In choosing your cruise, you need to think about what you want to see and at what level of comfort you want to see it.
We recommend you first decide what you want to see. Are you looking to visit the most popular islands -- Mykonos, Santorini, and Rhodes -- or are you interested in places off the beaten path? Whichever it is, you'll want to make sure your itinerary allows you enough time to experience the place or places that take your fancy. Some ships visit a port and spend the full day, while others visit two ports in 1 day, which limits your sightseeing time in each (but gives you more overall visits to different places).
Many Greek islands cruises either begin or end their itineraries elsewhere, often Venice or Istanbul, so you'll have to consider which embarkation and disembarkation points in making your decision.
Greece is also visited by ships as part of European itineraries where Greece is one of several countries visited. Most cruise lines like to give their passengers a bit of variety, which means the Greek isles itinerary you're considering might include a day in Alexandria, Egypt, or Dubrovnik, Croatia. This section focuses on cruises that spend the better part of the itinerary in Greece and Turkey, but there are lots of other options for Mediterranean cruises that include some Greek ports among a more varied lineup.
You'll also want to think about what you want out of the cruise experience. Is the purpose of your cruise to see as much as you can of the islands, or to relax by the ship's pool? And what level of comfort, entertainment, onboard activities, and so forth do you require? Some ships spend a day or more at sea, meaning they don't visit a port at all that day, and while some experienced cruisers enjoy those days the most, treasuring the opportunity they offer for real relaxation, they won't do you much good if your goal is seeing as much of Greece as you can.
Next, consider how long you want to spend cruising the islands -- 3 days, a week, 2 weeks? If you have the time, you may want to consider a cruise tour, which combines a cruise to the islands with a guided tour of important sights on the mainland. This is made easy in Greece with some lines offering cruises of only 3 or 4 days, which you can combine with a land tour into a 1-week vacation, and 1-week cruises you can combine with a land tour to make a 2-week vacation.
Also consider when you want to cruise. Most of the action on the islands takes place in the warmer months, late May through October; traveling in early spring and late fall has its own special charms, including the fact it allows you to avoid the tourist crush (although some visitor facilities may be closed in the off season) and the hottest months (in July and Aug, temperatures can reach 100°F/38°C). For the record, August is the month the islands are most crowded with vacationers (expect beaches, bars, and discos to be either lively or packed, depending on your point of view). April and November are the rainiest months. May and October are relatively problem-free, making them particularly nice times to sail in Greece.
Choosing Your Ship
The onboard experience changes dramatically depending on how many people and amenities you can fit onto your ship. You can choose anything from a 16-deck, 3,000-passenger ship with a three-story restaurant, ice-skating rink, and minigolf course, to a yachtlike ship for 100 or 200 people where the idea of entertainment is an open sun deck, a novel, and an attendant who drops by periodically with a glass of champagne and some jumbo shrimp. Which you choose has a lot to do with your personality and vacation goals.
Megaships & Large Ships -- Cruises aboard these vessels focus as much on onboard activities as they do on their destination. They are floating resorts -- sometimes glitzy -- offering American-style luxury and amenities along with attentive service.
These ships, which tend to be newer, feature Las Vegas-style shows, lavish casinos, big spas and gyms, plenty of bars and restaurants, extravagant meals, and lots of daytime activities from water slides and mini golf to goofy pool-side contests. You or your children can take part in games, contests, cooking lessons, wine tastings, and sports tournaments -- although generally few ethnic Greek activities are offered.
Classic & Midsize Ships -- Ships in this category include older, classic vessels as well as newer ships. Destination is more a focus than on the bigger ships, and itineraries may be very busy, with the ship visiting an island a day, or sometimes two. This leaves little time for onboard daytime activities, although some will be offered. In the Greek market, some of these ships feature Greek crews and cuisine, and service tends to be a big area of focus. Because some of these ships are often sold heavily in the European markets, you may hear many languages spoken onboard. The ships offer a variety of bars and lounges, at least one swimming pool and a small casino, a spa and gym, and plenty of open deck space. Entertainment is generally offered in a main show lounge; some ships show films in their cinemas. Some of the ships in this category fall in the luxury camp and offer upscale restaurants, modern spas and cabins with lavish touches, and big, private balconies; other ships are older and definitely more modest.
