Family Cruising: The Ultimate Guide to Planning Cruise Vacations with Kids

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It’s such a family-friendly formula: boatloads of food, entertainment, and enough activities for children and teens. That’s why cruising has been a mainstay of group getaways for more than four decades—it solves so many logistical problems for families who want to vacation together. Megaships may pop with Broadway-style musicals, ice skating extravaganzas, zip lines, roller coasters, go-karts, bumper cars, skydiving simulators, and a laundry list of places to eat and things to do …

Princess Cruises

Lady In Alaska With Sled Dog.

What to book ahead of your voyage

If there’s an excursion you’d be heartbroken to miss, book it long before boarding. Bicycling, snorkeling, zip-lining, dogsledding (pictured), and other active, relatively small group excursions fill up quickly as do any family-oriented outings. Princess Cruises’ adult and child outings designed in cooperation with Discovery and Animal Planet can book quickly. You can always book these via your line’s online cruise planner, but in addition, some apps, including the ones by Norwegian and Carnival, allow you to pre-book excursions, dining, and spa treatments. Just be mindful of tour cancellation policies. These vary by line, ranging from 11:30pm before the voyage departs to 30 days prior for helicopter tours and private cars. Carnival charges a 25% fee if you cancel a pre-cruise booking once you get on board. Know the cancellation rules.

Royal Caribbean

Pre-book the most special experiences

To enjoy all those amusement park-like activities at convenient times, head to the cruise’s online planner or app and pre-book all the available special onboard experiences before boarding—otherwise the only time slots left may be over meals, early mornings, or shore tours. (Of all the cruisers, Disney Cruise Line seems to be the best at making sure few passengers are turned away from experiences; the princess tea parties can sell out early, though.) On Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, that might mean reserving slots for Ripcord by iFly (pictured), the line’s wind chamber that simulates a minute of skydiving. That “flying” adventure is free and open to cruisers ages 3 years and older, so it fills up fast. On NCL and Royal Caribbean, it’s wise to also reserve tickets to shows, even for complimentary ones. For NCL’s megaships, that includes Broadway adaptations and Cirque shows. For Royal Caribbean, that also means the performances on the ice rinks, at the comedy clubs, and at the AquaTheater diving show. Even if you do have reservations, line up at least 25 minutes before the curtain so you and your kids are sure to sit together. Without a ticket, arrive 30 or more minutes before the curtain to request open seats.

Zac Thompson

What to book as soon as you board

Don’t go straight to the buffet when you board. Eat lunch later and devote the first moments of your cruise to reserving special activities that can only be reserved on the ship. On Carnival, that might be the Dr. Seuss-themed Green Eggs and Ham breakfast. On NCL, that could be for races on go-karts (pictured, on the Norwegian Joy) or sessions in the Galaxy Pavilion virtual reality center. You don’t always have to line up at a desk to sign up these days: Use the cruise line’s app or your interactive cabin television. If you and your kids plan to play daily, consider the activities packages—on NCL, you can buy seven days of unlimited go-karts, laser tag, and virtual reality sessions starting at $199. Also, enroll your children in the supervised kids’ program and cajole your teens into attending the first night’s meet-and-greet for their program—the friends they meet on the first day will help amuse them for the rest of the vacation.

Drink packages are also best obtained on the first day. As an adult, you know how much and what type of alcohol you prefer. The trickier problem is figuring out if the ship’s non-alcoholic drink package saves you money for your children and, trickier still, if you want to give permission to your kids to drink unlimited amounts of soda. Although prices vary, NCL’s package is typical and must be purchased for the entire cruise, which is why you want it from Day One. For children 12 and under, the cost (including a 20% tip), is $7.20 per day. For adults and teens, the daily rate is $9.60—since the cash price of a Coke is around $4, you can see how you’d start saving money if you drink more than two a day. Most such packages exclude bottled water as well as the cans and bottles in your mini-fridge. It’s especially important for kids (and adults) to keep hydrated in port. Purchasing a bottled water package from the ship saves you money compared to purchasing bottles individually. A 12-pack of one liter bottles on NCL costs about $28. One catch: On most lines, if one person in a cabin buys a beverage package, everyone who shares their room must as well; the reasoning is that rule prevents people from sharing the same package.

Holland America

Dining strategies

No matter what you call it—Freestyle on Norwegian, Anytime on Princess, As You Wish on Holland America, Your Time on Carnival, or My Time Dining on Royal Caribbean—the rise of flexible dining has been a boon for families. You can choose traditional early or late seatings with the same waiters or opt for changing times between about 5:30pm and 9:30pm when it suits your family. An 8:30pm table after a late afternoon snorkeling trip allows you and your gang to shower and relax first. A 7:30pm dinner another night might give you family time before teens meet up with new friends and you still have a chance to catch the second nightly performance of the musical. Some lines allow you to reserve a table at a specific time, typically a day in advance, which is useful when you consider that walk-up waits for the popular hours of 7 to 8:30pm can stretch to 30 to 60 minutes. (To reserve ahead, use the ship’s app or ask at the dining room.) During busy mealtimes, service can be slow, so place your children’s orders when you first meet your server. At traditional early seatings, Princess Cruises guarantees a 40-minute meal from sit down through dessert so that your youngsters can join their evening children’s program. Remember too, that no matter when you eat, the main dining room food on most megaships rates a definite meh. There are usually a few other free venues for more casual food (evening buffets, plus pizza and burger stations) as well as specialty restaurants that charge an additional cover charge for better service and food.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Specialty dining

