Best Use of Vacation Time: Cruises or Tours?

Photography by the authors

Q. We’re both physicians. It takes a lot of manipulating of our schedules to get time off together. We feel something organized for us would be better than us blundering into attempts to make the arrangements ourselves. Got suggestions?

There’s something awfully peaceful about cruising: the fresh air, the relaxed service, the sense of getting away from it all

A. Unless you’re going to stay with friends or relatives or rent something like a small villa your choices are either a cruise or travel arranged by a tour operator. We’ve done both. We remember asking an experienced tour guide why travelers should use his company. He replied, “I’ll give you three reasons: money, money, money!” He claimed individuals could never match the bulk buying and discounted prices tour operators get from agencies like hotels. And, he said, tour companies do pass these on to their clients.

It’s hard to get this close to the Budapest parliament unless you’re on a Danube river boat

That’s not really your question except there is something comforting about getting stuff done for you. And you’re receiving more of an experience per unit time than if you were dragging around independently with a map or a guide book. True, your individual needs might not be getting considered on a tour. It’s a trade off.

The main difference between cruises and coach land tours is once you unpack on a cruise you’re done; on a coach you partially unpack then pack every time you change hotels. There’s not much physical duress to that as others usually take your luggage from the bus to the room for you — but if this packing/unpacking represents a disadvantage, what are some of the land tour’s benefits in, say, Europe?

Some parts of vast countries like Russia are hard to visit by road but easy on the Volga River

We prefer cruises but, first, let us look at some issues that mostly favor the escorted land excursion.

Well, tour operators like to point out that cruise passengers are limited to port cities or places that can be reached roundtrip in a single day from the port whereas, on land tours, “travelers can visit any attraction throughout the entirety of the country and, if necessary, spend several nights there.”

That’s true and the more upscale cruise lines are realizing Europe truly comes alive at night and, catching on to passenger preferences, those cruise lines are trying to stay longer in port. Azamara Cruises, for example, emphasizes in its advertizing its “destination immersion” whereby passengers get more time in port. Indeed a Travel Trade Gazette (TTG) cruise survey of 2,200 “baby boomer premium cruise” passengers last year found two-thirds said they would like to have had more time in ports or destinations, preferably evenings and overnights.

Here is the value of a professional guide who has learned your interest by being with you every day on a coach tour. Only an insider would know that Lord Byron, poet and now graffiti delinquent, had carved his name on ancient Greek marble at Cape Sounion

Tour operators like Trafalgar Tours say they’ve known that fact for years, and not only can they give their clients a detailed experience in a foreign city but they know when the cruise ships are in town and where their large numbers of passengers will be on the tight cruise shore excursions that day so their land tour clients can avoid them.

Another fact that came out of the TTG survey, claiming to be no surprise to land tour operators, is that 25% of those responding made the point ”they did not like visiting sites with large groups of people.” And only 5% said “cruise shore excursions represented good value for money.”

The competition for those customers is understandable because tour passenger demographics mirror the typical cruiser. They both have passports, a penchant for travel and a willingness to travel in a group environment.

A professional guide, our favorite Vincenzo deMichelis, points out exactly what you should look at in Pisa and in Venice

Travelers on land tours such as Trafalgar or Tauck have another huge advantage over passengers on shore excursions: the land tour customers have the same guide every day and — if you have a great guide you have a great trip every day. The quality of the guide is the most important factor in any trip but the trouble is you don’t know until the trip has started whether you have a good one. Once the trip has begun, experienced travelers know immediately if it’s going to be a wonderful tour.

Despite stating those encouraging factors about land trips as a personal choice we prefer cruises especially river cruises that give you the best of both worlds. We’ve cruised the Yangtze with Victoria Cruises, the Volga with Viking and the Danube with Uniworld. We could almost guarantee if you chose one of the several cruise companies that cruise the rivers of Europe you would have a terrific travel experience.

We have attended travel trade shows arranged for both travel agents and travel writers. It’s always an awkward mix because the interests of the two groups differ. The travel agents always want to evaluate hotel rooms and be given the dimensions, for instance, and travel writers are more interested in whether a destination has a history. That said, we were startled to attend a trade show recently that stated one bald difference between the two groups when it came to comparing land tours and cruises. Earning power!

Consider two situations, said the printed flyer, first a 12-night Mediterranean cruise versus a 12-night tour of Spain, France and Italy. The total commissions for two passengers for the cruise were $597.00 and for the land tour $992.80 — and in the unlikely event the travel agents didn’t catch on — it was spelled out further on the brochure thus: “Earn almost double the amount for the same amount of work.”

So it’s a bit like realizing your stockbroker’s first duty is to his company not his customers. You have to take a lot with a grain of salt in life and in the vacation world. Understand what you want and be prepared to ask frank questions.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.