You'd have to be a maths genius to work out exactly what your holiday will cost before you actually take it. Comparing the better deal between land and sea is even harder. What standard of hotel matches a ship's cabin? Are you really going to eat four-course meals every night on land, or will you be reduced to a quick hamburger? Do shore excursions represent good value? Not always at first glance, until you take into account transportation, queue-jumping privileges and the insights provided by a guide.
Similarly, you may well be able to save money organising your own holiday, but what you won't save is time, organisational headaches and energy. You can get around the lovely capital cities of the Baltic in a week on a cruise ship and never have to worry as you're wafted from place to place overnight. You'd be hard-pressed to achieve the same tour on land in a similar timeframe, and much of your holiday would be spent navigating airport lounges and finding your hotels.
A cruise won't always save you money, even if it provides a different and wonderful experience. But sometimes it really does, and you might want to think carefully about the cost of cruising versus independent travel in some of the world's most expensive destinations, especially if the whole family is on the move. A pity we can't cruise in Switzerland, therefore. Still, here are some examples of destinations where cruising can provide better value than a do-it-yourself visit.
In the latest holiday hotspot, even a McDonald's meal will cost you $20 and a beer $13. You'd better have a hefty budget - and book well ahead in a country seeing soaring visitor numbers. Reykjavik is one of Europe's most expensive capital cities. And it's getting worse, with the krone at a high against the Aussie dollar and the government set to hike hotel and tourist taxes. On land, as an example, an upmarket Natural Wonders of Iceland tour with Insight Vacations (insightvacations.com) costs from $5350pp for nine days.
A 14-night journey on Aurora with P&O Cruises (pocruises.com), departing Southampton in June 2018, is priced from $2569pp, leaving you ample change for shore excursions, which cost extra. As a bonus, you'll also visit Dublin and the Norwegian fiords. That works out as $183pp per day, which you could easily spend just on three meals in Iceland.
Alternatively, an active small-ship cruise with Peregrine Adventures (peregrineadventures.com) costs $4650pp for eight days, inclusive of daily activities such as visits to waterfalls and lighthouses, guided walks and a city tour. It departs on July 7, 2018, and sails the west coast of Iceland between Reykjavik and Akureyri on the 49-passenger Panorama.
Bermuda, the Bahamas and the US Virgin Islands all feature in the top 10 most expensive countries, according to price-monitoring research site Numbeo (numbeo.com). Yet Carnival Cruises (carnival.com) has short six-day journeys out of Port Canaveral near Orlando that visit Nassau, Amber Cove and Grand Turk (plus two days at sea) from an average $637pp for an inside cabin - a price which wouldn't even get you motel rooms, never mind food and transportation, in the Caribbean.
With the money you save, you could add on a three-night Orlando hotel package from Flight Centre (flightcentre.com.au) that includes admission to theme parks and airport transfer from $1049pp.
For something less mainstream, Star Clippers (starclippers.com) will take you on a seven-night Grenadine Islands cruise that visits chic Martinique and Barbados as well as remote islets for swimming and exploration. It comes in at $2905pp plus $280pp in port charges, or $455pp per day - a pretty sweet deal for an experience of cruising under sail. Similar do-it-yourself transportation between the islands would be highly costly, if not impossible.
Cruising to top destinations can be very cost effective. Photo: Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik
Norway is famously expensive: you'll wince at the price of coffee ($7) or beer ($13), never mind a mid-range meal ($70). Even a dorm bed in an Oslo hostel might sting you $70. Independent travellers will have to book repeated scenic cruises to see the fabulous coastline for which Norway is most renowned. A three-hour fiord cruise from Stavanger alone costs $78pp (rodne.no).
Fortunately, Norway is a top cruise destination with ample opportunity to bag a bargain that will save you hefty transportation costs and provide you with spectacular scenery almost 24 hours a day in summer. Norwegian company Hurtigruten (hurtigruten.com), for example, cruises almost the entire coast from Bergen to Kirkenes from $1233pp, which works out at $176pp per day over a seven-day itinerary that gives you a wonderful close-up encounter with remote fiords.
Paul Gauguin Cruises (pgcruises.com) has seven-night Tahiti and Society Islands cruises which stop in the classic French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine and Bora Bora over seven days, and also at private islet Motu Mahana for a beach barbecue. Cruise Sale Finder (cruisesalefinder.com.au) is currently offering cruise-package deals out of Sydney or Melbourne for $6607pp, including airfare and two nights' accommodation at InterContinental Tahiti Resort.
That isn't the cheapest cruise, but consider this: the InterContinental is $593 per night on Trivago (trivago.com.au), while Le Meridien Bora Bora is $1505 if you want to nab the sort of overwater bungalow that gets you a prime ocean location. A domestic Discovery Pass with Air Tahiti (airtahiti.com) links you to the same islands for $461pp. Food costs in French Polynesia are shocking.
That makes even a luxury cruise a reasonable proposition. You can do it on more of a budget with cruise-freighter Aranui 5, which sails from Papeete in Tahiti on a 14-day itinerary around Bora Bora, Rangiroa and the Marquesas Islands. The custom-built, dual-purpose vessel delivers cargo while passengers disembark and explore on included excursions such as snorkelling, village tours and visits to archaeological sites. The cruise costs from $4700pp or $335pp per day. You can also get shared dormitory cabins from about $2900pp.
Circling the Baltic by land is a logistical challenge.
Two issues make the Baltic an expensive place for individual travel. Many of the cities on its shorelines are among the most pricey in the world. In Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm, a mid-range hotel goes for around $220 a night and a meal costs about $80. Circling the Baltic by land is a logistical challenge that will take you a long time by land or have you resorting to the air. A single flight Stockholm-Helsinki costs $136pp on Expedia (expedia.com.au).
Just about every major cruise line offers Baltic cruises that link its city highlights. Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.com.au) has itineraries that operate between May and August, departing Southampton on Celebrity Silhouette and Amsterdam on Celebrity Eclipse. An example is the 12-night Scandinavia and Russia cruise on Celebrity Silhouette, which departs on June 19, 2018, and costs from $3188pp twin share in an inside cabin, or $265pp per day.
True, shore excursions cost extra, though Scandinavian cities are small and easily navigated, so you could always explore yourself. Note, however, that you'll save on museum and palace entrance fees and the cost of a Russian visa ($135pp for Australians), which is waived if you book official cruise shore excursions in St Petersburg.
The writer has travelled as a guest of numerous cruise companies.