10 Steps for Creating
A Successful Family Cruise
with Young Children in Tow
By Lizz Dinnigan
In recent years, the cruise industry has made it easier for families with young children to enjoy a vacation at sea.
Sailing from a port within a short drive of your home is a much more convenient, cost-effective and hassle-free option than flying with kids (and their extra luggage) to a far-flung cruise departure point.
But even when booking a close-in, drive-market cruise for your family, research and preparedness are essential.
Childrens’ amenities, driving distance, shore tours, cabin size and shipboard activities factor equally in the decision to book a particular cruise.
You may hope your trip will be smooth and seamless, but traveling with kids can be unpredictable.
I have two boys, ages 3 and 6, and my trick is to anticipate the worst-case scenarios — sickness, in-cabin boredom, exhaustion — and pack accordingly should a situation arise while onboard.
After surviving double-ear infections and stomach viruses at sea, when there’s no access to your neighborhood drugstore to quickly soothe your child, I have learned to come prepared.
Evaluating Lines for Kids' Programs
The best way to begin the cruise-selection process is to immediately narrow down your options. Do your homework up front. Select a handful of ports closest to your house, and find out which ships are homeported there.
Also, ask around! What can your local friends with kids recommend for a drive-market cruise? They know you so they might have gleanings about what may or may not suit your taste.
Strongly consider using a skilled travel agent, someone who is certified by CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) and specializes in cruise sales.
A good agent can really make your vacation a hassle-free experience.
And he or she can also become a lifeline if something (weather, air delays or unexpected issues) goes awry on the journey.
Be sure the agent knows that the line's kids' club and its activities are critical to your family vacation purchase.
Mass-market lines that cater to North Americans tend to offer similar childrens’ facilities and activities across their newer fleets.
These facilities encompass a mix of sports, art, dance, culinary and game amenities and programs.
Be advised that sometimes older ships' don't always have kids facilities on par with the newer vessels. Some do, however, if the ship has recently had a total renovation and upgrade in drydock.
For example, Carnival Fantasy, now sailing from Charleston, SC, is an older vessel but recently received a significant Evolutions of Fun upgrade -- which includes a huge new water slide on the top deck.
So do your homework. Check cruise line sites for news of ship updates.
Look at online bulletin boards on such sites as CruiseCritic.com, CruiseLineFans.com or CruiseMates.com to learn about reader experiences on recent sailings.
You might also check out other Family Cruising reviews and topics on this site.
Also, keep in mind that there’s a distinct difference between lines that are child-centric and those that merely welcome kids with an unmanned playroom and limited-to-no, youth-specific entertainment.
Of utmost importance is finding out the minimum age allowed for each operator’s childrens’ program.
You’ll truly enjoy the vacation if your child is old enough to participate in the shipboard “camp.”
I’ve traveled while pregnant, as well as with my two boys ranging from ages 18 months to 6 years old.
If you're traveling alone as a young family and the kids' are too young for a children's program, you will not get a moment’s relaxation as a couple if you’re keeping a roving eye on your infant or toddler all day without help.
A good option, if available, is to travel with a parent, aunt, or someone who can spell you if the kids are too young to be in the kids' program.
Or, as we've discovered, it can be an advantage to book the cruise with another reliable couple with kids from back home. Decide up front how it will work.
Perhaps you can watch their little ones one day while they enjoy a beach day or lunch ashore as a couple, or they can watch yours on a day you go ATV riding or diving.
Alternatively, if the two men will watch the kids in the morning while the two moms shop, and the two women take over that chore in the afternoon so the men can watch a sporting event, it's a great way to carve out adult time.
Yet, you know the kids are well supervised.
Now it’s time to investigate what’s featured onboard. Each new ship launch reveals hotter amenities intended to outshine the last big industry debut.
For example, Royal Caribbean International’s new Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas each offer two FlowRiders for surfing, a H2O Zone childrens’ aqua park, zipline and science lab.
It’s also important to look beyond the actual childrens’ program regarding what makes a ship stand out.
Child-friendly dining with pint-size tables/chairs and buffet stations, a rock-climbing wall, specialized science program, special dedicated pool area, waterslide or ice-skating rink are strong selling points.
Also ask if private babysitting is offered, as some parents might be adverse to leaving their children in a supervised public group babysitting setting past their child’s normal bedtime.
Choosing the Best Itinerary
Cruises from Southern ports generally sail to the Caribbean or Mexico.
These warm-weather destinations are absolutely ideal for a family holiday. Since there are so many different choices departing from southern ports, look at the itineraries carefully.
Don't just peruse the ports, but look at what the lines' offer for shore options from those ports. .
My best advise? Plan several beach day options during your cruise. Kids under 10 love to relax and play in the gem-colored waters of island beaches.
