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This is part of the Family Travel Series on Choosing a Cruise by TPG Director of Operations, Danielle. Other posts include: Choosing a Cruise While Maximizing Points, Is the Disney Credit Card Worth It For A Cruise?, How to Choose a Cruise Based on Points, Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Cruise Flights, How to Get a Passport for Your Child.
As some of you may remember, last spring I wrote a guest post about tips and tricks for traveling by air with young children. It was based on the first plane trip my husband and I took with our two toddlers and we kept it simple – a short, direct flight on Southwest with lots of extra hands on deck to help (grandparents and an aunt/uncle). It was a great experience overall, and I learned a lot about how to prepare and what to expect when navigating an airport with passengers who are under 3 feet tall and drink from sippycups.
Now, a full year later, and another flight with plenty of help from family under our belts, my husband and I decided it was time to plan an actual family vacation.
We have our sights set on a cruise – and given that I’m Director of Operations for The Points Guy as well as Brian’s sister in law – we would obviously like to utilize our points portfolio and know-how to make the most economical and savvy travel decisions – both in cashing in our miles and accruing points from trip-related spending.
-The numbers: There are four of us traveling: two adults and two kids, aged 3 and 4 years.
-The dates: We are fairly flexible, but ideally want to travel anytime from late May to early June for about a week — that is if my mean boss will let me!
-The destination: My sister lived on St. Thomas and St. John for a bit and raved about those islands, so the Eastern Caribbean is where are sights are set – though really anywhere in the Caribbean, Bermuda, or the Bahamas sounds great.
-Ports of departure: We don’t want to spend too much time “at sea” so the best cruise options for those destinations leave from Fort Lauderdale or Miami which means our plans (well, budget) depend largely on finding award seat availability to Florida from our home near Philadelphia.
-Our points: Our main source of points income is in the currency of Avios, acquired during the 100,000 mile BA Visa sign-up bonus last spring. Since British Airways’ partner American Airlines has a hub in MIA, we are hoping to cash in our Avios for roundtrip award tickets on AA. Philadelphia-Miami requires just 15,000 Avios roundtrip because of BA’s distance-based redemption schedule, so four of them would cost 60,000 Avios plus $5 each – nice.
-Earning potential: The Ultimate Rewards shopping mall is offering 5 points per dollar spent on cruises right now, so the icing on the cake would be to book through that portal to make the most out of the money we do have to shell out and get some Ultimate Rewards points in the bargain.
The Cruise Options
The options are a little overwhelming, but we considered several different cruise lines based mainly on their availability during our timeframe, their entertainment amenities, and the childcare options. This is by no means a comprehensive listing.
Jumping Through Hoops to Search Online
One of the challenges that we’ve faced in this early phase of fact finding is finding a useful search engine to find a deal on a cruise. For the most part we’ve used Expedia and the websites of each of the cruise-lines. These are all clunky and getting the final price is not easy. We consider ourselves pretty savvy when it comes to arranging travel but finding a cruise is not easy. I can definitely see why so many people go straight to a travel agent to get their trip booked. However, we’ve never used a travel agent before and wanted to do this online if it all possible. Does anyone know of a good cruise price comparison website? It is currently taking about 5 screens worth of information to get a final package price from Expedia (do they really need to ask the ages of your kids every time you click on a new cruise?) and the websites for Norwegian, Disney and Carnival all have the same issues.
Our Narrowed Down Choices
–Princess Cruises offers a supervised youth lounge called their Pelican/Shockwaves Club (for children ages 3-12 years), as well as late-night “day care” in a group setting so parents can have a few hours to themselves for an additional fee (though reader beware, we’ve learned that there are no options for little ones under 3 years old and your child much be potty-trained to participate in any of the children’s programs). Princess also offers splash pools, and child-friendly menus – though the options vary widely from ship to ship. For the adults there are shows, art galleries, onboard casinos, the Princess signature Lotus Spa, fine dining and even a book club!
– On Carnival children are invited to attend Camp Carnival, a childcare and entertainment options for passengers aged 2-11. Kids enjoy their own outdoor wading pool, arts and crafts, activities around the ship, and their own menu. Parents who’d like to stay out late can register (and pay extra) for the Camp Carnival Night Owls – group babysitting until the wee hours. There are also teenage themed lounges and programs and the adult offerings include shopping, karaoke, a multitude of dining options, live music, art, and sports among other activities. Although the kids program looks fun, Carnival’s reputation for catering much more to spring breakers than families proceeds it and we are shying away. Has anyone had a contrary experience?
–Royal Caribbean has the Adventure Ocean kids’ program, extra beds or cribs available for the rooms, Sitters at Sea (babysitting in your stateroom!) for when mom and dad want to slip away, My Family Time Dining so you can all enjoy a meal together, and seemingly endless onboard activities (from ice skating and surfing lessons to a rock wall and mini golf). Mom and Dad can relax in one of Royal Caribbean’s Vitality Spas, enjoy a more formal dinner, gamble, and sweat off some of those vacation pounds in the fitness center.
–Norwegian piqued our interest with their Splash Academy with activities for kids including arts and crafts and circus lessons, and they also have a group childcare during the evening option at the “Late Night Fun Zone.” For big kids Norwegian offers bowling, casinos, spas, fitness centers, and freestyle dining. Right now this cruise line is offering unlimited free shore excursions for kids 12 and under, and 50% off for teenagers!
–Disney Cruises would have to be the most-coveted family cruise line from what I can tell. Cruises include character experiences, magic mirrors and “talking” paintings in the halls and rooms, lots of activity pools, Broadway shows, and more – who wouldn’t want to attend “Pirate Night”? But we noticed when comparing the price of suites (we decided interior rooms would be a little claustrophobic for the four of us) that Disney consistently came in at a much higher pricetag than other comparable rooms on the competition, and we’re just not sure they’re worth it. Plus, Disney cruises leave out of Port Canaveral which may add a 3 hour drive to our vacation if we can’t fly find the same availability to fly into Orlando on points.
So readers, we need your help! What are your experience with these cruise lines? Are the children’s options really as good as they seem and is Disney really worth double the cost?
Are there other questions we should be asking or considerations we should be taking into account?
Since this trip is coming up shortly, we are planning to move on this quickly and this weekend I’ll be researching the different ways to maximize points on cruise purchases, so stay tuned!