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Picture yourself on the perfect family cruise. The kids are happily splashing in the pool and you’ve got a comfy deck chair, a cold drink and a paperback. To get there, you’ve got to do some planning and research. To make it easy, here are the answers to frequently asked cruise planning questions, including how to find the right cruise for your family, what to pack and how to avoid a huge stateroom bill. Read on to start planning; your deck chair awaits!
A cruise can be the perfect family vacation. If you do your homework in advance. I know. Homework. It sounds hard. But it will be easier for you with this complete guide to family cruises. Start here to plan a wow-worthy family vacation you’ll be raving about for years!
Family Cruises: Your Essential Guide for Planning a Vacation at Sea
Is a Cruise the Perfect Family Vacation?
Short answer – YES. All the yesses.
Cruises offer you a slice of the planet you probably don’t get to see every day. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Glaciers in Alaska. The exotic Western Mediterranean. Pretty much everywhere in between. This is definitely an upgrade from piling in the family people mover and going to visit grandma, although if you want to visit grandma, invite her on the family cruise. A cruise is truly a vacation with something to please everyone in the whole family. Cruises are great for kids of all ages, whether that kid is 8 or 88.
A cruise is the perfect family vacation for so many reasons. It’s generally low cost in comparison to other vacations. Your cruise includes food and entertainment. You don’t have to navigate. You can see multiple destinations without dragging your bags in and out of a new hotel room every day.
And, there’s something to please everyone. Want to be on the go sunrise to sunset? You will not lack for activities on a cruise ship. Want to gamble? Most cruise ships have casinos. Want to park yourself in a deck chair and sip fruity drinks while you stare at the ocean? You can do all that and more. Also? If you raised your hand to that last one, you’re my people and we should go on a cruise together.
One of the best selling points of a cruise for me is structured and supervised kids activities that are included in the cost of your cruise. I have no problem admitting that I like a little vacation from my kids while we’re on vacation. I like spending time with them and doing things as a family, too, but a cruise lets us do both.
On our last cruise, I got to introduce my son to the wonderful world of snorkeling. I also had a morning on an adults-only beach where no one said “Mom, watch this.” Not one time. Truly the best of both worlds and I believe the cruise offers the best of everything we love on vacation at a budget conscious price.
What are the Best Cruises for Families?
Disney Cruise Line is the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about best cruises for families. More on that in a minute.
In addition to Disney Cruises, I recommend a Carnival Cruise for family cruises. Carnival Cruise Line offers “Camp Ocean” which is the kids program for ages 2-11. Kids are broken up into groups by age and take part in fun, marine–lifethemed activities that are just right for their age group.
Camp Ocean offers Dr. Seuss themed activities, Build-A-Bear workshops and more. There is an upcharge for late night parties and certain other activities but Camp Ocean is definitely more than a cruise ship babysitting service. In addition to Camp Ocean, there are other activities kids can partake in, such as a Sky Course, Thrill Theater, various sports, and an arcade. There’s also a teen lounge.
Both Norwegian’s Splash Academy and Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean are very highly rated as well. Royal Caribbean tops the charts with space dedicated to kids activities and Norwegian Cruise Line offers a two-deck kids club. Also worth a mention is Princess Cruises Camp Discovery, which has recently been rebranded and updated. Princess Cruises have the reputation as being more of a luxury cruise line than isn’t as kid friendly as some, but it looks like the company is taking steps to change that.
My husband and I have cruised with our family and sans kids and every ship we’ve been on has something for kids to do or for families to enjoy together. Luxury class cruises may be less family focused. If you have kids in the school-age range, you’re going to want to pay attention to the space and scope of the kids program. This gives you a good gauge to how much thought is put into the experience of younger passengers.
Very few cruises nowadays are not going to include kids in some way but if there are kids in your travel party, look for cruises that have well-developed and fresh programs. In my opinion, no one beats Disney Cruise Line for family friendly, although there are a few that come close — at a much more affordable price point.