Embrace the simplicity. Bring along a snorkel set, water toys and rafts for all-day self-entertainment.
For our young family, the cruise line's offered snorkeling tour options are typically too group-focused and structured, and not always the best for kids who aren't good swimmers.
We also avoid diving, off-road-vehicle or city tours.
But a private island experience is another great family option! It’s worth it to choose one itinerary over another if you get a day at a line’s private beach paradise.
Families at a private island will find floats and rafts for rental, a beach grill or barbecue (usually provided free by the line), watersports equipment for rent, and free loungers.
If you really want to splurge, Disney Cruise Line has just built 17 new family beach cabanas (one has wheelchair access) at Castaway Cay. For up to six people, the cost for the daylong rental is $499, and you can have up to 10 people for $50 each over six.
The Bahamian style cabanas have a living area, which is under roof, and amenities include comfortable furniture, a refrigerator with water and sodas, tray of fresh fruit, snack items, magazines, kids' sand toys and a plastic play bucket and a safe for locking up your valuables.
Outside on the cabana's back deck is additional seating, including two padded loungers. A private hammock also is included with the cabana rental. And it's just steps to the beach.
So if you have parents, two kids, an aunt and uncle, their two kids and two grandparents, the cost is $699.
Yes, it seems pricey on first blush. But just consider the cost to take 10 people on a shore trip. Suddenly, a full day at the beach with your own cabana sounds doable.
When piers in port are crowded or at particular ports without piers, your ship may have to anchor rather than dock.
Passengers are then "tendered" to shore in lifeboats -- generally taking a bit longer to embark and disembark.
If departing from a cruise-saturated state such as Florida, the choices seem endless. Consider whether you want to spend time in your departure city pre- or post-cruise when looking at such major embarkation points as Port Everglades, Miami and Port Canaveral.
Picking the Right Cabin
You can either splurge on larger accommodations and be comfortable or conserve and be cramped. With little ones, a roomy cabin or suite is imperative.
An inside cabin for a family of four will be a tight squeeze, and your kids will have to sleep in upper berths. This can be unsafe on rocky nights and if they’re new to a bed.
We prefer a standard stateroom or mini-suite large enough for a queen-size bed for us and also a pull-out couch for our boys.
Personally, I don’t want to worry about our active, young children falling from an upper berth at night. While I know there are safety bars on most of these berths, I also know that my kids would likely figure a way to climb out.
I also think young siblings feel safer sleeping closer to each other -- and by us -- on a lower level, in what's perceived by them to be a foreign environment away from home.
Plus, during the day they have room to play when we are getting dressed or lounging about the cabin.
Obviously, a large suite would best accommodate a large family. Some lines have family cabins, with a separate alcove with bunk beds for the kids, great for putting a smaller child on the lower level and a tween or teen up top.
If traveling with an infant or small toddler, you must reserve a crib in advance.
It’s also favorable to book a cabin with a tub, not only a stall shower. If your young child has a propensity for climbing, a balcony is not advised.
As for storage, consider the luggage you’ll have and where you’ll put it all.
Remember, space is limited on a ship. Unpack your clothes, but leave the unessentials in your suitcase under the bed.
For extra space and safety, we move any glass coffee table into the closet, providing it fits of course.
Or, you might ask the room steward to have it removed from the cabin during the length of your stay onboard.
Preparing the Kids
Get your kids excited and involve them in the cruise preparation! Show them photos, map routes and 360-degree online tours of what they’ll get to do on the ship and in port.
Young ones will be outside their comfort zone, so show them a cabin layout, and explain they’ll be sleeping in a new bed for awhile. Just don’t force or oversell it.
Each evening, a program of the following day’s activities will be delivered to your cabin.
We let our boys choose whether they want to participate in the morning or afternoon kid's club session — or both on some days -- depending on whether we have a shore trip booked or not.
Explain to your kids that they’ll make fast friends in the club. If they're shy, talk to the club staff about helping to draw them out in a non-stressful way.
And remember, kids usually must be potty trained for the kids' club.
Help your kids feels comfortable traveling by allowing them to select toys, stuffed animals and books they want to bring along to keep with them in the cabin.
It's a comfort for the kids. It's also good for keeping the little ones occupied while mother and dad are getting dressed or watching a movie in the stateroom.
Save Money Through Advance Planning
If you're driving to your cruise ship, consider adding these items to your shopping list: a case of bottled water and multiple juice boxes.
Water comes in handy on shore excursions. Free juice is sometimes available only at breakfast.
Motion-sickness and anti-nausea remedies can save you an infirmary visit. Although the charge is often reimbursed by insurance companies, you’ll have to lay out a few hundred dollars onboard.
