Have you ever taken a family cruise? Have you thought that a cruise was out of the question for a family vacation because it would be too difficult with kids? Well, I’m here to change your mind! We recently took eight kids on a week-long Caribbean cruise and had an amazing time. I’m going to give you lots of tips and tricks for family cruise vacations.
We’ll cover everything from the planning stage, reserving the trip, and the adventure of life on board.
Our goal is to take some of the mystery out of cruising and hopefully convince you to try a cruise for your next family vacation!
- Family Cruise Vacations: PLANNING
- Family Cruise Vacations: Know Your Options
- Family Cruise Vacations: Booking Your Cruise
- Family Cruise Vacations – The Adventure
- Boarding Day
- Sea Days
- Kids Clubs
- Teen Club
- Port Days
Family Cruise Vacations: PLANNING
Why take a family cruise?
Cruising is one of the best ways to travel for anyone, couples or families. We originally took a cruise without the kids to see what it was like. We had an amazing time and wanted our children to experience the same things. Cruising is like no other vacation. It truly is a way to relax and spend time with the family because everything is taken care of for you.
Your stateroom attendant will clean your room twice a day. They come in while you’re away at breakfast and make the beds and tidy up for you – refreshing towels and things like that. Then, they return while you’re at dinner to tidy up after the day and turn your bed down. Trust me, you won’t have to lift a finger to clean rooms or bathrooms all week – bliss!
The dining room and buffet will meet all your dining needs, and your wait staff will amaze you. They are skilled in making each meal seem like an event. Fabulous table settings and great food that you didn’t have to shop for, prepare or clean up after. Just walk in with a smile and walk out with one as well.
Cruises are full of activities and things to do – all planned out before you even board the ship. We like to think of it as summer camps – for families. There will be classes, shows, and activities each day. Depending on your ship and itinerary, you can challenge the kids to a game of mini golf or watch a belly flop contest by the pool. The best cruise ship for kids is the one that provides enough activities to keep them busy and also has extra things like a kids pool, mini golf, rock wall etc.
One of our favorite things about cruising is the wonder of the sights and sounds of the ocean. We love to watch the wake off of the back of the ship or catch the flying fish while strolling the promenade deck. You can grab a lounge chair and watch the amazing sunset as it dips below the horizon before dinner.
Where else can you unpack once and visit several countries in the course of a week? Your stateroom becomes your temporary home while you visit a new port each day and get the opportunity to explore and discover together.
Now that we’ve told you why you should consider a cruise as your family vacation this year, let’s talk about your options and how to get started.
Family Cruise Vacations: Know Your Options
One of the greatest things you can do for yourself before you book a cruise is to research everything. Here are some of the major things to consider when deciding on the best family cruises for kids:
Fly or Drive?
If you’re fortunate enough to live within driving distance of an embarkation port, you’re lucky. You can save quite a bit of time, stress, and money when it comes to getting to the ship. However, driving can also limit you when it comes to availability of cruises.
We chose to drive as we live approximately one hour from a major cruise port. It was an easy decision for us because we wanted to avoid flying with eight children.
If you do opt to fly, for more choices or for necessity, we recommend adding an additional day to the start of your trip to ensure that you make it to your embarkation port without any incidents. No one wants to miss a cruise because of a delayed flight due to weather or something out of your control.
Length and Destination
Cruises come in all different shapes and sizes. They vary in length from one night cruises to nowhere (where your ship does not visit any ports) to several week-long world cruises. If you’re unsure whether your family will fare well on the high seas, aim for a shorter cruise to get a taste for it. Because we had previously been on a week-long cruise, we opted for another of the same length.
We ended up taking the same itinerary that we had visited as a couple. This gave us an advantage with the kids because we were comfortable in the ports that we had previously visited.
Inside or Outside Stateroom
Stateroom sounds so regal, doesn’t it? It really means a closet-sized room that you will share for the duration of your cruise. Staterooms are priced based on size and location on the ship. Inside rooms and those on lower decks are usually priced lower than windows or balconies on upper decks. Makes sense, right? But the price is not the only thing for you to consider.
Some parents are uncomfortable staying in a balcony cabin when they have little children in their party. Although balcony railings are safe if you act responsibly, some people just want to eliminate the stress altogether and go with an inside room. I have stayed in a coveted corner balcony cabin (7688 on Navigator for those in the know) and a lowly inside and, I have to say, I enjoyed both cruises equally.
Consider your budget and your level of worry/stress when deciding on your cabin. There are definite advantages to the inside – which I’ll share in the next post on how to survive onboard with the kids.
Also, consider the deck your stateroom is on. Lower means cheaper, but it also means longer waits for elevators and/or longer hikes up the stairs. We chose a cabin in the middle. A couple of decks up from the promenade and a couple of decks below the pool deck. It worked out great for our family.
Set Dining or Anytime Dining
Cruise dining has changed. It used to be that you only had a choice between early or late dining each evening. You would then be assigned to a table based on that choice, often with strangers for the remainder of the week. In recent years cruise lines have rolled out another option: Anytime (also known as My Time Dining). With Anytime Dining you’re able to choose a more flexible schedule and not usually required to sit with strangers while you dine. I’m a huge fan!
Don’t let the fact that you’re bringing your children keep you from the dining room. You’ll enjoy the great atmosphere and the wait staff will go bonkers over your babies. Feeling nervous about dining with the kids? Check out our how to cruise with a toddler for our tips on surviving the dining room with the little ones.
