I watched carefully to see how the cruise industry makes its money. While the initial cost of a cruise vacation may seem too good to be true, operators earn their gravy with extra profit-centers: mostly drinks, gambling, onboard shopping, kickbacks from shops on land, and excursion tours to places of interest within an easy bus ride from the port. I was struck by how most cruisers are happy to pay the inflated prices ($150 to $200) for an excursion. But anyone willing to hop the shuttle bus to the main square of the port town and survey the options for local sightseeing tours could easily plan their own day trip - and save about 50 percent.
In most ports, I found a very healthy and efficient "find a need and fill it" energy for whatever cruise travelers might want: Internet access, taxi service, hats, electric car or bike rentals, and small tour operators. But I also discovered a major downside to cruising: limited time in each port. Still, you can accomplish a lot in eight hours.
Because there are so few ports where cruises can start or end, there are almost always days at sea. While it was hard for me to relax on the ship when we were in port, I loved a day at sea. I was continuously inspired by the vastness of the Mediterranean, and how we could spend an entire day and see no land and almost no boats. There's a clean, dramatic, screen-saver beauty to a two-tone-blue world of sea and sky.
Even relaxing on the ship is not always easy. There are always people to meet - and people to avoid - massive amounts of food to eat, and more than enough entertainment scheduled. In fact, an important skill for cruising is to pace yourself and not try to do everything.
On board, I took every opportunity to get behind the scenes. The typical cruise ship is an amazing machine - a nearly billion-dollar investment that is impressively automated. I listened to the crew explain how the heat of the engines distills 25,000 gallons of salt water into fresh water every hour, and how the newfangled Azipods (with 18-foot-wide propellers turning a hundred times a minute) propel the ship.
With 3,000 passengers, I had expected congestion and waiting in line to be a daily part of the cruise routine. But even though our ship was sold out, I never noticed congestion. Both on board the ship and on shore, if you make a point of getting away from the mobs, you can. I enjoyed being all alone on the bow of the ship at night under the moon. After dinner, the top deck was all mine.
A few ports (such as Dubrovnik, Croatia) can be inundated by cruisers when several ships are in port at the same time. Everyone seems to do about the same things at roughly the same time. But in each of the ports on my cruises, I could be on my own - without a hint of the cruise industry - within an hour of finishing my shipboard breakfast buffet.
So can independent travelers enjoy cruising? For some, my answer is yes. But independent types who take cruises need to prepare themselves with the information necessary to enjoy the best of both worlds - the economy, ease, and glorious hedonism of cruising with the joy and challenge of dipping into the cultural wonders of Europe on your own.
I'm actually neither pro- nor anti-cruising, any more than I'm pro- or anti-eating Thai food. I'm just doing my best to keep an open mind, not be elitist as an independent traveler, and share what I've learned: Cruising is an option that works for a lot of people.
Rick Steves ( www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.