Is a Disney Cruise Worth the Money?
My answer is yes, but.
I’ve been on two Disney Cruises with my family and we’re gearing up for number three, so obviously I’m a fan. After we boarded the ship for our first Disney Wonder Cruise, I knew we were onto something very special. I’ve bought into the mouse magic hook, line, and sinker. Maybe I shouldn’t say “sinker” when I’m talking about ships that sail on the ocean, but the point is, I think a Disney Cruise is the best cruise experience you can have with your kids, maybe even without them.
The “but” stems from the fact that a Disney Cruise is substantially more expensive than other large cruise lines that cater to families, such as Carnival or Royal Caribbean. If you price compare across different cruise lines, you’ll find that Disney is always (always, always, always) much more expensive.
What Makes a Disney Cruise Great?
- Memorable character interactions. If you’ve been to the Disney Parks, you might have noticed long waits to meet your favorite Disney characters. You’ll still find lines on board Disney Cruises, although they are not nearly as long. You’re also not standing out in the hot Florida sun. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Daisy will be dressed in nautical attire or in pirate attire, for pirate night. If you meet characters on cruises that stop at Castaway Cay (pronounced Key) which is Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, they will be dressed in swimwear. It’s so cute!
TravelingMom Tip: “Frozen” character meets and princess character meets require a reservation. These reservations are at no cost to you. Make sure you reserve prior to sailing.
- Broadway quality Disney-themed entertainment. I’ve never seen bad entertainment on any cruise ship but the Disney shows are just…magic, as you’d expect. The Frozen show created especially for Disney Cruise Line rivals Frozen the Musical, although obviously it’s a much condensed version of the story.
- Unique onboard dining. Your party will rotate through the on-board restaurants and your waitstaff will rotate with you. You get the opportunity to eat in different, themed restaurants with signature dishes and have your same table servers take care of you night after night. There’s also add-on, adults only dining. Your Disney Cruise ship will have Palo, Remy, or both and the additional cost is very reasonable, considering the amazing brunch or dinner service you’ll receive.
- Fireworks and freebies. On board a Disney Cruise, you’ll also enjoy spectacular fireworks at sea and free fountain soft drinks. There are a few extras you’ll have to pay for – some of the concessions and some of the specialty drinks, such as smoothies and fancy coffees, come with an upcharge. Overall, though, I find Disney cruises to be the most cost inclusive, which they should be for the price. Also, if your cruise stops at Castaway Cay, food and most nonalcoholic beverages are included.
- All Disney all the time (in a good way!). What I love most about Disney Cruise Line is the exquisite yet subtle Disney theming that is present everywhere. The artwork in the hallways, the music playing in the background and the mouse hands on the elevator all contribute to something that is a step above other cruises. The fun and the whimsy is everywhere, from the hidden Mickeys in the carpet and wallpaper, to the fun of seeing everyone’s Disney Cruise door magnets as you stroll through the corridor.
Read More: How to Make Fun Disney Cruise Door Magnets!
Still, Disney Cruises aren’t “in your face” Disney. Before our first Disney Cruise, I had this mental image of Mickey jumping out at me around every corner and saying “Hi Pal!” That couldn’t be further from the truth. You get the very best of the pixie dust without feeling like you’re at a crowded theme park.
If you have kids or love Disney (or both!) you’re going to find the Disney Cruise Line better all the way around. That’s not to say you can’t have a good time on another cruise line because of course you can. I recently did a price comparison between Disney and Carnival cruises leaving from the same port and following similar itineraries and the difference was well over $5,000, which is a lot no matter how you look at it.
Disney Cruises have kinda spoiled me for other cruise lines. I can still enjoy other carriers, but I will probably always constantly compare to Disney.
Read More: Ultimate Family Cruise Packing List
How to Tick Off Your Bucket List with a Cruise
Most of us have our bucket list of places we need to see before we die. I have been privileged to travel to the extent I have but there’s one thing I know to be true about travel – it always leaves us wanting more.
