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When you’re planning for your next family vacation, consider taking your kids on a cruise. Cruising has become a favorite type of vacation for our family for a few reasons. With activities for everyone, food choices for any palette craving and a variety of destinations to explore, cruises offer families variety that’s hard to find elsewhere. As a mom, I appreciate not having to plan meals or clean up messes for a week; it truly is a vacation.

How to Plan Your Cruise

If you’re ready to consider a cruise, check out these tips to help you make the experience a positive one for you and your kids.

Disney Dream Cruise Ship Upper Deck. (Photo by CL Photographs via Flickr)
Disney Dream Cruise Ship Upper Deck. (Photo by CL Photographs via Flickr)

Pick the Right Cruise Line and Ship

When you’re ready to book that family cruise vacation, picking the right ship will probably make the biggest difference in keeping your kids happy. While I’m a big advocate that family vacations don’t need to be all about the kids, when you’re cruising you need to choose a ship built with kids in mind.

There are certainly cruise lines that are tailored toward kids. I like to say that Disney Cruise Line offers cruises made for kids that also welcome adults. Whereas most other cruise lines are made for adults and create opportunities for kids to have fun, too.

We’ve cruised with Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and even Celebrity Cruises. All have been great for families. Norwegian Cruise Line has a Freestyle Dining program where you chose your restaurant and dining time each night instead of being locked into a specific dining time and table. Royal Caribbean partners with DreamWorks for character meet-and-greets and offers a wealth of activities and clubs targeted toward kids. Carnival often has well-priced cruises, great for families working with a limited budget. And, my daughter surprisingly had a fabulous time on our recently Celebrity cruise, a line that typically targets adults. She found the kids club directors were highly engaged with her and they also planned some inventive activities for the small number of kids, making it more personal and less chaotic as some kids club activities on the ships tailored for little ones.

Picking the right cruise line and ship should be your first step in making sure your vacation is enjoyable for you and your kids. Some ships have ropes courses, epic waterslides and even go-kart race tracks. Pick the ship with the best activities that will appeal to your kid(s).

I recommend enlisting your kids to help you pick, if that’s possible. Show them pictures of the different kid clubs on the ships or let them see the pool areas and pick their favorites. Just make sure you have them choose a few favorites so they don’t get disappointed if you pick one that wasn’t their first choice. Read our guide for The Best Credit Cards for Booking Cruises and 6 Ways to Use Points and Miles to Book a Cruise.

Pick the cool ship.(Photo by Kimberly Tate)
Pick the cool ship. (Photo by Kimberly Tate)

Larger or older families may also want to decide if you need two staterooms or one — two can be surprisingly cost competitive with some of the larger staterooms.

Consider the Cool Kids Club

As I mentioned, the success of a cruise can hinge on the kids club. These days, most cruise lines have a children’s program so it’s smart to evaluate each of them when you’re planning which cruise to book. Kids clubs have a variety of activities, beyond being play spaces. The clubs themselves are often outfitted with fun play spaces appropriate for kids of a certain age. There might be building toys, video games, board games and even a craft corner. Teen clubs often look like big dens with lots of lounge seating with video games and TVs set up around the room.

The Vibe Teen Club on some Disney Cruises (Photo courtesy of Disney)
The Vibe Teen Club on some Disney Cruises (Photo courtesy of Disney)

Beyond the club spaces, kids club directors lead daily activities. These may be things like crafting activities, cooking lessons and even scavenger hunts. My youngest daughter, Mia, had a blast on recent Celebrity cruise when they went on a GoPro scavenger hunt around the ship as part of the tween/teen programming. When the girls were younger, Norwegian Cruise Line had a circus performance that the girls practiced for during the cruise and the acts were performed for parents on the final day in the theater. These additional activities are often printed on your daily cruise schedule or, in the case of Celebrity Cruises, personal invitations for the activity were delivered to the kids in our stateroom.

Knowing your kids’ ages, look up how the cruise line breaks down the age groupings for activities. Sometimes they’ll have a club for 3- to 12-year-olds, but the 3- to 8-year-olds will be grouped together and the 9- to 12-year-olds will be in another group. If you have kids who always want to be together, or who don’t want to be together, it’s good to know if they’re going to be split up for activities. Conversely, if your tween doesn’t want to hang with the toddlers, then make sure and choose a ship that has something just for them.

Andy
Andy’s Toy Room on a Disney Cruise (photo courtesy of Disney)

If you’re traveling with babies or toddlers, look for cruise lines that have a nursery and/or baby-sitting options. Disney has a nursery care option for children between 6 and 36 months old, for an additional fee. Other cruise lines might not have a specific club, but offer baby-sitting services for families at an additional fee.

