Cruising for Families

Lisa Fritscher October 13, 2010 1 Comment

Cruise Ship Scenic Mountain Backdrop

Just one of the many scenic backdrops for a cruise

Cruising is a seemingly ideal vacation, allowing families to relax and recharge. Cruising is a particularly excellent choice for family reunions and large group get-togethers, as cruises truly offer something for everyone. Yet stories of accidents and illnesses at sea are all too common. Like any vacation, advance planning and preparation is the key to a safe and fulfilling cruise.

When to Go

Cruise Ship Summer Crowds

Summer crowds can be intense

If you have kids in school, summers and holiday periods may be your only options. The biggest advantage to sailing during these times is that the ships are full of children, virtually ensuring that your kids will make new friends. However, summer and holiday cruises are usually crowded and expensive. Depending on your destination, the weather may be hot and rainy during the summer or cold over the winter holidays.

Cruise Ship Deck Chairs

Spring and fall cruises are usually less crowded

If you can take the kids out of school without them falling behind, consider a spring or fall cruise. Known as the shoulder season, spring and fall are both less expensive and less crowded, and the weather is often ideal. If your kids are shy, however, they may be less likely to find friends during a shoulder season cruise, simply because there are not as many children on the ship.

Where to Go

St. Thomas Cruise Port

St. Thomas is a wonderfully scenic family cruise port

There really is no wrong place to take kids on a cruise. Caribbean and Mexican destinations are traditionally the most popular with families, but today’s active cruisers are changing the rules. On European, Alaskan and exotic cruises, the average passenger age still skews slightly older, but young families are easy to find. As a general rule, itineraries of 7 or fewer nights generally have the most children on board, while world cruises (which may last upwards of 100 days) have the fewest.

Choosing a Cruise Line

Cruise Ship Dining

You can find all ages on a cruise

In today’s cruise market, the cruise line you choose has a much more direct impact on the number of families on board than the destination or even the cruise length. Carnival and Disney are widely reputed to have the best children’s programs at sea, while Royal Caribbean is extremely popular with active families due to such on board activities as ice skating and rock climbing. Of the mass market lines, Holland America and Celebrity Cruises tend to skew slightly older.

Luxury lines such as Silversea, Crystal and Seabourn traditionally carry very few children. If your kids are familiar with fine dining and comfortable in a formal atmosphere, they are welcome on board. However, some children find the ships boring, with sedate activities primarily geared toward adults.

Cabin Selection

Cruise Ship Stateroom

All staterooms offer plush bedding and plenty of storage space

Although many cruisers make a big deal out of choosing just the right cabin with just the right amenities, very few modern lines discriminate between passengers in varying stateroom categories. One of the few that does is Cunard. On Cunard’s ocean liners, guests dine in different dining rooms depending on cabin category. Those in the Grill Classes (which include both Queen’s Grill and Princess Grill) also have exclusive access to a few small lounge facilities.

In general, however, you will be able to enjoy the entire ship no matter which cabin you select. Make your choice based on your family’s unique tastes and preferences rather than any preconceived notions of how you will be treated. In our experience, it truly does not matter to anyone on board.


Cruise embarkation

Arrive early on embarkation day to beat the long lines

Arrive at the port early on embarkation day. Boarding typically begins around noon, although the exact time will be noted on your cruise documents. Fill out your documents online as soon as they become available (typically within 24 hours of the final payment date) to minimize your wait at check-in. If you are staying in a suite, if anyone in your party is disabled, or if you have achieved premier status as a past guest, you may be eligible for VIP check-in. Present everyone’s tickets, completed documents and passports at the check-in counter. If you wish to post a credit card for your onboard charging account, you may do so at check-in. If you prefer to use cash, you may need to wait and visit the purser’s desk on board.

Any luggage that you check at the curb will be delivered to your cabin by midnight. Pack a change of clothes, swimsuits, medications, and anything else you might need for that first evening in your carry-on bag. In most cases, you will be able to access your stateroom as soon as you board. Occasionally, however, stateroom access might be delayed. Distribute everyone’s carry-on needs into multiple bags in case you need to carry them around the ship for an hour or so.

Cruise Ship Purser's Desk

Handle your business at the purser's desk early, before the crowds show up

If you need to handle any business on board such as making reservations for the specialty restaurant or posting cash to your onboard account, do so as soon as you board. Lines get steadily longer throughout the day. This is also a great time to sign your kids up for the onboard kids’ club, as an orientation is often held on the first afternoon. The spa, fitness center and other special programs may offer free walking tours this afternoon as well.