My bucket list places are Hawaii, Alaska, Norway, Kenya, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few. I’ve actually been to Northern Ireland but it was a day trip from Dublin and I want to see more.
It’s easy to visit bucket list destinations via a cruise ship. Even if you think your desired location is too far inland, there may be an option to see it as part of a shore excursion. Even the Great Wall of China is possible as a shore excursion. MSC Cruises has select sailings from Yokohama that list Tianjin as a stop. The Great Wall is about 3.5 hours from the port of Tianjin (near Beijing) and there are cruise lines that have the Great Wall listed as an excursion. You can go on a Galapagos Cruise or go Greek Island hopping as part of a cruise. The possibilities are almost limitless.
If time and money were no object, we’d probably all like to spend a week (or more!) exploring those “must do” spots on our list. A cruise offers an easy and relatively inexpensive way to explore those places that have special significance to you as part of a more structured trip.
Cruise excursions are also a great way to add new items to your bucket list. I went on a seven-night cruise of the Western Mediterranean with my husband and some friends in 2012. One of the port stops was Malta.
That was one terrible cruise ship excursion if there ever was one. A small group of us hadn’t planned any shore excursions so we decided to try the hop on/hop off bus. I’m not sure if this was typical but everywhere we stopped to hop off, the lines to hop on were astronomical. This resulted in no one being willing to hop off the bus.
We rode around the city of Vallarta in the full sun for a chunk of the afternoon, afraid that we’d be put in the position of missing our boat if we got off to explore. You might be scratching your head and wondering what this has to do with bucket list travel and I’ll tell you now: The resort hotels along the ocean were so absolutely drool-worthy that I knew I’d come back one day, and I did. My daughter and I took a girls’ trip to Malta the following year. If it weren’t for the shore excursion that failed, Malta wouldn’t have been on my radar at all.
Alaska: The Final Frontier
As I mentioned, Alaska is one of the items on my travel bucket list. In fact, it is the top item on my travel bucket list. I’ve decided the best way for me to explore Alaska is via a cruise ship.
Alaskan cruises are very popular. If you’re looking to check the 49th state off your bucket list, and you’re not the hunting and fishing type, a cruise is the answer.
Alaska is larger than the state of Texas and has a whopping 23 cruise ports. An Alaskan cruise is just one way to explore America’s last frontier. You might just fall in love with it and return for more than a look around Alaska’s port cities.
Want to know more? Check out our Alaskan cruise tips.
Ways to Save Money on a Family Cruise
What’s the worst cruise surprise? A huge stateroom bill at the end of your vacation. Extra charges add up on a cruise. You need to stay on top of them. Here’s how to save money on your family cruise vacation.
- Talk to a travel agent.
- Do your homework.
- Drive, don’t fly.
- Know your dining options.
- Keep tabs on drinks.
- Set a budget for extras.
- Book your own excursions.
- Be aware of hidden costs.
- Have “The Talk” with your kids (about charging privileges!
1. Travel Agents
First, know that planning and preparation are key. There are lots of websites out there that help you track cruise fares. If you’ve never used a travel agent, your first cruise might be a great time to start the relationship. It won’t cost you any extra money and the travel agent is the person in the know about cruise deals.
Do your homework and compare prices across different cruise lines. Scope out different itineraries, different ports of departure and different dates. You may be locked into specific times you need to vacation, but as with all travel, the more flexibility you have on when you go, the more money-saving options you will have.
3. Drive to Save Money
Sail from a port within driving distance from where you live. Whether your home is near Miami, Seattle, New York, or somewhere else, picking a cruise that is near home saves money. Cost compare on port parking and ask about applicable discounts. Military, veterans, and first responders may receive free or discounted port parking. Ask what discounts are available. Don’t forget to cost compare transportation to the port if you’re flying. Disney offers bus transportation from Orlando International Airport to nearby Port Canaveral – for a pretty penny. It’s cheaper to hire a private taxi, use a ride share service, or even rent a car. Do your homework.
