Recently I was on a massive cruise ship with 3,000 passengers blitzing the great ports of the Mediterranean - and having lots of fun. No, I'm not suddenly abandoning my independent travel principles and becoming a huge proponent of cruising. But I am impressed by the economy, efficiency and popularity of this kind of travel ... and, to be honest, I enjoy cruising.
I'm the first to admit that cruising doesn't appeal to everyone. For some, it's anti-travel. For others, it's the perfect vacation.
On our ship, I met people who seemed to be having a great time ... most of them veterans of many cruises. I also met lots of budget-conscious travelers who told me that a cruise (which includes transportation, lodging and food for one discounted price) is a wonderful value.
The per-day base cost for mainstream cruises beats independent travel by a mile. For a weeklong European cruise, a couple can pay as little as $100 per person per night - that's less than most hotel rooms in London or Paris. To link all the places on your own - with hotels, rail passes, boat tickets, taxi transfers, restaurants and so on - would add up fast. And you can't beat the convenience and efficiency of sleeping while you travel to your next destination.
There are some negatives. There's no denying that the cruising industry contributes to water, air and marine-noise pollution - but technology and consumer pressure are helping a bit. Environmental responsibility is such a hot topic that all the large cruise lines have website sections where you can evaluate their efforts. (Of course, this info is also intended to help market their cruises.)
And what about the impact on local economies and communities? Cruising can trample towns with sightseers who leave almost no money (since they eat, sleep and buy their tours on board). On the other hand, most of those communities view cruise ships as an economic boost - which explains why so many ports are investing in cruise-worthy piers and terminals.
Conscientious travelers also want to consider issues of economic justice. Critics point out that the industry is built on rich tourists being served by crew members from poor countries. But I've talked to many people who work on cruise ships, and they've told me that the income they earn on a ship is far more than any employment prospects they have back home. And the remarkable loyalty of numerous crew members (working many, many years for the same cruise line) says a lot about this working arrangement.
There's also diversity to this style of travel. Cruising can accommodate a family with vastly different travel philosophies. It's possible for Mom to go to the museum, Dad to lie by the pool, Sally to go snorkeling, Bobby to go shopping, Grandma and Grandpa to take in a show ... and then all of them can have dinner together and swap stories about their perfect days. (Or, if they're really getting on each other's nerves, there's plenty of room on a big ship to spread out.)
Cruising is especially popular among retirees, particularly those with limited mobility. Cruising rescues you from packing up your bags and huffing to the train station every other day. Once on land, accessibility for wheelchairs and walkers can vary dramatically - though most cruise lines offer excursions specifically designed for those who don't get around well.
And yet, I still have reservations. Just as people trying to learn a language will do better by immersing themselves in that culture than by sitting in a classroom for a few hours, I believe that travelers in search of engaging, broadening experiences should eat, sleep and live Europe. Good or bad, cruising insulates you from Europe. If the taxi drivers in Naples are getting a little too pushy, you can simply retreat to the comfort of 24-hour room service, American sports on the TV, and a boatload of people who speak English. It's fun - but is it Europe?
Cruising might not be for everyone. But neither is my style of travel. And at least cruising gets people (who might otherwise stay home) out interacting with the world. Many of the people I met on my last cruise were enjoying (and benefiting from) the chance to broaden their perspective through travel ... even if tethered to a big floating chunk of America.
Let's face it: Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world. Some choose to dedicate their valuable time off to all-inclusive, resort-style vacations in Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean or Mexico: swimming pools, song-and-dance shows, shopping and all-you-can-eat buffets. Cruising lets you toggle back and forth between the floating American-style resort each evening and a different European adventure each day. If you know how to use your time on shore smartly, it can be the best of both worlds. Bon voyage!
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rick Steves: The pros and cons of cruising in Europe