Cruising with kids makes a great choice for a family vacation. Many new cruise ships are like floating resorts with seemingly endless options to keep all ages entertained. Meanwhile your family is transported from destination to destination, while unpacking just once. Like any vacation, though, a cruise can go very wrong without proper planning and preparation. These 12 tips will help ensure your family cruise sails as smoothly as possible.
This story originally posted in September 2014 and was updated and reposted in November 2015.
1. Reseach, research, research!
Research your cruise options thoroughly before booking your vacation. Weigh the pros and cons of each cruise line including childcare options, family activities, meal options, stateroom size and layout, and, of course, price. When choosing an itinerary, consider the number of at sea days, the ports of call, and shore excursions. If traveling with a baby or toddler, keep in mind not all cruise ships offer bath tubs and kids clubs vary in terms of age requirements. (See #9 “Know cruise babysitting options” below for a description of kids club age requirements by cruise line.) Also, non-potty trained children may not swim in cruise ship pools but Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Cunard, and Royal Caribbean offer splash areas on select ships with special filtration for diapered tots.
2. Consult a cruise expert.
I organize and book all of our travel myself—except when planning a cruise. A good travel agent that specializes in cruises can make the entire process seamless. The agent will have a greater knowledge of individual ships and cabins, may have access to better deals than you, and may be able to obtain an on board credit or other special amenities for your family. The agent will also complete most of the online registration for you and make certain that all of the paperwork is completed and that luggage tags are delivered to make boarding your ship easy. An agent is also there to help you should anything go wrong in the process. None of this extra service costs you a penny, either, because their compensation comes from the cruise lines.
3. Get kids involved in planning your family cruise.
Kids, especially tweens and teens, will want to be part of choosing where your family should cruise and which activities are best. Incorporating some of their wishes will make the cruise a better experience for all family members. To build pre-vacation excitement, try to find age-appropriate books for your children to read about your cruise destinations.
4. Check cruise message boards.
CruiseCritic.com maintains message boards packed with a wealth of information about ports of call, cruise lines and specific ships. It's especially fun to connect before leaving home with other cruisers who will be sailing with you. Check their Rolls Calls and then a do a search to find your cruise line and sailing dates. If you can't find your specific cruise, you can start the thread yourself. These groups often have meet-ups during cruises so that you can meet face-to-face with your cruise buddies, if you so choose.
One of the biggest advantages of participating in a roll call is that you might find other families ahead of time who will be on your cruise. This saved the day on my family's Mediterranean cruise when my teenager was having trouble meeting anyone on board. We were able to connect with a family that I had met on the roll call with a daughter of the same age. The teens hung out together for the balance of the cruise and my stress levels went way down.
5. Arrive at least one day before you set sail.
I can't even imagine the stress of flying on the same day that my family's cruise departs. I would worry nonstop about a flight delay or luggage going astray. There's no need to start a vacation with anxiety levels like that. If you are able to fly in the day before (or earlier), then do it. If you are flying a great distance, then consider arriving a few days before you set sail. This will give the family time to adjust to the time zone pre-cruise and explore the embarkation port.
6. Avoid motion sickness and other illnesses.
Book a room that is mid-ship where there is less motion to help reduce the likelihood of developing the nausea caused by movement. Sailing the open ocean has caused issues for both of my daughters and me, whereas itineraries that hugged the coastline in Alaska and Europe were fine. Before leaving home, you may want to discuss motion sickness prevention options with your doctor. Even if your family is not prone to motion sickness, consider bringing along some Dramamine…just in case!
Washing hands often and using antibacterial gel or baby wipes to cleanse hands can help keep your family stay healthy while cruising. Read What to Do When You Get Sick on a Cruise to learn more about preventing and treating illness aboard a cruise ship.
7. Discuss cruise expectations.
Before leaving home, discuss rules about safety and guidelines regarding on board behavior with your children. With older kids, set clear rules about the degree of freedom they will have during the cruise and family commitment expectations. For example, if you would like all family members to eat dinner together every evening, make this clear before boarding the ship.
8. Pack properly for cruising with kids.
Once you have checked in and boarded the ship it could be several hours before you have access to your room and luggage has been delivered. Be sure to keep a carry-on bag with you filled with anything you might need that first day, such as identification, cruise documents, swimsuits, and sunscreen.
If traveling with a baby or toddler, you will want to pack plenty of diapers, baby food, wipes, and formula since many cruise lines (even some family-friendly lines) do not offer these items anywhere on board their ships. If your ship does not offer a tot water area, bring along an inflatable pool to let your little one get in on the splash-time fun.
Power outlets can be scarce in cruise cabins, so you might want to pack a multi-outlet power strip to charge up electronic devices. Cell phone coverage can be non-existent or expensive at sea. Instead, pack walkie-talkies to keep in touch with your travel mates.
9. Know cruise ship babysitting options.
Cruise lines make it easy to plan some Mom and Dad time while the kids enjoy the youth facilities. Whether it's an afternoon couple's massage, dinner for two in a specialty restaurant, or a stroll around the deck at sunset—take advantage of the opportunity to have couple time.
Be sure to ask about childcare options before booking your cruise since hours and availability can vary depending on the ship and cruise date. Disney Cruise Line offers childcare for babies as young as 6 months (12 months for cruises 10 nights+), and Cunard accepts children starting at 1 year. Some Royal Caribbean Ships now offer nursery care for children ages 6 months – 3 years. Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian accept youngsters aged 2 and older, while Celebrity, and Princess require children to be at least 3 to participate in the kids clubs. Many ships also offer tween and teen clubs with video games, music and dance parties. Most lines only offer group childcare in lieu of in-cabin babysitting. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, however, offer private babysitting in staterooms at an hourly fee.
10. Visit the kids club on embarkation day.
Even if you don't think your child will have any interest in attending the ship's kids club, bring your child to the club on the first day. Most cruise lines host a kids camp orientation party on boarding day. This allows parents to check out the facilities and gives kids a chance to make friends. Kids start making friendships that first night and it can be hard for shy children to join in a day or two later once friendships have already been established.
11. Embrace formal night.
Some cruisers dread formal night. Instead of poo-pooing the formal night tradition, embrace it. I love formal night because it's a rare opportunity for us to get dressed up and pose for a professional family photo. Don't worry too much about what you or the kids wear either; ball gowns and tuxedos aren't the norm. You will see a wide range of outfits on formal night on the mainstream lines. Just get everyone spiffed up and feeling good about how they look…and have fun!
12. Tour the ports of call your way.
Many people shy away from cruises because they like their independence when traveling. Just because cruises offer plenty of shore excursions, it doesn't mean you can't explore on your own. Shore excursions can be expensive and often aren't particularly kid-friendly. On the other hand, cruise line shore excursions are convenient and can provide access to interesting attractions and activities. There are three options for touring the ports of call: book a shore excursion with your cruise line; book a private tour; or just get off the ship and go it alone. There is no one right way!
Let us know in the comments below if you have more tips to add or if you have any question about cruising with kids!
All photos by Lisa Goodmurphy.