4. Buy Add-Ons Before You Board
Scope out the dining options on your cruise ship. Basic dining is traditionally free but there will always be up sells and add-ons. If you want to eat at the steak house or the sushi bar, budget for the cost ahead of time. Include that research on drink package options, too. Typically, coffee, tea, and juices will be included in the cost of your cruise. Bottled water, soda and alcohol will usually cost extra. If you decide a beverage package is right for you, try to buy it ahead of time. There will be plenty of options to buy beverage packages on board but these are offered when you’re already in “vacay mode” and have your guard down. Buy before you go.
Know what beverages you can take on board. Most cruise lines allow specific amounts of alcohol, bottled water or soda to be carried on. If you’re driving and want to save some money on drinks, read the fine print on what you are allowed to bring on board. If you exceed the amounts, your goodies will be confiscated and you can grab them post-cruise.
6. Buy Other Stuff Too
Check out add-on services you might be interested in, such as spa packages before you sail. Not only will you have a better shot at availability, you’ll be able to budget for your spend versus making an emotional, impulsive decision. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the #cruiselife atmosphere and think “Why yes, I do need a massage with a view of the ocean. Cost is unimportant. Take my money!”
Ask me how I know this, y’all.
I know it’s fun to be unstructured but planning for things that cost extra on cruises will help keep spending in check and prevent that nasty shock when you get your stateroom bill.
7. Book Your Own Excursions
I struggle with giving this piece of advice because booking through the cruise line is reliable and offers some protection. We had a six-night Western Caribbean Cruise get reduced to five nights due to weather. We spent an additional night in port and the captain made the decision to cut one of the stops. That happened to be the stop where we’d booked our big excursion and, because we’d booked through the cruise line, we were able to switch it easily. If we had booked through a third party, we wouldn’t have had that flexibility and we’d have probably been out some money. (This is also a good reason to always buy travel insurance, but especially when you book a cruise!)
That said, booking on your own will nearly always save you money. Check out the excursions offered on your cruise and then Google the price of doing the same things on your own and compare the savings. You’ll have to do a little more thinking and planning and it won’t be as easy as just following the herd off the ship and trusting that the guide will get you where you’re supposed to be and back to the ship in time. Planning on your own eliminates the middle man and adds some money back into your wallet.
8. Beware the Dreaded “Hidden Costs”
Spend some time on the cruise line’s website looking at all the “hidden costs” for things you might not consider, such as corking fees for wine you bring on the ship. Be very careful with room service charges. You might incur service charges for “free” room service. Take a minute to learn about what internet plans are available and decide if you can handle a few days at sea without being connected. Vacations are generally a great place to unplug but there are lots of reasons why you might need to stay connected, too. Check out our post on how Disney Cruise internet works to get an idea of what’s involved in getting connected at sea.
9. Rein in Kids’ Spending
I hate to be a party pooper but I also don’t want you to have heart failure when you get your stateroom bill at the end of your cruise. Cruising is generally cashless, with all charges going to your room. I recommend having a discussion about what to charge and who can charge. Unless you have unlimited budget, you probably don’t want your kids having charging privileges. Those non-alcoholic drinks and gelatos will add up fast. Plus, anything from the gift shops, from snack food to pool apparel, is probably outrageously expensive. Establish ground rules on who can charge to your stateroom before you sail.
Read More: A Luxury Cruise Onboard the Celebrity Edge
How to Pack for a Family Cruise
Repeat after me: Less is More.
No, really, say it.
One of the most important things to remember when you’re packing for a cruise is that you don’t have that much space. Your stateroom is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 square feet, which is much smaller than your average hotel room. A typical cruise ship cabin is designed with efficiency in mind and you will have a surprising amount of storage space. There will be some places to hang your clothes and a few drawers. You can store your suitcases under the bed. That space is designed specifically for this purpose.
All that efficiency aside, you’re still going to feel like you’re short on space. Dragging your suitcase out from under the bed to dig for your clothing is going to get old and potentially cause arguments as you and your family are trying to get used to navigating and living in a teeny tiny space.