Research the Ship’s Dining Schedule

Dining on cruise ships can be one of the main perks for adult travelers. But often, kids won’t have the same focus on cuisine that you do. Additionally, consider your dining times carefully when you’re traveling with kids.

If your kids love sitting with you at dinner and experiencing a three-course meal, then choose a time that works for the whole family. If instead your kids would be quite happy with grabbing a piece of pizza at the buffet and heading back to the kids club, maybe pick a later dining time that will give you the chance to relax and dine as a couple.

Finally, keep in mind that if your kids want to watch any of the theater shows, you don’t want an early dining time if it means they’ll fall asleep during the later showtime. Prime dining times can book up, so book your cruise as early as possible to get the dining time you want.

Look for special family-friendly services like Royal Caribbean’s My Family Time Dining, where families with the early dining seating can elect for their kids’ dinner to be served within 40 minutes. Then a kids club counselor picks up the child(ren) at the restaurant so they can head to the club for the evening, allowing parents the chance to relax and linger over dinner.

Know Your Entertainment Options

Next, research the shows and activities on board in advance. Some cruise line shows are tailored for adults and might not be appropriate for kids. Often you can book your showtime reservations in advance, so keep in mind the time that will work best with their schedule. You’ll also probably arrive a little early to get your seats for the show, so bring along an activity bag or device to keep the kids entertained while you wait.

Some cruise lines have character partnerships and activities that might allow your kids to meet some of their favorite characters. Disney, of course, has many of the traditional Disney characters, as well as offers special Marvel and Star Wars Days at Sea sailings. Royal Caribbean has a DreamWorks partnership that offers kids the chance to meet characters from popular films like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Carnival has special activities centered on Dr. Seuss like a Green Eggs and Ham breakfast with the Cat in the Hat.

Many of the new cruise ships have some amazing activities on board that your kids will want to do. Find out if you need to book those in advance. On my recent Norwegian Bliss cruise, we had to book the go-kart race track and laser tag right when we boarded to get time slots since they book up fast. Just like with shore excursions (which we’ll talk about next), you’ll want to know if there are any limitations for the activities so that you know in advance if your kids can participate.

Research the theater shows in advance to see if they
Research the theater shows in advance to see if they’re appropriate for your children. (Photo by Kimberly Tate)

Plan a Shore Excursion

If you can swing it, I recommend letting your kids pick a shore excursion for your trip. Of course, if you have a larger family this might be difficult — not to mention pricy. But a shore tour can make a big impact on kids. However, as moms and dads, we all know that kids are different. What appeals to one of our kids might not appeal to the other one. The goal is finding something the whole family will enjoy doing together. Also keep in mind if there are any age, height or weight restrictions for excursions. You don’t want to accidentally book an excursion that one member of your family can’t participate in.

There are many options for shore excursions and your first step will be to decide if you’re going to book through the ship or manage the excursion on your own — either once you disembark or in advance via a third party. Keep in mind that booking with the ship means you’re promised a certain level of safety and organization, as well as the guarantee that you’ll make it back to the ship on time. For families with young kids, I highly recommend booking shore excursions directly with the cruise line. You’ll save money managing it on your own, but you also take on some added risks.

When our girls were younger, some of our favorite activities were beach excursions. We’d grab a cab once we got off the boat and have the driver take us to the nearest beach. Cruise lines will often offer beach day excursions as well, sometimes in partnership with a hotel, granting you access to the hotel facilities. That can be very useful for families. Once our girls got into grade school, we started booking snorkeling excursions. This is probably one of their favorite activities and something we do on every cruise. Now that we have tweens and teens, we can book more adventurous excursions like ziplining, hiking trips, bike tours and surf lessons. Again, if possible, talk to your kids about what appeals to them.

Snorkeling is a popular excursion kids love.(Photo by Kimberly Tate)
Snorkeling is a popular excursion that kids love. (Photo by Kimberly Tate)

Get Ready for Your Cruise

Now that you’ve ironed out a lot of details about the cruise itself, let’s talk about getting ready for it.

Don’t Pack the Entire Dresser

You need to consider what to pack. As a rule of thumb, I have my girls pack an outfit a day plus a couple of nicer outfits or dresses for dinners. We also pack swimsuits and cover-ups if we’re planning for a beach day shore excursion. Also, since many ships staff professional photographers, cruises give families the opportunity to have family portraits made. Pack coordinating outfits for a photo shoot, if you’d like that.