Cruise Welcome Aboard Lunch

Head to the buffet for a Welcome Aboard lunch

Once your business is completed, make your way to the buffet restaurant for the Welcome Aboard lunch. This is a great opportunity to settle down and relax after the rush of getting to the ship and going through check-in. After lunch, check the activity schedule for tours or other special activities. Make sure you are out on deck for sailaway, though! Live music, narration, drink specials and a general hubbub of activity make sailaway into a giant party for all ages.

Cruise Lifeboat Drill

The lifeboat drill is short, painless and mandatory

Shortly before sailaway is a Coast Guard-mandated lifeboat drill. Attendance is strictly required for all passengers, and you may be required to check in with staff to prove that you are present. This is the time to review safety procedures and find out what to do in case of emergency. Some lines assign color-coded bracelets to small children to help with identification during an emergency situation.

Life On Board

Alaska Cruise Breakfast with Scenic Glacier

We had breakfast in front a glacier on an Alaska cruise

Life on a cruise ship is divided into two main categories: port days and sea days. It is further divided into daytime and evening. On port days, relatively little happens around the ship during daytime hours. The restaurants, spa facilities and pools are generally open, and a handful of activities might be offered, but since most guests are in port, there is not much to do on the ship.

On sea days, the daytime hours are packed with an endless selection of trivia games, contests, art auctions, tours and special events. Tear out the daily activity schedule from the newsletter that is delivered to your cabin each night and carry it with you throughout the ship. Make sure to wear a watch, as there are few clocks on the average ship. Many families like to sit down with the schedule at night or over breakfast and highlight their chosen activities. Consider using a different color highlighter for each person. If your schedules will be very different, pick up extra copies of the activity schedule at the purser’s desk so that each person can carry his own.

Cruise Ship Casino

The casino offers late-night adult fun

Whether or not you were in port that day, evenings follow the same basic routine: dinner and a show. Most ships today allow you to decide between traditional and anytime dining. In traditional dining, you are seated at the same table, with the same tablemates and wait staff, for the entire cruise. Anytime dining provides more flexibility, allowing you to show up anytime during dinner hours to be seated at the next available table. We strongly prefer traditional dining, as we enjoy getting to know our tablemates and wait staff throughout the week. However, anytime dining has become extremely popular, so clearly it works for some families!

Late night entertainment generally involves the casino, discos and R-rated comedy shows, and may not be appropriate for younger children. Most cruise lines offer late-night in-room babysitting, while some provide late-night kids’ club hours. Expect to pay extra for any kids’ service provided after 10 p.m.

Kids’ Clubs

Cruise Kids' Club Activities

Kids' activities take place in the kids' club and around the ship

Kids’ clubs are nearly ubiquitous on mass-market cruise lines, but the quality and range of programming may vary dramatically from line to line, from ship to ship, and even from one week to the next. Most lines accept potty-trained children 3 years of age or older, although some, such as Carnival, accept 2 year olds and do not require potty training. Check these rules on any line you are considering before booking your cruise.

Kids’ clubs are generally divided by age, although Disney recently announced that it will begin grouping kids by interest instead. Depending on the ship, available activities run the gamut from arts and crafts to science projects to scavenger hunts to video game competitions. Most clubs require a parent to check smaller kids in and out, while older kids can check in and out on their own. In the interest of safety, many clubs now use combination locks or pass keys to restrict access to the club facilities.

Be sure to attend the kids’ club orientation, which is usually held on the first afternoon at sea. This is your opportunity to ask questions, find out the policies and procedures and get to know other parents and children. Every club operates slightly differently, so it is worth going even if you have cruised on that line before.

Teen Programs

Most cruise lines now recognize the unique needs of teen passengers, and have carved out space for teens to gather. Many ships divide teens into two age groups, typically 12-14 and 15-17. Most ships provide juice bars, Internet cafes, lounges and other hang-out spots for teens to simply relax. Social programs such as dances and scavenger hunts are often scheduled throughout the week, but teen schedules are generally not as tightly programmed as those for younger kids.

Port Visits

Carnival Cruise Port

Stepping off the ship in a new port brings a thrill of anticipation

Although the kids’ clubs may be open on port days, it would be a disservice to your kids not to take them ashore. Most port towns are reasonably safe and easy to get around, and offer a plethora of sightseeing opportunities to match any interest.