Ask me how I know this.
If you’re traveling as a twosome, this probably isn’t as big of a deal but a family of four trying not to trip over each other and locate their stuff doesn’t make your family bonding time very much fun. You can always upgrade to family suites, which have more room, but the jump in price from a regular stateroom to family suites is pretty hefty. You won’t spend that much time in your stateroom, anyway.
Cruise Packing Tips
- Pack ONLY one outfit for each activity. Before you sail, look at everything available and see what activities you’re going to do. If you pack two backup outfits for each night’s dinner, well…you’re going to have some issues. I do recommend packing two bathing suits, though, because odds are, you’re going to be wearing that most of the cruise. You always want to have a dry one.
- Pack clothes you can wear more than once. I have some cute dresses that can double as bathing suit cover ups and dinner dresses. Swap out the flip flops for some strappy sandals and statement jewelry and boom. They’ll never know, and if they do, so what?
- Check out the laundry options on board before you go. Most cruise ships will offer laundry service, and although it doesn’t come cheap, I find it is sometimes worth the expense to help me stay in that minimal packing range. Some ships also offer self-service laundry, and while no one wants to forsake Mai Tais on the Lido Deck for hanging out in the laundry room, the room it saves in your bag may be worth doing a load at sea. Make sure you take quarters and your own laundry soap. If you have kids, just knowing you have the option to get your clothes clean mid-trip can sometimes bring peace of mind.
- Unpack. When you get into your cabin, unpack your clothes. Hang them up and put them in drawers. This way, you know where everything is. You won’t be bumping into each other every time someone is trying to find her flip flops. You’re welcome.
Loving all these tips but still need more structure? Check out our cruise packing list.
Cruise Ship Etiquette
You didn’t know there was cruise ship etiquette? Oh, but there is! Here are just a few things you need to realize about how etiquette works at sea.
- Don’t hog the deck chairs. Deck chair hogs place their sunglasses and towel on coveted poolside chairs and then disappear for the rest of the day. Maybe they’re chillaxing in their stateroom or checking out the buffet but they’ll for sure have a great place to sit at the pool, when they decide they’re ready.
- Don’t make a ton of noise in the halls or when you’re entering an exiting your cabin.
- Be a good and considerate audience member. If you’re entering the show late, take the first seat you can find. Don’t obstruct other people’s views of the stage or talk loudly while you’re trying to situate yourself.
- Be on time to muster (AKA the lifeboat drill.) Once you get through it, you can commence to doing all the cruise things. If you’re late or uncooperative, you’ll hold everyone else up.
- Observe the dress code. Dress code on cruises most cruises is fairly casual nowadays. There will typically be some kind of code for what to wear inside restaurants. This might be as fancy schmancy as “jackets and ties for men” or as casual as “no swimwear at the buffet.” Whatever the dress code is, it wasn’t a secret before you went on your cruise and you had ample chance to look at it before you packed your clothes. Gym shorts and a tee shirt on formal night or coming to breakfast in your pajamas is not cool.
I have a 26-year-old and two 9-year-olds. I never cruised with my oldest when she was a teen and we’re not there yet with our two youngest. While I am letting you know up front where my experience on this subject lies, I have cruised with teens in my party. Our first cruise was a multi-family group of friends who spent seven nights in the Western Mediterranean and three of the five families in our group had teens. I can tell you what I think based off what I observed and the things my friends with teens shared with me. You know your children best.
I personally don’t like the idea of “letting them loose.” That said, you can give your teens more or a different level of freedoms than they have at home or on a traditional vacation.
Cruise ships are like small, contained cities. There’s no place for kids to go, which is one of the reasons many families want to do a cruise with teens. Here are some tips:
Register your Kids for the Teen Club Onboard
Most ships have teen clubs (and often tween clubs) in addition to kid activities clubs. That gives them a safe space to connect with their peers and engage in age-appropriate, non-lame fun on board. I have talked to multiple parents of teens who have used on board kids clubs. I’ve gotten an across-the-board positive response. Even the teens who rejected the idea of going to an onboard teen club report enjoying it.