When packing, explain the activities your kids need to pack for and let them pick their outfits. If you have young kids, you can have them pick out a few of their favorite outfits and place them on their bed. Then you can actually check over the selections and make sure they’re a fit. We started this with our girls when they were in preschool and now that they’re middle schoolers, they pack completely on their own. This puts the responsibility on their shoulders for packing clothes they like, and it saves you from hearing any arguments if they don’t want to wear what you chose.

Finally, make sure you pack plenty of sunscreen and sun protection. When kids are playing on the upper decks and heading out on shore excursions, they’re getting a lot of sun exposure. Don’t ruin your vacation by not packing enough sunscreen or a hat. Also, consider packing rash guard swim tops; they help keep kids safe from burns.

(Photo by Kimberly Tate)
(Photo by Kimberly Tate)

Sway Away Sickness

Personally, I have a terrible time with motion sickness when I cruise. I was always happy that my girls hadn’t seemed to inherit my weak inner ear. But, recently, my youngest has started showing signs of motion sickness. On our recent cruise, I had no idea if she would suddenly have developed seasickness like she’s developed car sickness. So, I packed to be ready just in case.

Even if no one in your family thinks they have motion sickness issues, I recommend packing some over-the-counter Dramamine, Bonine or MotionEaze, just in case. (Your doctor can also prescribe meclizine or the Transderm Scop patch.) There are shops on board where you can buy medicine, and even an infirmary, if you’re really seasick and need a patch. However, coming prepared just in case, is a good plan.

Once On Board

Now you’ll need to arm yourself with some tips for after embarkation when you’re living on board the cruise ship.

Everything Has a Place

I’m all for being relaxed on vacation, but a cruise is not the time to let your kids become slobs. Those cabins can be tight for a family and will quickly become stress zones if everyone isn’t helping keep their things picked up. Space is limited, so plan in advance for where things are going to go and get your kids to keep their stuff in the right place. One of the extras we always pack for a cruise is an over-the-door shoe organizer. We use magnets to hang it and everyone has a row to place things like wallets, flip-flops, sunglasses and brushes.

Suitcases can slide under the bed in the cabin so pack in a way that allows your kids to get outfits out easily. Using packing cubes or Ziploc bags can be perfect for this. Another option is to unpack and use the dresser and/or closet shelves for their clothes. Bring a laundry bag for each person so they can put their dirty clothes somewhere each day and you’re not dealing with piles of laundry in the cabin.

Take Safety Measures

It’s a good idea to give your kids some rules for safety when you’re ready to cruise. This goes beyond the mandatory emergency muster drill you’ll have to attend after boarding. A few of our rules for safety are not running on decks, not playing or hanging out around the edges of the ship and not going into anyone’s cabin. The key is communication and making them aware of the dangers. We’ve told our girls that knowing how to behave safely and make good choices when traveling is an important part of growing up.

Give Your Kids Wings

Cruises present wonderful opportunities to give your kids some independence. (Helicopter parents may want to skip over this section.) We were spoiled early on since we cruised with family members and older cousins would hang out with our girls and take them around the ship on their own. Now that our girls are older, 11 and 14, they feel very comfortable on cruise ships and often walk on their own to go to the kids clubs or get food at the buffet.

Communication is a big key here. We make sure our girls are communicating with us about where they will be, and we all have a meet-up time and place. I recommend packing a dry erase board for your cabin, or you can even use a notebook, where you can all leave notes to each other about where you are at any given time. Cruises have given opportunities for our girls to feel independent and design their own day. Kids will have a harder time complaining about being bored or not having fun if they’re the ones planning what they’re doing. Disney Cruises also provide each cabin two included Wave phones to call and text with others onboard and at Castaway Cay.

If you have smaller kids, there are still opportunities to give them some freedom while cruising. Perhaps if you go to the buffet for a meal, pick a table and then let them make their own plate instead of following them around. Give them the chance to pick whatever they want to eat and then find your table again. Another opportunity might be to let them race downstairs to a certain floor while you choose to take the elevator and see who gets there first.

Bottom Line

We love to travel together and I really think cruises can be ideal vacations for other families as well. Hopefully, these 10 tips from my own experiences will help you, and your kids, enjoy your cruise. Be sure and shop around for the best overall deal and pay with a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that provides a bonus on travel charges and some built-in protections. Oh, and once you book an itinerary, join the cruise loyalty program so you start earning your way toward additional cruises. Bon voyage!

Featured image by author.

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