Hi kskelley40, and congratulations on deciding to book a cruise in Europe!
First things first -- itinerary. What time of year are you going? For example, the Med is typically very hot in the summer. Do you want scenery, historic sites, a lot of touring? Are you willing to take long bus or train rides to visit major cities? Where would you prefer to embark and disembark... and would you rather do a round trip or start and end in two different cities? Also, what is the length of cruise you're considering?
We've cruised Europe twice... Norwegian Fjords on Celebrity Century in 2007 and British Isles on HAL Prinsendam in 2009, and are booked on a third for this coming April. (By no means does that make me an expert, but I am happy to share experiences.) For all three, we booked our own airfare, mainly to get the flight arrangements we wanted. For HAL, we booked the hotel through them as it was convenient and not much more expensive than doing it on our own once transfers were considered.
But, I'd suggest narrowing down some itinerary ideas first.
As you are American I would suggest (as a Brit) that you use either a British or US carrier
Costa and MSC are aimed at the Italian market and whilst some other nationalities do use them I have read very few good reviews.
The UK has a number of lines
P&O are the largest and run out of Southampton England
Fred Olsen are aimed at older British passengers and should be avoided by young people
Thomson run older smaller ships and are fairly relaxed but again aimed at the British market
A couple of US lines also run out of Southampton
RCI Independance of the Seas is a large and popular choice with lots to do for younger passengers
Celebrity are sailing the brand new Eclipse from Southampton next spring (I am booked for 1 June) and this is likely to proove very popular
I believe RCI also use Harwich in England to go to the Baltic and Russia
Celebrity also have choices out of Barcelona Spain which I have used and been very happy with
On the US lines in Europe you get a mix of mainly UK and American passengers who always seem to get along well together
As you are coming a long way why not consider combining the cruise with a couple of days in England (London is the most popular choice)
Whatever you decide there are some great destinations to be seen
Best times to travel May&June and September/October
Other summer months too hot and crowded
Very good questions. We have spent about a year cruising in the Med and a substantial amount of time traveling on land (usually by rental car). I agree that most of my fellow Americans would be more satisfied on a cruise line that caters to Americans and Brits. Hence you should be looking at RCI, Princess, HA, Celebrity and Carnival among the mass market cruise lines. There are also Oceania and Azamara which is a stop above these lines and offers excellent smaller ship (700 passenger) cruising. There are also great luxury lines such as Seabourn and Silverseas for those not on a budget. We tend to favor cruises that begin and end at different ports since you can better maximize your trip by spending a few extra pre and post cruise days in different countries. However, the round trip voyages (these are usually shorter 7 day itineraries) can save you a few dollars with airfare. You should carefully compare the price of doing your own air against the price of cruise provided air. As to hotels we can always find better deals on our own than cruise packages...but you must also factor-in the cost of transfers to and from ships. Isolated ports such as Civitavecchia (for Rome) can add a more than $150 for transfers...while places such as Barcelona are pretty cheap when using taxis. As to itineraries this is purely personal preference. If you enjoy ancient ruins you would want ports such as Naples (Pompeii) and Kusadasi (or Izmir) for Ephesus. If you want sun and sand than the Greek Islands are a great destination. If you want major cities there are many different options that can get you to places such as Rome, Paris, London, St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Berlin, etc. Another option is to take a river cruise on rivers such as the Rhine and/or Danube. You also need to understand that a European cruise will cost a lot more money for excursions than a Caribbean cruise...so budgeting can be a major factor. Hopefully this post will get you thinking and doing some homework.
Thanks for the responses....you have all given me lots to think about and plan.
I think we are leaning towards RCI or maybe even NCL....I would do Carnival, my daughter loves their ships and activities, but they do not show any europe cruises. I would love to do Regent Seven Seas - mainly because everything is included: alcohol drinks, some excursions etc...
We are probably looking at October 2011 - so that leaves me plenty of time to plan.