A cruise-whether it's to Alaska, Hawaii, the Mediterranean or the Caribbean-is an awesome, hassle-free way to take a family vacation. With multiple ports of call, you have the opportunity to explore a corner of the world and only have to unpack once. So many of the arrangements are already made for you: Your accommodations, meals, entertainment, and most activities are paid for in advance, so you just show up at the dock with your suitcases and your camera, ready to make some incredible family memories.
With so many cruise lines operating different itineraries to various parts of the world (did I mention Antarctica?), it can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide which cruise company, which itinerary, and which ports of call would be best for your trip. Here are some tips to help you decide on your family cruise vacation:
- Get a feel for what's out there. Of course, the Internet is a wealth of information when it comes to cruising with kids. To start your research into the different cruise line and itinerary offerings, you might take some time to peruse these sites: FamilyCruises gives a rundown of the different cruise ships that have specific youth programs, where kids are supervised and participate in fun activities in their own onboard "clubhouse." CruiseDirect lists the amenities for kids on each of the major cruise lines, and has a nifty "Family Cruise Wizard" which allows you to plug in your travel dates, destination and intended cruise company, giving you some specific rates and availability on different cruises. CruisesforFamilies is a travel agency that specializes in, naturally, cruises for families; there's a load of information here, including family cruise FAQs, and tips on cruising with infants, teens and grandchildren.
- Talk to your local travel agent. It's always a good idea to get a professional, in-person perspective on potential family-vacation destinations. Granted, travel agents are in the business of selling travel, but it's likely they won't steer you wrong, since their reputation is on the line! Your local agent has probably been on one cruise or more, and can give you some insider's perspective; he can also arrange your flights to your city of departure.
- Consider the ages of your kids. While most large ships truly do offer activities for everyone-from infant babysitting to teen discos, and from mini golf to climbing walls-be sure to examine the amenities specifically for your kids' ages. Also think about your destination: Teenagers might most appreciate a trip to the Greek Islands; elementary school-age kids would get a kick out of seeing the glaciers in Alaska; preschoolers are the perfect age for a Disney cruise of the Caribbean.
- Confirm the dining arrangements. These days, many cruise lines have relaxed dress codes for dinner. But some still have specific sit-down dining times and recommended attire. So, review what the rules are on your intended cruise, and make sure you pack your son's khaki pants, if needed. Consider a ship with no formal dinners or no assigned tables if you like the flexibility of eating when you want and with whom you want, based on the energy level of your children. If your ship has assigned dining times, plan to reserve the early time slots; sometimes there are 6 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. options, for example.
- Check out the optional port excursions. Many adventures await kids at the various ports of call, especially in Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and Hawaii: snorkeling, ATV trips, horseback riding, zip lines, swimming with the dolphins, to name a few. Check online or ask your travel agent for the list of optional excursions available on the cruises you're considering (you'll pay extra for these side trips). Confirm the minimum age requirements for each activity. These active adventures will likely be of more interest to kids than longer sightseeing trips to monuments, ruins and other historic sites.
- Don't forget about TripAdvisor. This is my favorite website for getting real-people reviews of various destinations and vacation spots, including cruises.
- Shop around for the best price. Once you've figured out your destination, cruise ship and dates of your trip, you may want to scan the Internet for the lowest price of your particular itinerary. AffordableTours offers competitive prices on cruises, as do some of the websites mentioned above. If your travel agent books many cruises, she may be a preferred agent with a particular cruise line, and could also give you a deal. As always, read the fine print, look at the cancellation policy and consider travel insurance if there's a chance you may need to cancel or postpone your trip at the last minute.