In your opinion, what RCI excursions are best in Marseilles, Nice, Rome, Naples and Florence? I certainly don't think I want to tour in each but want to know which ones are the best/worst. Thanks in advance!
Wow....you are asking for opinions here that may or may not be suitable for you. I have been on that itinerary twice, so I can tell you what we did both times, but what we look for may be totally different than what you would want. For example, we rarely take a full-day tour because we feel too "cooped up" to be with a group all day; many people would rather see the most they can see and don't mind being shuttled around with a group on a schedule. We also are a family of 4, so unless something is really spectacular -- like a tour of the castles in St. Petersburg or a scuba diving adventure -- cost is also a consideration.
That said, I will give you my experience and opinion. For Marseilles -- the city of Marseilles itself is not much to see. We walked around the city on our own and took a morning or afternoon tour with RCI -- one time to Aix en Provence, one time on the Nostradamus tour. Both were memorable, but of the two I would choose Aix first. In Nice the highlight is Monaco, so we took public transportation to Monaco (there is a train as well as buses, very inexpensive) and walked around, seeing most of Monaco. We took a local tour through the city for a nominal cost. We didn't see much of Nice, but if it was my first time there I would try to fit in both Nice and Monaco. In Rome I would definitely take an all-day tour; there is much to see, and Rome is quite a distance from the port so your time there is limited. We took a bus-only tour, the shortest one, because we were all exhausted from previous tours (the itinerary, if I remember, was one city after another 5 or 6 days in a row), but in retrospect we would have taken a longer tour and seen more. In Naples, definitely see Pompeii -- it is unbelievable, although very hot and crowded, but well worth it -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The second time there we saw Herculaneum which was not nearly as impressive. Florence is also about 2 hours from the port; to save money the first time there we took a cab but your time in Florence is very limited regardless. Even a tour with RCI must be very rushed. The second time we took the train to Florence and then stopped at Pisa on the way back, which was a whirlwind. My recommendation would be to take a cab (or train) to Pisa (about 1/2 hour from the ship) and spend a leisurely day there; it is a lovely city and sort of like a mini-Florence. Because of the distance to Florence, tours of that city are just too rushed and there is no way to take it in. But, on the other hand, even a quick glimpse may be better than none...
Hope this helps a little. It is a wonderful itinerary and you'll enjoy it no matter which tours you take!
i have heard and read that taking the train from civitavecchia to rome cuts out 30-45 minutes from the bus and is only around 9 euros.
rccl is charging around 100-150 for rome tours, which you might be able to do on your own.
is it feasible and cost effective to avoid the rccl tours in general?
Yes, it is both feasible and cost effective to avoid RCCL tours in Europe -- if -- and this is a big if -- you are organized enough and have the energy to scout things out on your own. Remember a few things. First of all, the train in Italy is notoriously unreliable so depending on the day, time and whether or not the conductor feels like working that day you may or may not get there and back faster. I can't remember if the train in Civitavecchia is within walking distance to the ship (usually not); if not, you may have to take a cab to the train. Also, it is faster & easier to get admittance to the sights, such as the Coliseum, if you are with a tour group; if you're in a private group you may have to wait on a long line. Lastly, the tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and usually do make the tour more worthwhile, as they point out things going there and back which you wouldn't notice if you were on a train/public bus. I am not at all "pushing" RCCL; what we usually do is take some RCCL tours, and go on our own with the split about 50/50 depending on where we are, whether we've been there before, etc. If someone in your group speaks the language it helps as well.
In the case of Rome, the reason I would suggest a full-day tour, even if it is expensive, is that there is so much to see that you will miss a lot on your own. You may get there faster, but do you know where the train lets you off? How do you get to the sights from there? Which ones are most important? And so on....again, don't bother with the tour if you are extremely organized, good at reading a map, and can walk very, very fast.
I believe you can take a cab to Pompeii (Naples) and get an audio tour which would be less expensive and probably just as revealing. In Monaco (Nice) as stated above, the public transportation (and local tours) are great so don't bother with a tour there. My suggestion on the Florence stop is either to visit Pisa in lieu of Florence (local transport, much closer to ship) or take a train to Florence, pick one or two sights, and walk around. Again, you probably won't be able to get into the sights without a tour although in September it might be possible (we went both times in either July or August). Florence is walkable if you have a good map; Rome is not.
In Marseilles, walk around the city and you can probably get a cab to/from Aix-en-Provence. If you luck out, you may be able to negotiate with a cab driver who speaks English and is also knowledgeable, as we did our first time in Florence as well as in Greece (on a different itinerary).
So, bottom line is -- it depends how adventurous you are, how organized, and how well the trains are running when you are there but I would pick and choose your tours.
As you say the train from civitavecchia is a cheap way to get into Rome and should be quicker BUT...
You run the risk of having a train cancelled on you and not making it back to the ship and..
Rome isn't the easiest city to get around if you don't know where you are going. If you have a limited time I would always use an orgainsed tour - at least the first time you go to a city like Rome. You will be able to see much more of the sights this way, and usually accompained by a local guide who will be able to give you a lot of Insight into the city, the history and the locals.
You also get to bypass the queues.. go by yourself and you could spend half the day standing in lines.
If you then return and you want to concentrate on a couple of the sights this may be best done on your own.
Monaco is probably more interesting than Nice - but if you want a real taste of Southern France I would either head inland a little to some of the smaller towns (like Eze(?)) or even better Villefranche - half way between Nice and Monaco. This is a quiet, relaxed placed, unspoilt by tourism or comercialism. Perfect for walking the narrow streets, and sitting having a good old traditional French, long, wine based lunch. Just don't tell everyone - I don't want it to be busy next time I'm there!