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The 5 best cruise lines for families

Feb. 21, 2022
9 min read
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The best cruise lines for families allow parents and kids to have fun together and apart while taking the stress out of group travel.

Our favorite family ships mix wow-factor activities with attractive kids clubs, plentiful and convenient dining and thoughtful touches like bathtubs and babysitting. Your family might be happy anywhere there’s a beach or a pool, but if you want an at-sea family vacation you’ll always remember, book a sailing on one of our top five cruise lines for families.

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Disney Cruise Line

Meet your favorite characters aboard a Disney Cruise Line voyage. (Photo courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)

No one will be surprised that entertainment juggernaut Disney offers an amazing family cruise experience. Disney Cruise Line ships are known for meet-and-greets with Mickey Mouse and Disney princesses, interactive movie-themed dining experiences and enormous kids clubs and play areas. What might surprise the uninitiated is how good the line is at taking care of the whole family, not just the Mouse-obsessed little ones.

Disney thinks of all the little things that can help parents have a stress-free trip with kids in tow. From split bathrooms (allowing one family member to take a bath while another uses the toilet) to waiters who will cut up your child’s food, Disney Cruise Line takes the pressure off parents. While other cruise lines limit water play to kids who are toilet trained and drop-off childcare to ages 3 and up, Disney caters to all kids with onboard splash areas and nurseries. Plus, it offers adults-only pool decks and restaurants, a nightlife scene and couples spa treatments to revive exhausted parents who haven’t had a date in months.

Teens might roll their eyes at the ever-present Mickeys, but Disney Cruise Line does not ignore its older kid guests. Tweens and teens get their own cool hangouts, Edge and Vibe, with video games, foosball and hip seating areas. In addition, first-run movies and Broadway-caliber musicals, waterslides, teen spa treatments and grab-and-go food options (plus free room service) keep older kids busy and happy. The new Disney Wish will also feature a sports area for free play and competitions attractive to this age group.

Royal Caribbean

Liberty of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

With some of the biggest ships at sea and an amusement park-like private island in the Bahamas, Royal Caribbean is one of the best cruise lines for active families. Want to try surfing, sky diving, rock climbing, laser tag, go-karts or zip lining? Families don’t have to leave the ship to get their adrenaline highs.

Even the sedentary pursuits are high-octane on Royal Caribbean. Broadway musicals, festive parades, water acrobatic performances and ice skating shows wow the crowds on sea days. Expansive play spaces for kids include separate clubs for teens and tweens, plus drop-off nurseries for babies.

Parents can sneak off to the adults-only solarium or thermal suite while the kids live it up at cruise camp.

After a hard day of play, worn-out families can refuel at a variety of restaurants, including burger and milkshake mecca Johnny Rockets, Italian and Mexican eateries and an all-day buffet. Family cabins and connecting staterooms give larger families needed space. The Ultimate Family Suite on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas can sleep eight, but parents and kids alike might be tempted to stay up late playing air hockey, scrambling up the climbing wall, soaking in the private outdoor hot tub or watching the giant TV.

Carnival Cruise Line

A large waterpark complex called WaterWorks sits atop Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Panorama. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

Practicalities first: Carnival Cruise Line is an affordable and convenient cruise line for families who don’t live the jet-set lifestyle. With home ports all around the U.S., Carnival puts its ships within driving distance of many Americans. A variety of short-cruise destinations, affordable-yet-spacious (they can sleep four) inside cabins, and lots of onboard attractions and restaurants included in the fares combine to make it one of the best-value cruise lines afloat.

But Carnival doesn’t dub its fleet the Fun Ships for nothing. The whole family will have a blast on board, whether you like getting down to live music, busting a gut at family-friendly comedy shows, getting soaked at an onboard waterpark or eating green eggs and ham with Dr. Seuss characters. The cruise line also embraces simple pleasures like 24/7 pizza and a good ol’ belly-flop contest.

Families don’t need to pull out their wallets to feed ravenous teens or sugar-fueled children. Guy Fieri burgers and barbecue, burritos for breakfast and lunch and Shaquille O’Neal’s fried chicken are all included in your cruise fares. No one’s going to make you dress up for dinner, either.

Carnival ships have plenty of cabins that can sleep four or five passengers, but its newest ships truly treat families right. Book a Family Harbor suite or stateroom and get access to a family lounge stocked with all the essentials – snacks and coffee, games, Wi-Fi, movies and a concierge to make bookings so mom and dad can spend more time playing with the kids.

MSC Cruises

Baby Care on MSC Cruises. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises)

The underdog on our list, MSC Cruises might not be a household name yet, but any cruise line that has a partnership with Lego should be on every family’s radar. As the Mediterranean line grows its U.S.-based fleet, it is staying attuned to the needs of traveling families.

Case in point: MSC’s My Smart Card is a prepaid spending card for kids that limits how much they can charge on board. No longer can your kids run up a crazy bill on soda and arcade games. Larger family groups don’t have to cram into one cabin or be scattered across the ship; instead, they can select from a variety of connecting family cabins that can accommodate up to 10 people.

MSC makes sightseeing family-friendly by offering Family Explorer Club tours, which start later, don’t last all day and cater to all ages with guides and storytellers who bring history to life. Even better, these tours are always half-price for children. If parents are desperate to do that winery or cycling tour without the kids in tow, MSC’s onboard kids club will watch kids ages 3 to 11 for free.

Speaking of kids clubs, MSC’s ships offer play spaces for babies, kids, tweens and teens. Its ships not only offer a Baby Center with educational tours by Chicco, but also a special baby laundry service to take care of that pile of dirty onesies. Older kids, with or without parents along, can race in a Formula 1 simulator, experience virtual reality, get soaked in a waterpark or brave their fear of heights on a suspension bridge.

Norwegian Cruise Line

The Epic Plunge on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Norwegian Cruise Line is all about giving cruisers options to create different versions of the perfect cruise vacation, all within the same ship. The flexibility and choice make it one of the best cruise lines for families, especially those who need to satisfy diverse interests or get bored with the same activities day after day.

Kids clubs and adults-only sun decks allow for age-appropriate fun time apart, but Norwegian wants families to have fun together. Teaming up for laser tag, mastering a ropes course, singing along to a Broadway musical or live concert or screaming down a waterslide are guaranteed to create those unbreakable family bonds.

Norwegian’s flexible dining system and plethora of onboard eateries let families plan meals to suit their schedules and tastes. (Plus, free kids meals at extra-charge restaurants mean parents can sample Brazilian, Japanese, French or seafood dishes while the littles gobble up pasta and chicken fingers.) Casual all-day options suit fussy eaters who need unfussy dining areas.

The cruise line also gets a shout-out for its family-friendly Hawaii itineraries. The only big-ship cruise line that sails weeklong itineraries round-trip from Honolulu, Norwegian provides an easy way for families to visit multiple islands. Beach time, boat rides, water sports, luaus and volcano tours combine for an epic family trip, with the ship taking the stress out of meals and transportation.

For more cruise coverage, check out our 2022 Cruise Extravaganza.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas is one of the world's biggest cruise ships. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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