The specialty restaurants, a few of which are free, often serve memorable meals, and many have better sea views than in the main restaurant. Most cost extra, ranging from about $15 per adult and $5 for kids 11 and younger to $50 per adult and half-price for kids 12 and younger at the premium restaurants. The lower fees get you food like fresh pizza and pasta, dumplings, and sweet-and-sour shrimp, and similar fare—which may suit your kids better than the most expensive stuff anyway. Avoid the à la carte restaurants if you have hungry teens and need to stay on budget. Specialty restaurant splurges can get pricey quickly. Generally, if you plan to dine at three or more of the extra-fee restaurants, you might be able to get a discount off the cover charges by purchasing a package before boarding. For example, NCL’s 3-meal package costs $99 per person and a 4-meal package costs $114 per person. Although not well publicized, lines sometimes offer the packages at a slightly weaker discount onboard for the first day or two of the cruise, so as you make your first walk-around of the ship after boarding, ask at the host stands if a discount package is available.

Princess Cruises

River Rafting Excursion, Alaska.

Set a budget on extras

For many parents and grandparents, the soundtrack of a megaship vacation is the sound of fees being slapped onto their shipboard accounts. Long before sailing, discuss budget realities. Ask your junior shipmates to select their must-do, extra-fee activities. Maybe it’s racing go-karts on deck, riding the slides at the cruise line’s private water park, or river rafting in Alaska (pictured). When other temptations beckon, remind your sailors of their pledge to stay within budget, and counter with a round of free fun.

Princess Cruises

Movies Under the Stars.

Know what fun stuff is free

Don’t let the marquee attractions overshadow the free fun packed into every megaship. On sea days or after returning from shore tours, shoot hoops on the Sports Deck, play mini-golf, or challenge your brood to an old-fashioned game of shuffleboard. On some Carnival and Norwegian ships, cheer each other on the ropes courses. On Alaska voyages, National Park Service rangers may board to detail the wonders of Glacier Bay and the Alaskan wilderness to kids and adults. In the evening, stroll the sea-facing Waterfront on NCL ships, an open deck with comfortable benches and chairs from which to admire the night sky. Come indoors to enjoy the Broadway-style production shows on NCL, Royal Caribbean, and Princess. Holland America’s Music Walk dissolves generation gaps as youngsters, teens, and adult children dance together to live bands at the Rolling Stone Rock Room and at B.B. King’s Blues Club. With Princess’ Movies Under the Stars (pictured), lie back on lounge chairs, savor the sea breezes on the open deck, and watch popular films together. The free opportunities are programmed around the clock. In the end, it’s family interaction that matters, and the ship’s daily schedule is full of chances to do that for free.

Candyce H. Stapen

Free places for children and for-fee babysitting

You can’t miss the megaships’ kiddie splash areas even with your eyes closed. Just follow the sound of little giggles. Several lines offer additional, free play spaces for little ones. Carnival’s Seuss-a-Palooza (pictured) is a free storytelling performance in which kids interact with some of the beloved characters. In Guppies Playroom aboard NCL, a child coordinator leads babies, toddlers, and their parents in play for free with age-appropriate toys. All children’s and teens’ programs onboard are complimentary, although after-hours group babysitting for ages 3 through 12 costs between $5 to $7 per hour, per child, and the available hours may be from about 10pm to 1am.

Princess Cruises

Family fun in room.

Prepping your cabin for babies and toddlers

Hallways half the length of a football field can intimidate youngsters. To distinguish your cabin, consider decorating your door with drawings your kids created at home. Can your baby come onboard? Lines require that tots be at least six months old for most sailings and at least 12 months for “exotic” cruises and longer journeys. Small as they are, babies pay a fare unless you booked a “kids cruise free” sailing. Cribs (which usually turn out to be a foldable Pack ‘n Play) may be reserved for no extra charge. If you worry about mattress firmness, bring your own foldable crib. In cabins for three, the couch transforms into a bed, but some toddlers aren’t quite comfortable in beds yet, so you may want to pack a children’s sleeping bag to use on the floor. Also pack enough diapers and jars of baby food for your voyage—most lines won’t purée the food. An alternative, especially if you’re sailing from a U.S. port, is to arrive early enough to take a taxi or Uber to a nearby large grocery store to stock up. This option, at least, avoids extra baggage fees you’d pay for flying it all from home.

Disney Cruise Line

Have the talk and keep in touch

There’s so much to explore on megaships, but remind kids of the rules—both yours and the cruise line’s—which include no running or yelling in the hallways and stairwells. Many companies allow youngsters age 9 and older to sign themselves in and out of the supervised children’s program once parents provide consent. On Holland America, the sign-out age jumps to 13, so even 12-year-old kids must be parentally checked in and out, something likely to deter extended participation. Don’t ruin your day by scouring the ship for your children, deck by deck. For finding your kids no matter where they go, turn to the cruise lines’ apps. Walkie-talkies are disruptive and obsolete. Instead, NCL’s Cruise Norwegian app, Carnival’s Hub app, Princess’ Ocean Compass app, the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app (pictured), and (on some ships) the Celebrity Cruises app all feature chat options for relatively low fees so you can keep in contact with your kids on board. Lower-tech alternatives: Make sure everyone wears a watch and set a schedule for meeting up. For example, tell your junior cruisers that you will be sitting near the burger joint at noon and they should meet you there. That does away with any inevitable excuses about device connectivity problems.