Family Cruise Primer

Find out why cruises are an excellent choice for making planning a family vacation easy and affordable.


Family cruises have become increasingly popular, thanks to competitive pricing, a variety of itineraries and myriad onboard experiences that will please cruisers of any age. When deciding on a family cruise—especially if you are a first-time cruiser—do your homework. Not every ship is for every family. Be conscious of your expectations, concentrate on what your family will enjoy, and understand your options.

Cruise Ship Trends

In the past five years, the cruise industry has grown by more than 30 percent. This boost in popularity has been accompanied by a growth in the variety and breadth of activities available onboard. In addition to the ubiquitous miniature golf and basketball courts, newer, larger ships boast even more recreational activities.

The Freedom family of ships in the Royal Caribbean line offers wall climbing, ice skating, boxing rings, and endless wave machines. Some larger ships in the Norwegian line include bowling alleys and many Carnival ships offer multistory water slides.

Terry Dale, CEO and president of the Cruise Line International Association, adds that “a current trend is toward luxury spas with their own exclusive suite accommodations, sometimes with private decks and elevators. Shipboard enrichment programs are increasingly popular, from lectures by world-renowned experts to a broad range of educational classes and seminars, including cooking classes supervised by celebrity chefs.”

Ships of all sizes are also offering more variety in their dining experiences—and often that comes at an additional cost. Besides enormous main dining rooms, most mass-market cruise lines feature premier restaurants with first-class service and four-star cuisine. These luxury restaurants charge about $30 a person, and reservations must be made in advance.

Increasingly, ships are offering premium brands and specialty foods onboard, but you’ll have to break our your wallet. Most Royal Caribbean ships sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on board, and many feature Johnny Rockets restaurants. Princess and Carnival ships offer sushi bars, pastry cafés, and premium coffees—also for extra fees.

Finally, thanks to the growing number of repeat cruisers looking for something beyond Alaska and the Caribbean, travelers are turning to more exotic itineraries. Cruises through Baltic and Mediterranean Europe—particularly France, Italy, Spain and Greece—are plentiful, and voyages throughout Asia and South America are quickly gaining popularity as well.

Fun-Packed Family Cruises

Although there are specific itineraries that are billed as “family cruises,” such themed vacations are generally one-time events and often coordinated jointly by the cruise lines and outside entities. (For example, Nickelodeon's first family cruise will run in August 2008 with Royal Caribbean.) Although these specialty cruises are sure to attract like-minded individuals, it’s difficult to count on finding one that suits both your schedule and your interests. Instead, look to standard cruises that offer myriad schedules, and choose your cruise line carefully.

  • Disney: My hands-down favorite, Disney cruises offer the greatest number of quality activities for children, regardless of age. Costumed characters like Cinderella and Goofy roam the ship; and the Mickey Mouse trademark is evident throughout—from the enthusiastic approach to service, to the surprisingly sophisticated décor and the playful children’s menu (want Donald Duck waffles for breakfast?).

But Disney ships are more than just floating theme parks. Parents will appreciate the larger staterooms (most come with two bathrooms—a sink and toilet in one space and another sink and bath combination in another), superior nightly entertainment productions, a state-of-the-art spa, a dedicated movie theater that shows first-run movies 24 hours a day and a friendly staff that truly loves children. 

  • Royal Caribbean: Royal Caribbean comes in a close second for kid-friendly activities in a relaxed, inviting atmosphere. This cruise line attracts a good number of families, too, especially during traditional school breaks—and the more children onboard, the more robust the children’s programs. Kids are grouped by age, and can either hang out and play with the latest in video equipment, board games and computers, or participate in organized activities like tie-dying T-shirts or cooking up their own gummy candy. Teenagers have a private club room, and they can come and go as they please for movies, video games and teens-only dance parties. 
  • Carnival: Carnival caters to families, offering a good percentage of family-size staterooms and numerous onboard activities for kids, including well-stocked and well-supervised play areas for toddlers and younger children. There is also an appealing hang-out lounge reserved just for teenagers 15 to 17. Parents should note, however, that tweens (12 to 14) have fewer structured activities available for them than their younger siblings and little supervision.

    On a recent Carnival cruise, my 12-year-old daughter was disappointed at how few activities were designed for her age group; she ended up spending much of her time with new friends at the pool, which was fun for her but allowed her father and me less flexibility. It’s also worth noting that Carnival offers among the least expensive cruise vacations available—and you get what you pay for. Expect fewer opulent public spaces, smaller and sparser staterooms, and more pedestrian dining than on most other mainstream lines.

Cruise Lines With Fewer Family Options

  • Holland America: Holland America offers a traditional cruise experience with a formal atmosphere, which tends to attract an older crowd (over 70). Therefore, there are fewer families onboard. Holland America does offer a children’s program, but the times and variety of activities are contingent upon the number of kids sailing. Outside of school holidays, many cruises sail with few children and fewer organized kids’ activities. [Holland America is the favorite cruise line of TravelMuse photo editor Ashleigh Nushawg, who went on several annual multigenerational family cruises while growing up. Read about her experiences in the Memories of Family Cruises Past article.]
  • Crystal Cruises: Crystal cruises are a bit more upscale than their large-market competitors, and attire, dining and entertainment are formal as well. This may not appeal to a lot of children—and frankly, not all Crystal cruisers will appreciate young ones, either. Although Crystal offers babysitting and a children’s playroom for each cruise, organized programs are offered only during summer and holiday voyages.
  • Regent Seven Seas: This luxurious, smaller-market line often restricts the number of children onboard. Supervised children’s programs are offered only for select sailings, and even when available, the hours are generally less inclusive than many large-market alternatives.

