When it comes to family vacations with something for everyone, cruising tops the charts. Providing transportation to a number of destinations just begging to be explored, as well as offshore excursions and onboard fun, cruises are aptly described as fun on a boat. Dining is included in the price, so hungry kids looking for a snack at 3 p.m. are just as happy as their gourmet-loving parents dining in a four-star restaurant at night. And families can spend time together or safely split up for alone time in the spa, kids club or golf course. (Many family cruises offer pagers to help families stay connected.) If you're ready to try a cruise vacation, let us get you started!
For more information on pre- and post-cruise hotel stays check out our list of the 12 Best Family Hotels in Cruise Ports and our Snooze-and-Cruise Deals for Families. Get great planning ideas, tips and feedback from other family travelers from our Family Cruise Trip Reports and Family Cruise Forum. Check out our article titled Cruising with Kids: Your Guide to Kids' Clubs for information on where to find the best hangout spots for your kids onboard. For even more information on cruising, you may also want to visit Family Vacation Critic's sister site, Cruise Critic.
Choosing A Cruise
With more than 1,800 ports around the world and ships offering what seems to be everything under the sun, first-time cruisers may feel overwhelmed with where to begin. To help narrow down the choices, consider:
Embarkation Point. How far are you willing to travel to reach your cruise ship's embarkation point? Do you want to drive or fly? If looking for something easy to get to by car, the Caribbean, Bermuda, Mexico, Canada and New England can be reached from a variety of East and Gulf Coast ports. West Coast ports can reach cruises to Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska. If you're willing to fly, also consider how far you're willing to fly, as cruises out of European and South American ports make for exciting cruises, as well.
Length of Cruise. Are you looking for a weekend getaway or a couple of weeks on the high seas? Cruise lengths vary from overnights in home waters to a few nights at see to around-the-world cruises (try that with the kids!). Many popular cruises for families provide six- to 14-day options.
When considering the length of the vacation, some families enjoy flying to a port destination, such as Puerto Rico, and spending a day or two exploring the island before embarking on their cruise. When planning length, determine if you'd like to build time in more time on land.
What Do You Want to See? Do you just want to sit back and relax, or are you looking to disembark and explore various ports? Are you interested in sightseeing or adventure, or is it all about fun in the sun? Determining what you want to do can help narrow down the choices, be it a lazy cruise in the Caribbean sun, a multi-port visit in the Mediterranean, or a whale-watching/kayaking excursion in Alaska.
Size of Cruise. For many cruisers, bigger is better: more activities, more restaurants, more nightclubs, more kids activities, and more, more, more. And there are plenty of cruises to accommodate the more crowd. For others, smaller cruises with less passengers and activities can feel more refined. Plus, the smaller cruise ships can get into smaller ports, for more unique itineraries.
Family Activities & Amenities
Family-friendly cruise lines offer a host of amenities and recreation tailored just for kids. Families can play together on or off the ship with a number of today's cruises. Offshore excursions may include snorkeling, horseback riding and diving, while onboard fun may include live stage shows for the family, surfing, rock climbing, monster waterslides and scavenger hunts. Family-tailored programs can be found on a number of cruise lines including Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney.
Kids' Programs. Toddlers up to 'tweens can enjoy various kids clubs with games, crafts, recreation, and programs that get them moving and exploring the ship. Parents may be given pagers in case they need to be contacted, but otherwise able to get some alone time of their own. Programs may be available in the evening for date nights. Some cruises with great kids' programs include Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and the family friendliest among friendly, Disney Cruise Line.
Teen Programs. Too old to hang with the little kids, but too cool to hang with you, teens can find their own fun aboard a family cruise with special amenities and programs developed just for them. Teen-only lounges sun decks and discos, as well as special spa treatments just for them, will make them feel like an adult. Some ships even provide special teen-only shore excursions. Cruise lines with great teen programs include Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Star Clippers and, again, Disney Cruise Line.
Infant Care. Be sure to check your cruise line for minimum cruising ages. While some such as Disney allow infants as young as 12 weeks to cruise, others start at 12 months (Royal Caribbean, for example). Babysitting services may be offered for infants, but daylong nurseries may be difficult to find. Some cruise lines do not allow employees to change diapers, so you may be paged to return to do the dirty work. Some cruises provide Pack 'n Plays or cribs, but you should inquire before booking (while also making sure you choose a cabin large enough to accommodate the addition).
Family Staterooms. Considering many cruise ship staterooms are smaller than standard hotel rooms, family staterooms offered on certain cruises may be best to accommodate your family with a little more space, fold-out beds, bathtubs (not found in all staterooms), kid-safe balconies and connecting cabins. Some of the best family staterooms can be found on Disney, Carnival, Celebrity, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean cruise lines.
Written by Lissa Harnish Poirot