Planning a family cruise vacation can seem daunting, especially if you haven’t cruised before. Travel agents who specialize in cruises can be a trusted resource, but even if you have assistance from a professional, there are things you should know before you book that first cruise with kids.
1. You may or may not need passports on some cruises.
This could potentially save you some money if your kids don’t already have passports, but you should be familiar all the options and their downsides. Family members on closed-loop cruises that begin and end at U.S. ports and sail to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Canada, and Mexico allow passengers to sail with birth certificates and photo ID’s or passport cards in lieu of the traditional passport book.
The passport card is an economical option, with application and processing fees for children under 16 totaling only $40, compared to $105 for the passport book. Barring accidents, medical evacuations, or mechanical difficulties with the ship, the card is a great way to save money. If however, there were to be an emergency that necessitated a flight home from a foreign port, having only the birth certificate or the card could pose difficulties. Because neither are valid for flights from foreign ports to the U.S., they won’t get you back in the country in an emergency.
In those instances, you would have to apply at the nearest embassy for a temporary passport to return home, a process that can take days. The bottom line is that if you are unsure about needing passports for your kids in the future, the card is a great option, but the safest plan is the standard passport book. Just be sure to apply for them well in advance and to budget for the cost.
2. Your kids’ temperaments may not be a fit for every cruise.
Cruising is not a one-size-fits-all vacation. Some teens would love a Disney cruise, others might not speak to you for months if you try to get them to sail with Mickey. And as much as you might enjoy a cruise on a luxury line, it might be a bad fit for a rowdy six-year old.
Also, consider whether your kids are more suited to the fast pace of back-to-back days of island fun or do they need a break from the excitement on an itinerary that includes lazy days at sea. For kids that need consistency in meals and sleeping arrangements, a cruise might be the perfect way to take them to see Europe, Asia, or Australia. You can see the wonders of the world all day and return to your floating hotel each evening.
And certainly, consider temperaments when deciding on the length of the cruise. Three to five nights might be perfect for an easily-bored teenager, while barely long enough for a timid pre-teen to settle into the fun. (For more help, see Tips for Travel with Kids of Every Temperament.)
3. Size and location matter when you choose a cabin.
There is no getting around the fact that cruise cabins are small. Typical balcony cabins sleep two adults and one child (on a fold out sofa bed). Larger families can get adjoining rooms to spread or multi-room suites.The goal is to get the largest room you can afford to make sure everyone is comfortable. Cruise Critic Community Boards are one of the best ways to find perfect cabins. You can read what others have liked and disliked about specific cabins or cabin categories on specific ships.
In general, keep the following in mind: the center of the ship offers the smoothest ride and makes getting around the ship easiest. If you choose a cabin at the very back of one of the mega ships, be prepared to hike three football fields from one end of the ship to the other– something that really matters when you are keeping up with the shipboard activities of several family members.
4. Grandparents can make great cruise companions.
Cruising with a family can become exhausting for parents who try to squeeze too much into the limited time. Trying to make everyone happy can keep you running from dawn to midnight. Consider taking along other adults in the family that will enjoy sharing the fun with the kids. Time spent on the adventures of a cruise can become the glue that bonds the generations, with the bonus for parents of having someone else along to share the work load.
5. Planning shore activities in advance saves time and headaches.
Not only do you need the ability to pack properly based on the activities planned, but booking everything in advance eliminates arguments at a time when everybody is adapting to new surroundings. Booking in advance also allows you to stay within your budget for extra activities.
With multiple children, you can let each child help plan one day’s activities. There may be times when age restrictions could potentially lead to an older child wanting to participate in an activity that younger siblings would not be able to take part in. If things like watercraft rentals or scuba diving are a priority for older kids, consider splitting into two groups.
6. Food options vary from ship to ship.
If you have a choosy eater in the family, pick your ship wisely. This is again where the community on Cruise Critic can help. You can usually find plenty of posts describing everything from the buffet lineup to reviews of the pizza on dozens of ships.
Generally, the larger the ship the more options you will have available to choose from. Small ships can be a challenge, but even the smallest ships usually have kids’ meals of spaghetti or macaroni and cheese. Buffets are becoming more and more elaborate, with cooked-to-order stations for everything from pasta to hot sandwiches. And let’s not forget the staple on the high seas—ice cream.
Cruising also affords the opportunity to expand the food horizons of adventurous eaters. It is easy to encourage kids to try new things when you know that if they really don’t like it, an ever-gracious waiter will be happy to bring something else.
7. Know what you’re getting into with beverage packages.
Drink packages can be quite confusing. Keep in mind that water, tea, coffee, and fruit punches are available on most ships at no charge. The non-alcoholic packages sold by most cruise lines are for sodas, specialty juices, bottled water, and/or frozen fruit drinks. Reading the options carefully before deciding can help you avoid paying for a package when simply paying as needed for individual drinks might be a more economical way to go.
Also, remember that the tap water onboard ships is well filtered and safe to drink. Consider taking along collapsible water bottles (which are far more ocean-friendly anyway) for each family member that can be filled from the faucet in your cabin.
8. Everyone will need at least two dinner outfits.
Even on ships that no longer have designated “formal” nights, the dinner hour on most cruises is usually celebrated with clothing that would be suitable for a moderately priced restaurant. Laundry services are usually available onboard, but remember that most of those are on a 24-hour turn-around, so a minimum of two dinner outfits is appropriate to cover the possibility of spills and stains.
Ships with formal nights offer teen and preteen girls an opportunity to essentially play dress-up while onboard. If they don’t already have clothes that would work, consider shopping at thrift stores or on EBay for some suitably fun outfits.
9. Not all onboard entertainment is family friendly.
Most ships offer an array of entertainment choices, some that are family-friendly and many that are not. It is worth checking the message boards relating to entertainment for specific cruise lines before you book. Once on board, read the details about each entertainment offering to make sure that they are suitable for your age children.
Keep in mind that alcohol is prevalent on all cruise lines, and on most, other than Disney, it is impossible to avoid passing or even crossing through bars on board. Again, this is where cabin position is a key factor to consider. Study the deck plans in advance to decide if there are easy routes from your cabin of choice around any of the venues you may prefer to avoid.
10. Kids’ programs may be a bonus–but don’t count on it.
Cruising with your family is about sailing the high seas on an adventure together. You get to face the challenges of a new method of travel and new ports of call every day. Sure, the cruise ship will have a designated area for kids to hang out. Sure, they will offer supervised, age-specific activities that may be a fun diversion when the ship is underway, but go into it with the idea that whatever your kids get out of that is a bonus to the family trip and you will not be disappointed if the program and your kids are not a perfect match.
Do your homework on the kids’ programs when you are deciding which cruise line to sail on, but keep in mind that each ship is an autocracy to a certain degree, and there will be variables among even ships within the same cruise line. Once on board, it is wise to personally check out the activities your child wishes to participate in. Trust, but verify, as you would at home.
Get help comparing cruise lines, including infant and child discounts, childcare and kids’ club requirements, and perks for babies, plus dozens more cruise vacation planning and packing tips in Part VII of Travels with Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Travel with Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler, and don’t miss –> Five Things You Should Know Before Planning a Cruise with a Baby or Toddler.