosseum to the masterful works of art in the Uffizi and Accademia galleries of Florence.
Our kids had a blast, and so did we. And, thanks to our long-term planning strategy, this trip wasn’t too expensive, either. While the retail price would have been over $20,000, we paid around $3,500 out-of-pocket for the entire trip thanks to credit card rewards and some creative planning.
Next summer, we plan to do something similar… but with a twist. While last year’s Europe trip was largely land-based, we decided that, next time, we want to throw in a Mediterranean cruise. While that probably sounds luxurious and overpriced, I was actually surprised to find that this could be one of the most affordable components of our trip.
Let me explain.
Planning Our Europe Trip for Summer 2018
Before I get into why this is such a good option for us and other families, let’s start at the beginning. As you probably know, the biggest component of any trip to Europe from the U.S. is airfare – the cost of just getting there and back.
I started planning early for this part, racking up several signup bonuses through American Express and earning even more Membership Rewards points through regular spending.
So, just like last year, we’re transferring 200,000 American Express Membership Rewards points to Air France/Flying Blue good for four round-trip flights from Indianapolis to European cities of our choosing. In addition to the airline miles, we’ll need to pay around $150 per person in airline taxes and fees.
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Initially, we wanted to go to Croatia and possibly Greece, and then finish up our trip with a week on the Amalfi Coast. I loved mainland Greece when we went a few years ago, so I really wanted to see a few Greek islands this time. But, would it be possible to pull this off?
As anyone who’s traveled in this region knows, getting around Europe is pretty easy! But, that doesn’t mean it’s always fast.
Once I mapped out the train and bus routes for the various cities we wanted to visit, I realized we would spend several days on train travel alone. With young kids especially, this isn’t the ideal way to spend our time.
Greece is just plain huge, spread out, and out of the way. Croatia is long and skinny and not that ideal for train travel. Getting to Italy from either of these countries would be a pain – unless we wanted to fly. But, once again, I didn’t want to invest the time or money into too much transportation.
Eventually, I stumbled onto the idea of taking a Mediterranean cruise. We’re not really cruise people per se, but it seemed like a smart way to accomplish our travel goals without too much hassle or expense. And now that I’m ready to book, I’m finding it’s easily one of the smartest – and most affordable – options available for our family.
Our Experience Booking a Mediterranean Cruise
While Mediterranean cruises range from budget to luxury, we really needed a “no frills” option that would fit with our travel budget and make it fun for the kids. We considered a few different cruise lines, but we ultimately chose to go with MSC Cruises due to their overall affordability and selection of itineraries.
With the specific itinerary we were considering, we could check off all the “musts” on our wish list without spending a crazy amount. The specific cruise we chose departs from Alcona, Italy before visiting Venice, Split, Santorini, Mykonos for two days, and Dubrovnik. This itinerary worked rather well for us since I was also able to find Flying Blue/Air France availability into Bologna, Italy, and home from Naples. This way, we could spend a few days in nearby Bologna before the cruise, and then spend a week on the Amalfi Coast before flying home from Naples.
If you think the cruise component of this trip sounds crazy-expensive, you’re not alone. I absolutely thought it would be more than I wanted to spend — until I actually priced it out.
But really, it’s not so bad – especially for a family with young kids. For the particular cruise we chose, which takes place during peak travel season, it works out to $989 per adult for an ocean view room.
This includes the “Fantastica” cruise experience with:
- Upgraded stateroom location
- Free breakfast in bed
- Additional kid’s classes
- Kid’s club
- 12 free drink vouchers per person
- Flexible, inclusive dining
The best part is the fact that kids 12 and under are free on our particular cruise, as they are on many MSC cruise itineraries. So, that brings our grand cruise total to $2,150.64 for two adults and two kids.
This price includes the cruise fare itself, but also government taxes and fees. In addition to this amount, we’ll owe 30 euros per night as our service charge in place of traditional tips. This adds another 210 euros – or $250 USD – to our grand total, bringing it to about $2,400. While you can have this removed from your account if you don’t receive good service, I am more than happy to tip the people who work so hard on the ship.
Either way, this brings us to a grand total of $2,400 — or $600 per person for an eight-day, seven-night Mediterranean cruise.
How and Why This Is a Smart Deal for Us
Handing over $2,400 for eight days and seven nights doesn’t sound particularly cheap, and it’s not. But it’s actually a really good value when you consider everything a cruise includes.
We’ll get breakfast and most dinners on the boat for free, for example. That leaves us covering lunch only in our ports, which should be easy to handle on the cheap with some planning and budgeting.
MSC Cruises also offers kid’s clubs on their ship, which means we’ll have an on-hand babysitter if we need a break. And of course, our ship will have the usual cruise amenities: nightly entertainment, on-board activities, swimming pools, a gym to work out in, and an on-board casino. Here’s the full list of what is included:
What’s included in the cruise fare:
- Onboard activities
- Kids and teens clubs
- 24-hour room service
- Fitness center
- Library and card room
- Nightclubs and disco
- Broadway-style shows
What’s not included:
- Shore excursions
- Spa visits and treatments
- Internet cafe
- Beauty salon
- Personal trainer
- Exercise classes
- Drinks (soda and alcohol)
We’ll want to do some excursions, but I’ve already found quite a few I would consider through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Since we have around 70,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points leftover to burn, we’ll be able to book a few excursions and get them entirely for free. For the most part though, we like to get out on our own and explore cities without the help of guides.
When you consider the fact that we could easily pay $300 per night for a hotel alone in high season (or more since you typically need two rooms for a large family in Europe), it’s a pretty great deal to get a floating hotel, transportation all around Croatia and the Greek islands, most of our food, and intermittent babysitting for $300 per day.
But, it was the convenience factor that really got me. Instead of visiting a spot for a day, staying in a hotel for one or two nights, riding in a train, unpacking and doing it all over again, we can pack and unpack in our cruise cabin once. Each day we’ll get off the ship with the kids in a new place, yet we won’t have to endure many of the pitfalls of traveling with luggage and children.
The Bottom Line
While we’re not the biggest cruise enthusiasts in the world, this particular itinerary makes a ton of sense for us, and a Mediterranean cruise can offer a surprising amount of value to the average family. It’s inexpensive when you consider all that’s included — lodging, food, and transportation between countries — and it will be downright convenient since we only have to pack and unpack once. Most importantly, it will let us see some cool sights with our children without worrying about the intricacies of getting from one place to another.
Is $2,400 for a week of cruising cheap? Absolutely not. But, it is a good value. And, no matter what, I know the memories I make with my kids will be absolutely priceless.
Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.
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Do you think cruising is an affordable family vacation option? Why or why not?