A family cruise sounds pretty appealing: the elegant, bountiful dinners; warm ocean breezes and time for family bonding. Then again, the thought of you and your family confined to a ship with hundreds of rowdy college kids, or of listening to your children complain about being bored at sea might give you pause.
Is it possible to find a cruise that everyone in the family can enjoy? Sure. The key is to find the right cruise for your specific group. Almost every cruise line allows children on board, but not all lines have events and activities geared specifically for the younger crowd. It pays to do your homework and find a cruise line that will appeal to everyone in your family – whether that includes toddlers, teens or grandparents.
When it comes to cruising as a travel option, the numbers are impressive. Last year, more than 10 million Americans – a million of them children – took a cruise, according to the industry trade organization Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Cruising is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry, with more than 90 percent of cruisers making their arrangements through a travel agent.
Why are cruises so popular? There are lots of reasons. The notion of unpacking once, yet still traveling to several exotic ports of call appeals to many. Cruising also has the romantic appeal of a bygone era – that call of the open sea. These days, the large cruise ships are like small cities on the water; they offer activities and events for nearly everyone. The abundant and delicious dining choices on cruise ships are legendary, and with luxurious spas, nightly bed turn-downs with cute little “creatures” sculpted from bath towels, and personalized service, cruises have become pampering vacations. For many, a cruise is new and different – an out-of-the-ordinary vacation. Think of it as a floating road trip.
Marla Kent recently took a seven-day Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Triumph with her husband and two adolescent sons. “This was our first family vacation where we felt really pampered; we didn’t have to cook or clean up meals,” she says. “The kids were of an age where they were a little more independent, and if they got hungry, they were comfortable going to get something to eat from one of the 24-hour restaurants.”
With so many options available, it seems there are as many types of cruises as there are cruisers. You might choose the “big boat” option, basically a floating city with restaurants, spas and gyms, swimming pools, lavish stage shows, climbing walls, wine-tasting seminars, scavenger hunts, and more. These ships generally ply the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and the western coast of the United States. There are also trans-oceanic and around-the-world cruises, as well as bare-boat rentals, where you skipper your own ship (an option for the brave and well-prepared). The Windjammer line offers tall-ship sailboat cruises throughout the Caribbean. And specialty cruises are also popular; for example, the late Jacques Cousteau’s son, Michael, runs summer adventure and learning cruises for youths aboard the Paul Gauguin, the 320-guest ship of his Ocean Futures Society.
The good thing about the popularity of cruising is that there are plenty of options. The downside of that popularity is the sheer amount of information to sort through while trying to choose the right cruise for your family. Decide first what kind of experience your family wants; then find the cruise line that matches your wish list. Each cruise has a “personality,” and a different way of doing things.
It should come as no surprise that Disney Cruise Line® offers one of the most popular and well-regarded cruise experiences for families. With activities serving kids from 6 weeks to 17 years of age, Disney’s Wonder and Magic ships have an entire deck devoted to playrooms, a teens-only café and parent-friendly pagers to keep in touch with the little ones. They’ve also given parents an occasional break, with an adults-only, fine-dining restaurant, and 18-and-over pools, hot tubs and lounges. Throw in Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the Disney favorites, and you’ve got a party.
Royal Caribbean’s ships offer older kids incredible recreational opportunities, including an ice rink, rock-climbing wall, miniature golf and in-line skating area, according to CruiseCritic.com, the definitive Web site for those researching a cruise. In addition, teens have their own disco, DJ booth and soda bar.
Another Cruise Critic family favorite is Crystal Cruises, which is making a serious effort to appeal to the entire family, offering programs for the youngest traveler up through the grandparent crowd.
Finally, Carnival offers an abundance of kid-friendly amenities, including arts and crafts, computer games and jungle gyms.
The Bottom Line
For first-time cruisers, using a travel agent who specializes in cruises may be the smart way to make travel plans. Sure, cruise wholesalers offer attractive pricing, but you’ll have to know exactly what you’re shopping for when going it alone.
“An agent can help you choose the right ship, the right cruise line, the right itinerary, even mealtimes,” says Melissa Baldwin, associate editor of CruiseCritic.com.
Cruise pricing varies wildly; a seven-night Alaska cruise on one of the “big boats” during the summer months could cost anywhere from $550 to $2,000 per person, double occupancy, depending on the sailing date, cruise line and the specific ship you choose. Likewise, a three-to-four-night Western Caribbean itinerary during December could vary from $259 to more than $1,000 per person.
Again, if you research the type of ship you want to sail on, your choices will narrow. It also pays to be flexible; many of the best deals to be found are from last-minute bookings – those within 30 days of sailing.
These prices don’t include any alcoholic beverages or soft drinks, on-board professional photography, visits to the spa, unforeseen medical treatments or gratuities. Shore excursions are also extra. Often a nice diversion from the shipboard activities, these can include a snorkeling day trip, dolphin encounters, onshore shopping trips, scuba diving or para-sailing.
Most cruise lines do not offer discounts for children. The major exception is Disney Cruise Line. According to CruiseCritic.com, on Disney ships (with two full-fare adults sailing), children under the age of 3 are charged only port fees and taxes; children ages 3 to 12 sail at a discounted children’s rate plus port charges and taxes; children over the age of 12 sail at third/fourth passenger rates plus port charges and taxes.
Norwegian Cruise Line also lets children under age 2 sail for port charges and taxes only; Holland America Line offers child rates on select sailings.
Will you need cruise insurance?
“We always recommend that people buy cruise insurance,” Baldwin says. “The cruise lines rarely reimburse because of hurricanes or other weather problems, and even though they may offer rebates, they are under no requirement to do so.”
Some cruise insurance will even cover missed-flight connections and health coverage outside of the United States. Baldwin recommends reading any cruise insurance policy over carefully to see exactly what your coverage is.
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Cruise Vacations with Kids, revised 2nd Edition, by Candyce H. Stapen, Crown Publishing, 1999.
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Cruising: Q&A, published by Cruise Lines International Association. This free, pocket-size, 25-page guide answers frequently asked questions about cruise vacations. It includes information on worldwide cruise destinations; ship line services for children, active adults, singles and honeymooners; shipboard shopping; and shipboard cuisine. Send a SASE (55 cents postage) to CLIA, 500 Fifth Ave., Ste. 1407, New York, NY 10110.
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FamilyTravel.com - A Parenthood.com partner, FamilyTravel.com features cruise deals for families, as well as the best rates on everything from friendly hotels to adventure travel.
CruiseCritic.com – This comprehensive online cruise planning guide offers objective reviews on hundreds of ships, as well as ports-of-call information and tips on cruising.
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Cruising.org – Cruise Lines International Association’s site offers links to travel agents specializing in cruise vacations.
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Kelly Smith is an editor for United Parenting Publications and the mother of two girls who braved hurricanes before enjoying a Caribbean cruise last summer.