Cruise vacations are popular with families for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, the value \ is terrific since lodging and meals are wrapped up in the fare. Second, your family can visit many destinations on a cruise without checking in and out of hotels and wrestling with luggage along the way. Finally, cruise lines have perfected the family vacation by offering something for everyone: fine dining, luxurious spa options, pools with waterslides, quiet pools and hot tubs, rock-climbing walls, videogame competitions, pub crawls, and so much more. Even multigenerational families will find plenty of pastimes to keep both grandpa and toddler busy and, more importantly, happy.
Of course, there are a few things to keep in mind when cruising with kids...
Check Minimum Age Requirements
Most cruise lines have minimum age requirements for guests. MSC Cruises has no age limit and will accept children of any age while Disney Cruise Line welcomes babies who are at least 12 weeks old. Most other companies draw the line at six months. Use your judgment. You know yourself and your children best. You'll know when a cruise is appropriate for your family.
Remember to also consider onboard age requirements. For example, most lines won't allow pool access to any child in diapers or pull-ups. There may also be age requirements for access to children's programs and some shore excursions. Review the cruise line's website for more detailed information.
Select Your Cabin Wisely
The most important aspect of cruise planning for a family is selecting the right accommodations. You'll need to crunch the numbers and compare amenities to determine if it's best to book a more expensive (and spacious) suite that may include butler service, a family stateroom, or adjoining cabins. Your decision will depend on the ages of your children, the layout of the various cabins, and the cost factor.
Don't forget to check the bathroom setup. Not all cabins have a tub. If having one is important to your family, make sure to book a cabin that's outfitted with one. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with a shower only.
Prep Your Kids
Invite your kids to participate in the planning of the vacation. Give them books about the destinations you'll visit and show them the cruise line's website. It's especially important to prep little ones so they know what to expect. Remember, their routine will be thrown off and that can be upsetting. However, kids often deal with those on-the-fly changes better if they know in advance what to expect. Tell him or her about the cabin layout, if there's a pool onboard, whether you'll stay on the ship throughout the vacation or if you plan to visit the sights on port days.
Pack for Your Children
If you've already traveled with your kids, you know the drill. In addition to packing their clothes and favorite toys, don't forget sunglasses, sunscreen, and bug spray (or winter hats and gloves, if you're going somewhere cold). Always carry child-size earplugs (good for the airplane to keep the ear canal open) and child-friendly seasickness medication.
Carry-on bags are your friends. Be sure to pack a bag for days in port. Throw in antibacterial wipes, some toilet paper (you never know when you'll need it) as well as bottled water and snacks that your child enjoys (crackers, dried fruit, cereal, granola bars).
Once onboard, have a conversation with your kids (if they're old enough) about the importance of following rules onboard. Explain that ships are safe but they need to pay attention during the muster drill so the family will be prepared on the very off chance that something goes wrong.
Attend the muster drill and carefully check the lifejackets provided in your cabin. Babies and toddlers will need special equipment, which your steward will provide.
Keep Up Schedules
Once onboard, it's best to try to keep to your regular schedule. Wake when you normally do, let the kids nap when they're tired (or force a midday break when necessary), and don't let them stay up too far past their normal bedtime.
Of course, you are on vacation so be flexible. If your kids have their heart set on certain activities, give them the opportunity—even if it interferes with naptime.
Sign Up for the Kids Club
Many cruise lines—like Disney, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Carnival—have fantastic kids clubs. Consider signing up your children for part of the day. They'll get to meet other kids their age and participate in fun activities that range from outdoor pursuits to arts and crafts to cooking to videogame competitions.
Don't Miss the Ports
Sign up for a ship-sponsored shore excursion, book your own private tour guide, or simply get off the boat and explore the port on your own. If you've got little ones, take it slowly but definitely get off the ship when you can. Do as little or as much sightseeing as your family can handle. Your motto is "be flexible!"
Stay on the Ship
While it would be a shame to miss out on a port, sometimes it's really nice to stay onboard while everyone else is out exploring. The pool and other recreational facilities are all yours and your family can have a terrific day spending time together.
Give Your Kid a Camera
Buy your child an inexpensive camera and tell him or her to document the vacation. It's a fun way to get kids to look at their environment and capture the things that they loved best.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Disney Cruise Line