Tips for Planning a Family Cruise

  • Plan your trip well in advance—12 months out will offer the most choices in cabins and itineraries, and will likely save you as much as 50 percent. Note that the most expensive and the least expensive staterooms sell out first, so if you want to splurge on a suite—or economize with an inside cabin—it’s especially important to book early.
  • Expect to pay between $150 to $300 per day, per adult (including taxes and port fees) for most family cruises. Children staying in the same cabin with their parents usually travel at significant discounts—the per-child charge is usually between $400 and $700 for a full week. Standard cabins generally have a maximum occupancy of no more than four. There are larger family suites on most ships that can accommodate a greater number of children, but these are quite limited, and they book up quickly.
  • Choose an itinerary that suits your family. If you are traveling with children who love to play in the water, for example, chose a warm destination like the Caribbean or Hawaii, which offer sun and sand all year long. If you’re looking for a wilderness adventure or an educational experience, consider Alaskan and European cruises. Check out several itineraries to find the ports most likely to have activities that suit the various ages and interests of your brood.
  • Analyze booking organized shore excursions against the freedom of charting your own adventures. Research the attractions at your ports of call in advance, so that you know if what you want to see is within easy traveling distance of your ship’s docking point. For example, in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, ships dock within a few minutes’ walk to downtown and within short taxi rides to extraordinary beaches, making it easy and inexpensive to tour this island independently.

By contrast, ships visiting Manzanillo, Mexico, pull into an unappealing industrial port that is at least 15 minutes by taxi from downtown shopping and restaurants and as much as 30 minutes to the best beaches, making it less accessible for an independent traveler who is on a rigid time table. Remember that ships will always wait for the port trips they sponsor, should these excursions return after the scheduled sailing time. They will not wait for tardy individuals who head out on their own. On a recent Mexican cruise, our ship left behind several people in each port of call. In these instances, the passengers were responsible for getting themselves to the next stop at their own expense. 

  • Pick the right cabin. This involves more than just deciding about price and number of beds or even whether you’ll spring for a balcony (which I highly recommend). If you or anyone in your party is prone to seasickness, carefully consider cabin placement. Cabins close to the front or back of the ship, or on higher floors, increase the amount of motion you’re likely to feel. To minimize the chance of motion sickness, cruise specialist Rae Ann Wright of Carefree Vacations in Encinitas, Calif., advises, “For the unsalted sailor, look for the middle of the middle of the ship.” It’s also important to be able to see outside to minimize motion sickness; if this is an issue for you, make sure you avoid inside cabins with no view whatsoever.

    If you are a light sleeper, check the ships’ map to make sure you secure a cabin that is far enough away from busy elevators and night spots like theaters, discos and bars. Finally, steer clear of cabins near public restrooms. I’ve been on more than one ship in which these smelled for the duration of the cruise.

Downsides to Cruising

Before handing over a hefty cruise deposit, be aware of a few downsides to family cruising:

  • Babies under 3 months old are not permitted on most mainstream cruise ships; some lines set the cutoff age at as much as 12 months—and even then require a physician’s written permission for babies to sail. In addition, most cruise lines prohibit pregnant women beyond their 24th week from sailing.
  • Children must be 3 years old and toilet trained to be left at any onboard kids’ program. There are in-cabin babysitting services for younger children, but it comes at an additional cost.
  • Loud-speaker announcements are made throughout the day in public areas on the ship and sometimes are piped into cabins, which might wake up napping kids (or their parents).
  • Space is at a premium, even a generously proportioned stateroom, and although there are enough closets and drawers to store clothing (provided you don’t overpack—read our How to Pack for a Cruise article), there simply isn’t enough room to store all toys, books and games. Bring a very few favorite items, but realize that too much kid paraphernalia will quickly overwhelm your stateroom.
  • Most cruise lines have assigned table seating, usually for 8 to 12 people, although cruise lines (like Norwegian and Princess) offer independent dining, which allows you to eat what you want and with whom. This means there is a chance you will be seated with folks who may not want to be around your children—or who you may not want your children to be around.

On a cruise through the Panama Canal, my family was seated with an older gentleman who paid our daughter unwanted attention; he likely meant no harm, but he made her extremely uncomfortable. (If you do end up sitting with people who aren’t suitable, talk to the maître d’ immediately; in our case, the staff set up a separate table, in another part of the dining room, so that we could dine alone.) 

  • Don’t let the relaxed mood lull you into a false sense of security. Although crime is not common onboard cruise ships, it does exist. Public decks are monitored well and generally have video surveillance, but less-trafficked corridors leading to staterooms are not. It is tempting to let the kids have the run of the ship, but insist they stay in public areas, and keep a good eye on them.

Themes: Family Travel, Cruises

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