All onboard kids clubs have a registration process. These vary across cruise lines but most allow you to register your kids in advance. Even if you don’t think your teens will enjoy it, pre-register them anyway. It will save you time once you’re on board and your teens tell you they’ve changed their minds.
Booze and Gambling are Off Limits
While the worry of a teen getting lost or abducted might not be as present, cruise ships are places where alcohol is readily available and people don’t always have the most honorable intentions. I’ve found the “carding” process to be pretty stringent at cruise ship bars so I wouldn’t worry about your teens being served at the bar as much as I’d probably worry about someone slipping them a drink, or worse.
Read More: The Top Places to Visit with Your Teens
If you allow your teens extra freedom, establish boundaries, curfews, and check-in times. While the people who work on cruise ships are going to be the buzzkill that keep curious teens out of casinos and other adults-only venues, asking your teen to check in and be back in your stateroom at a certain time is totally reasonable.
Don’t Fight the WiFi
All ships have wifi available for purchase. If you’re traveling with teens or a large group of people, I recommend biting the bullet and paying for the wifi. Some cruise lines have free apps you can download prior to sailing with some sort of built-in communication system families. Most teens use social media. Having that extra layer of “tabs on you” is worth the spend.
You can also pack a small dry erase board and affix it to your stateroom door. It’s an old school way to exchange messages but it works. This offers another way to keep track of your family’s comings and goings at sea.
Cruising with Babies and Toddlers: Can you? Should you?
My short answer is yes…and no.
Yes, you can cruise with a baby or toddler. Most cruise lines are doing all they can to make that option as easy as they can for those who chose to do so.
But the real question is should you?
In my opinion, the answer is no.
We didn’t book our first family cruise until our kids were in first grade. We wanted them to be old enough to be able to enjoy the kids club.
Because I wanted to be able to enjoy part of my vacation without my kids hanging on my leg.
I personally think it would be difficult to fully enjoy all the amenities a cruise has to offer if you’re holding a baby or are on call as a nose wiper/potty escort/food cutter. My ideal cruise experience includes taking in shows, lingering over dinner and lying on the deck with a fruity adult beverage in my hand. None of those ideals gel with 24/7 mom duty. That’s me. Your vacation vision may be quite different.
If you’ve checked out and are comfortable with the childcare facilities on board or if you are cruising with extended family who you know will shoulder some of the baby holding, then cruising with babies or toddlers starts to look different.
Here are some additional tips for taking a family cruise with a baby or preschooler:
- Do your homework. There are cruise lines and ships that are more younger kid friendly than others. Ask friends and family who have experience cruising with wee ones. Ask a travel agent or a (really experienced cruiser) for recommendations.
- Prepare to pay. While kid activity clubs on most cruise ships are free (there may be upcharges, but these are generally free to use) nursery services or babysitting isn’t free and can get expensive. Most cruise lines require full potty training to attend kids clubs.
- Ask for help. Have a discussion with your accompanying family members and friends before setting sail and ask them for assistance during your trip. A few hours here and there are the breaks you need. Just you, hubby and baby? Don’t be afraid to divide and conquer so each of you can get a little “me” time. And don’t forget to make friends with the crew. They will make you feel welcome and help you as much as possible.
One final note. If you’re considering taking a cruise while pregnant, talk to your doctor, know the cruise line’s policy and make backup plans.
Cruise vacations are an incredible value. That said, I don’t think you can fully enjoy what you’re paying for if you’re responsible for caring for a small child. We love cruises because it gives us the exact right balance between adult time and family time. Most cruise line kids clubs are places your kids want to be versus glorified babysitting services (magnify this by 100 if you’re going on a Disney Cruise.)
I hope this inspires you to start planning that family cruise vacation you’ve been dreaming about!