I just came back from the Transatlantic cruise from NYC to Barcelona aboard the Norwegian Gem.
The ship pushes you to buy excursions. However, I chose to do it independently and relied on trains in Florence and Rome (info from this website!), and for an excellent overview of cities like Rome, Lisbon, and Barcelona used the double-decker tour buses. The tour buses are easy to find. You will see the red, blue,or green signs everywhere. They are hop on, hop off. Cost is from 12E to 20E. Don't be afraid to ask people....if you are in the tourist areas, chances are they are other English speaking people or even people off your own ship! By the way, most everyone I met, off the beaten path, spoke a smattering of English. If you do museums, you should utilize web-sites to pre-purchase the tickets to avoid massive lines of we tourists. I chose to walk, photograph, and enter what was approachable...for example, Picasso's house in Malaga, Spain. It really helps to plan the sites you wish to visit....I 'punted' in Florence...after walking and photo'ing Il Duomo Cathedral, I saw all the Norwegian, RCCL, Celebrity, etc placards in the air from the tour groups. I hung back from the Norwegian group and they led me directly to the next point of interest. That, and my tourist map, and I was set. The reality of my independent travel as a single in the Med was that I saved over $800 in excursion costs. I ate off the ship (lunch at seaside cafes) in Corsica and Villefranche sur Mer as it was affordable and the ambience was exquisite...as well as tapas in Cadiz (side street outdoor restaurant), and off Las Ramblas in Barcelona. In Rome, I carried my own food(fruit and rolls) and beverage from the ship....I almost succumbed to a Diet coke in Rome, but when the vendor asked me for 6 Euros (over $9), I told him I would drink my own water, thank you! One family of 4, when returning from a day in Rome on their own, spoke of being "surcharged" for the "privilege" of sitting outdoors for a meal (her description, "we paid over $100 to sit outside and eat what tasted like canned spaghetti!").
I may not have been with my shipmates a lot of the time, but strangely enough, ran into many on trains and buses, going to and from the sites. I waved to a few in passing as they took their walking tours. And I even hooked up with a few to do several ports together! It was a very comfortable experience.
I liked the Norwegian Gem as it was interesting, new and clean. However, I found the food repetitive and boring. The main dining rooms have toned down the gourmet factor a bit, much to my dismay. However, if you utilize the Early bird Specials (2 for 1) at the Specialty restaurants, you will have the finest of meals.
And, unfortunately, most of the other restaurants (except Tequila's) are surcharged.
The buffet at lunchtime served mainly the same food as the aft Grill. Everyday, hamburgers, hot dogs and roast chicken. When I questioned staff about the boring, repetitive menu, with a straight face I was told, "but that's what Americans want".....I personally felt insulted.
But food preferences aside, the cruise was delightful, and the ports were so much fun.
One gentleman from my ship actually was pick-pocketed in Barcelona at a bus stop. His wallet was in his back pocket. Need I say more?
Enjoy the Med and the Gem. Both are sparkling!