Some families prefer to sign up for official shore excursions provided by the ship. This can be a great way to get to know a new destination and, if a shore excursion is delayed, the ship will wait to depart. However, you will pay a premium for tours scheduled through the ship.

Lobster Boat Tour Halifax Nova Scotia

We took a lobster boat tour in Halifax, Nova Scotia

If your family is confident and used to traveling, you can generally do much better booking your own shore visits. Since the ships contract with outside vendors, you may even end up on the exact same tour at a fraction of the price! If you are delayed, however, the ship will not wait for you. Aim to be back on board 30 minutes before the scheduled All Aboard time.

Research the destination well in advance of the cruise to decide what you would like to do. Taxis are widely available in most port towns, but in some locations, renting a car or a jeep might be more economical. We rented a jeep in Grand Cayman, for example, and were able to visit all of the highlights at a fraction of the price of a guided tour or taxi ride. Book your vehicle online rather than waiting until you arrive. With a confirmed booking, we paid less than half of what the same company was charging on the day of arrival!

Safety and Security

Carnival Cruise Glass Elevators

The glass elevators are a hub of excitement on Carnival ships

Carrying upwards of 2,000 passengers (over 5,000 on the newest mega-ships), cruise ships are floating cities. As such, it is important to take the same precautions that you would in any unfamiliar city. Likewise, many ports are located outside of the United States and therefore may have different laws and levels of security than you are used to at home.

At the same time, a cruise ship is a relatively confined space and security is everywhere. A cruise can be an excellent opportunity for kids and teens to stretch their wings and experiment with a reasonable level of freedom. The keys to success are trust and communication.

Cruise Ship Security

Security is always watching on today's cruise ships

Open a dialogue with your kids as soon as you book the cruise, and keep talking right on through the trip. Let them know that they may be exposed to new people and situations, and role-play how to handle different scenarios. Have them practice saying, “I’m sorry, my mom won’t let me” or “No, I’m not allowed” or whatever age-appropriate saying can get them out of an awkward situation.

Cruise Disco and Entertainment

The party goes all night, but underage drinking is not tolerated

Although it is impossible to cover every single situation that may arise on a ship, some of the most common trouble spots for kids tend to revolve around a few basic scenarios: underage drinking; going off alone with strangers; causing problems around the ship (vandalism, screaming, blocking stairwells); and drugs. Today the drinking age on cruise ships is at least 18 and is most often 21. Ships do not tolerate underage drinking or drug use by anyone, and your entire family may be asked to leave at your own expense. Make sure your kids are aware of the penalties, and let them know that if your cruise is cut short due to their behavior, they will be punished further at home.

Let your kids know that it is never okay to go off alone with someone they just met. Insist on group dates rather than one-on-one time. This is especially important for teenage girls, who could be lured into a bad situation by a young-looking passenger or even staff member. While most people on board are honest and just trying to have fun, two girls are always safer than one. Also let your kids know that they should keep an eye on anything they are drinking and, if they turn their backs, it is best to order a new drink. To keep the price down, consider purchasing unlimited soda cards for your children.

Cruise Ship Port

The odds of something going wrong are slim, while the odds of having a fantastic time are high!

Since everyone is searched when boarding the ship the biggest risk for drugs is in ports, where some dealers openly sell on the streets. One of the saddest situations we ever encountered was when we learned that a 14-year-old boy from our ship was arrested for purchasing marijuana in Jamaica. Drugs are not legal in Jamaica, and foreigners are dealt with particularly harshly. I really felt for his parents when they had to leave the ship and begin the process of extraditing him to the United States.

Despite the possibilities of something going wrong, the odds of anything happening to your child on a cruise are quite slim. Maintain open communication and let them know that you are always available for assistance or advice. Let your kids have some freedom with the understanding that it is a privilege based on trust. Since shipboard cell phone service is extremely expensive, consider investing in walkie-talkies to stay in touch with your children.
avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

Tags: Tips and Hints, Travel Excursions
One Comments to “Cruising for Families”
  1. avatar Eastern Caribbean Cruise - Nassau, St. Thomas and St. Maarten says:

    [...] yourselves while others take care of everything from cooking your meals to cleaning your room. My Cruises for Families article is filled with tips for parents considering a cruise with their children. In 2008, my [...]