Talk to your pediatrician about what is best for your children. It's been our experience that sometimes a pediatrician may consider prescribing an add-water powder antibiotic in case of an emergency.
Also, it's really important to research your destination before leaving home. It can save a load of money.
Let’s use St. Maarten as an example.
You could take a $10 cab ride for a family of four to capital Philipsburg’s calm public beach one mile from the pier and, once there, rent chairs/umbrella for $15.
Otherwise you might shell out $150 for shore excursions to scenic Orient Beach on the island’s French side. And then -- well -- you might have to explain nude sunbathing to your kids.
Packing Tips for Families
Start packing a week or two before the trip to have time to shop for last-minute necessities.
We bring along table games for the dining room to occupy the kids during the two-hour dinners.
Disposable stickers, crayons, colored pencils, UNO, word searches, mazes, drawing pads, deck of cards and homemade word games are perfect.
Ask if the onboard library has children’s books so you don’t have to take your own.
Pack the cases of juice and water in a collapsible bag that you check as luggage -- letting the line deliver the bag to the stateroom.
When the water and juice are gone, you'll have room for souvenirs on the way home.
For infants and toddlers, you can pack a portable travel carseat; however they may not be usable on a tour bus if it doesn’t have the latch attachment system.
Driving to your Cruise
It’s actually much easier to drive to the ship instead of worrying if all your suitcases survived the flight.
Have a separate bag of entertainment for the car ride so you don’t reach into your cruise “bag of tricks” before you even depart.
Fill a backpack with DVDs, books, handheld video games, snacks and drinks.
If your children have allergies or required medication, bring a travel cooler.
Most cruise terminals offer the convenience of an on-site parking lot. It’s easier to have one parent stay at the pier with the kids and baggage, while your spouse parks the car.
If the port is close by, you might arrange to have friends or family shuttle you back and forth.
Boarding With Ease
Want the embarkation process to go smoothly? Then definitely pre-register online. Have all documents and passports ready.
Print and attach cruise luggage tags before you leave home.
The terminal will be crowded and chaotic, so try to contain your little one in a stroller if possible.
Keeping the kids from straying can be challenging since they'll be anxious to board.
We walk around the terminal, show them the ship or try to get in line behind another family with kids so they have playmates while waiting.
Try to check in a little later, when the line clears. You don't want to race to board at the last minute, but there's also no reason to arrive too early, as your cabin might not be ready for occupancy.
Otherwise, you’ll be toting carry-ons around the ship while chasing the kids until you can settle in.
Registration for the Kids' Program
Once you board and are exploring the ship, head for the childrens’ facility to orient the kids with what they can expect: supervised activities, the latest gaming equipment and padded play equipment.
The rooms should be clean, colorful and organized, with a security gate near the check-in desk.
Explain that the certified counselors are mainly international and will have various accents.
Ask the supervisor or staffers at the kids' club registration area if there are any parent meetings to discuss details of the onboard children's programs.
If not, be sure and ask your questions at the sign-up, so you and your kids are comfortable with the processes and options.
I like to sign up the kids right away when getting onboard; then it's done, the kids become comfortable with the program and it takes the hassle out of your vacation.
Enjoying Your Cruise
It’s so much better if your kids are old enough for a supervised kids' program (usually three, but younger than that on a few lines including Royal Caribbean International and Disney Cruise Line).
Beyond the kids' club, parents should consider taking advantage of any group or private babysitting.
Remember that parents deserve some evening time or port days as a couple on vacation, too.
During sea days, we normally put our boys in either the morning or afternoon camp session, and then spend time with them on the pool deck for the remainder of the day.
Don't feel obligated to eat in the dining room. Opt for the casual buffet, which is less stressful with active children.
Also look into flexible dining options. For example, Princess Cruises has Anytime Dining, where you can show up at the main restaurant at any time between the early and late seatings by yourselves or with another family you met onboard.
Select shore tours that are simple and relaxing. Beach days are the best option for families with active little ones, hands down.
Most toddlers and young children aren't going to be happy on a historic bus tour or visits to museums.
Grandparents, in particular, seem to think that just "being together" will be fun. That's not often the case on tours that just aren't designed for kids.
Remember, you don't have to book an excursion in every port. Don’t feel obligated to even get off the ship.
We've discovered that port days are a great time for families to enjoy the empty pool deck!
And take your time. You don’t have to rush from one activity to the next.
While the kids are busy having a world of fun in the children's program, the adults may enjoy a couples’ massage or cozy up in a lounge chair overlooking the ocean.
If you pick the right line with the right program to suit your family's needs, it's highly likely everyone in the family will enjoy the cruise.
That’s what cruising is all about!