Small & Yacht-Like Ships -- These tend to offer a more relaxed pace and may seek itineraries that focus on smaller, alternative ports, which they can get into because of their small size and shallow draft (the amount of ship that rides beneath the waterline). They may offer "soft-adventure" cruise experiences focused on nature- and outdoor-oriented activities; or they may offer an experience more like that of a luxury yacht. Some feature Greek crews and Greek cuisine. On these small ships, there will typically be more interaction with fellow passengers than on larger ships -- there's fewer faces to keep track of. There will be fewer entertainment options compared with the big ships, and there may or may not be a swimming pool, casino, spa, or gym. Both cabins and public rooms range from small and serviceable to large and luxurious, depending on the ship. Some ships are fully engine-powered while others are sailing vessels (though these sails are typically more for show than for power).
In addition to the small ships we mention in depth, you may want to look into even smaller yachts, especially if you're seeking a charter or a truly private yachtlike experience.
Calculating the Cost
Cruises in the Greek islands range from 3 nights to 2 weeks, with starting prices per day ranging from around $100 to more than $800 per person, double occupancy, and going up from there. These days, you can almost always get a rate that's substantially less than brochure and/or cruise-line website prices. Like new-car sticker prices, brochure rates are notoriously inflated, so that's why we've listed rates here from a pair of real travel agents, Sherrie and Charlie Funk, owners of Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.jcp.travel). Depending on economic conditions and the age-old tenets of supply and demand, you may get a good price, as well a shot at the best cabins, if you book early; alternatively, if you're flexible with the cabin category you might be able to get a good price if you wait until the last minute, when the lines are trying to top up their sailings (cruise ships almost always sail full).
Travel agencies and Web-based agencies, as opposed to booking directly through the cruise lines, will typically offer the best overall deal. Depending on demand, you may snag a two-for-one deal or free airfare or onboard credits or hotel stays. No matter what price you end up paying, rates include three meals a day (with a couple of exceptions, which we've noted in the ship reviews), accommodations, most of the onboard activities and entertainment, and, if you book your airfare through the cruise line, a transfer from the airport to the ship. Some rates even include airfare (the inclusion of airfare is more common on European cruises than Caribbean cruises), and in rare cases the fare may include tips, shore excursions, and/or pre- and/or postcruise hotel stays. Some cruises are packaged as cruise tours, meaning the price includes both hotel stays and land tours. With the exception of a handful of high-end lines, don't expect alcoholic beverages to be included in the rates; almost never included are charges for spa and beauty treatments, Internet access, shore excursions, and tips for the crew.
Port charges can run anywhere from around $60 to upwards of $500 per person, depending on the length of your cruise and which ports you visit. These charges will be part of your total cruise fare, but be aware when you're pricing your cruise that although some lines include these charges in the initial base price, some do not. Government taxes and fees are usually excluded from the base rate but will be assessed when your final payment is due.
Cruise prices are based on two people sharing a cabin. Most lines have single supplement prices for solo passengers who want their own cabin. The "supplement," in this case, goes to the cruise line as their compensation for not getting two passenger fares for the cabin. At the opposite end, most lines offer highly discounted rates for a third or fourth person sharing a cabin with two full-fare passengers.
Seniors may be able to get extra savings on their cruise. Some lines will take 5% off the top for those 55 and over, and the senior rate applies even if the second person in the cabin is younger. Membership in groups such as AARP is not required, but such membership may bring additional savings.
If your package does not include airfare, you might want to consider booking air transportation through the cruise line. While the rates offered by the lines may or may not be as low as you can find on your own, booking through the line allows the cruise company to keep track of you if, for instance, your flight is delayed. In this case, the ship may be able to wait for you, and if it can't wait, it will arrange transportation for you to the next port of call. The cruise lines also negotiate special deals with hotels at port cities if you want to come in a few days before your cruise or stay after it.
In the past several years whenever the price of oil surges, some lines add a fuel surcharge on to your tab, which typically ranges from $5 to $10 per person, per day. Be sure to ask when you book.