Travel Agent or Direct?
After you decide on a particular cruise, you’ll be ready to book. You have basically two choices when it comes to booking your cruise vacation. Use a travel agent/service or go directly to the cruise line through their booking process – usually online or by telephone. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Going through an agent gives you peace of mind and can relieve some stress when it comes to all of the variables of cruise travel. A good agent can walk you through the ins and outs and communicate on your behalf with the cruise line regarding travel options. If you have to coordinate flights, hotel stays and rental cars as well, an agent can make every aspect of your trip work seamlessly. They will also sometimes provide you with some kind of booking bonus such as onboard credit or prepaid tips.
The most difficult thing about using an agent, however, is finding a good one. If you get an incompetent agent who is unfamiliar with cruising, you may be adding stress and trouble to yourself. Also, once you book with an agent, the cruise line often will not communicate with you regarding your booking. So, any questions or changes you may want to make (including inquiring about price drops) must be taken care of by your agent.
If you do decide to go with an agent, make sure to check around with family or friends for recommendations. Check ratings and reviews of online agents as well so that you can make an informed decision.
Booking directly with the cruise line is your other option. When you book direct, you have control over your reservation. Just a simple phone call will allow you to change stateroom locations or dining times. You’re even able to make certain show reservations this way, depending on your sailing.
If you choose to book directly, it’s even more important for you to do your research. You will want to be familiar with the ship, ports, and schedule of the vacation you’ve chosen. You may miss out on agent-specific bonuses as well, but only you can decide if these bonuses are worth giving up control of your booking. Unless this is your first cruise and you are unsure of the process, booking directly with the cruise line is the way to go.
Family Cruise Vacations: Booking Your Cruise
Booking a cruise is relatively easy. It’s simply a matter of telling the agent or the cruise line which ship you want, choosing a stateroom, providing your party’s names and birth dates and mentioning any special accommodations or reservations that you may need. They’ll also be happy to take your payment at that time. You will be required to make a deposit or pay in full depending on how many days out you are from your sail date.
After researching all of our options, we chose a 7-day Western Caribbean Cruise aboard the Serenade of the Seas by Royal Caribbean.
Our Itinerary looked like this:
Yes, there were three sea days. They are not really as bad as they’re made out to be with kids. We’ll talk about that in a minute.
Family Cruise Vacations – The Adventure
After you’ve booked your cruise and done all of the packing and preparing, all that’s left is to embark on your vacation!
I recommend gathering all of your paperwork and information: birth certificates, boarding passes, travel insurance, any proof of onboard credit or other reservations in a plastic folder for easy retrieval and access during your vacation. You’ll save yourself time by having an easily identifiable folder in your carry-on bag at the pier and while on the ship. You can even place your birth certificates in this folder and transfer them to your cabin safe later.
It’s also a good idea to have some snacks in your carry-on to keep the kids satisfied while you wait. Depending on what time you arrive at the pier, you may not be allowed to board the ship instantly. They have to make sure the ship is cleared of all the passengers from the previous sailing. Sometimes you will find water and cookies in the terminal, but don’t count on this.
Often you’re not allowed to go immediately to your cabin upon boarding. So, take in some lunch or relax by the pool until the stateroom corridors are open.
So, you made it on board in one piece. Let’s talk about things to do with kids on a cruise.
Your ship will be your home for the duration. If you have kids, choose a ship that will offer activities and things to entertain them. Our ship had a nice kids pool, a rock climbing wall, basketball, several pools, and a movie theater. We were never bored or lacking for things to do.
You’ll receive a printed schedule each night in your stateroom. It will outline all of the activities and shows that will take place the following day. Bring a highlighter and mark what you’d like to do. We participated in things like a mini golf tournament, bean bag toss game, Zumba on deck, and a jewelry-making class to name a few. All free!
Most mainstream cruise lines offer free kids clubs on board. There will be certain times when you can drop your children off and they will have activities and crafts for them. Sometimes they do special events like late-night parties. With the exception of checking out the facilities on the first night, we didn’t set foot in the kids club. My kids were not interested but it is a great option for parents.
There is also usually a special area designated for teenage cruisers. Again, our teens did not want to join in the activities there, but they are available. You should receive a daily schedule each night for the teen club as well. If not, ask your room steward for one.
Your ship will offer excursions (day trips) in each port that you visit. These will cost you an extra fee per person and sometimes have limitations on age and health. If you have the budget, we recommend going with a ship sponsored tour if you are a first-time family cruiser. This offers you some advantages in that the ship will wait for you if your tour is running late. My husband took the three oldest on a zip lining tour in Jamaica and it was definitely a highlight.
If you are a seasoned cruiser you may feel more comfortable going on your own in ports. Some ports are more amenable to this. Georgetown, Grand Cayman for example. You can save money by taking a taxi to the beach for a few hours. We did this with the kids, but it was our second time there and we were comfortable doing it.
It depends on your comfort level with the risk of missing the ship.
An alternative would be to just do some light exploring in the port area after you disembark. Then head back on board and enjoy a nearly empty ship. We did this in two of our three ports. Oftentimes there will be shopping at the port itself. It’s an easy way to check out a new country and get in some pool time by yourselves.
So, have I convinced you that cruising is totally doable as a family vacation?