So you've decided you want to take the whole family on a cruise. Pros? Cruise vacations can be affordable, you'll get to visit multiple destinations on a single trip and family-friendly ships have a wealth of activities and entertainment to keep kids busy. Cons? You may have to pack more (childcare gear is expensive on board), safety can be a concern and there can be restrictions on excursions and pool play for children. But does that mean you shouldn't consider a cruise for your next family trip? Of course not. Whether you're still weighing the pros and cons or you're ready to book a sea getaway with the gang, here are some things to know about cruising with children in tow.
Choose wisely and check age requirements
First, pick a kid-friendly cruise line. This may seem obvious, but while many cruise lines welcome children, there's a difference between those that are kid-tolerant and kid-friendly. U.S. News ranks the Best Cruise Lines for Families, which is a good place to start, but you'll need to do a little more research before booking. Different cruise lines may appeal to your family, depending on your children's ages and interests. Research the onboard entertainment options, and don't forget to check the availability and age requirements for shore excursions. Several cruise lines have online excursion search tools, where you'll be able to see how diverse the options are and what (if any) age limitations are imposed on specific activities. Tools on the Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line websites allow cruisers to search specific regions and ports, price points, activity levels and duration with descriptions that include any age, height or weight requirements.
Another thing to think about: whether your kids are picky eaters. If that's the case, search for a ship with several dining options and restaurants where they'll be able to find familiar foods. It's also useful to pack some snacks like trail mix, granola bars, fruit gummies or cereal, since convenience items on board are usually more expensive than at your local grocery store.
And if you're planning to travel with infants or toddlers, consult the cruise line's terms and conditions before booking. Most cruise lines impose a strict minimum age requirement, usually 6 months to one-year-old, depending on the cruise line and itinerary.
Book the right room
Standard cruise ship cabins rarely come with bathtubs, so if you have young children who need baths rather than showers, you'll want to upgrade to a higher category room or suite, or a cabin designed with families in mind. All four of Disney's ships feature spacious family staterooms that can sleep three to five guests, plus the majority of these cabins include tub/shower combos. Some ships within the Royal Caribbean International, Princess Cruises and Norwegian fleets also boast a few family category suites that are equipped with tubs as well as balconies for extra breathing room.
Speaking of balconies, is it safe to book a balcony cabin when traveling with children? The short answer is yes, just use common sense. Children should always be supervised and never be left alone on a balcony. Regardless, most cruise ships' stateroom balcony railings are made of plexiglass (read: no bars with gaps for small children to fall through) and thanks to the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act of 2010, those railings must be least 42 inches tall. Plus, doors leading out to the balconies are typically heavy and equipped with child locks to help ensure onboard safety.
If you're traveling with a little one, pack plenty of diapers, wipes, pacifiers, bottles of formula and baby food as the majority of cruise ships do not carry these items and those that do put a hefty price tag on them. And if you'll need a crib or playpen, request one as soon as you book; most ships have a limited supply (though there's usually no extra cost).
Additionally, parents should bring some sort of carrying device, whether it's a baby carrier or a small stroller. Some cruise lines like Carnival and Disney have a limited number of strollers for rent (and it may cost you), while other lines like Royal Caribbean and Princess do not carry them. You should also allow your child to bring one favorite toy or stuffed animal with them so they'll have some sense of comfort and familiarity in a new setting. Sunscreen is another important item to pack as it's a hot commodity on board (and usually pretty pricey). Plus, the ship may not carry the high SPF varieties you'll want to use on sensitive skin.
But also bring trinkets and toys
Beyond the necessities, leave a little room in your suitcase for some fun, nonessential items. Glow sticks are great as colorful in-cabin nightlights and festive necklaces and bracelets for deck parties, while blow-up beach balls and rafts can make time playing on the beach or in the ocean more fun. Oriental Trading Company and Amazon are good places to find cheap inflatables. Bringing a small inflatable pool for any youngsters who aren't potty trained is also a good idea as cruise ships don't allow kids who need to wear diapers into their pools, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control's Vessel Sanitation Program protocols. (Exceptions: More splash parks than pool areas, Mickey's Splash Zone and Nemo's Reef on Disney's ships and the Baby Splash Zone on five of Royal Caribbean's ships do allow children in swim diapers.)
Cruises at times may be overstimulating for children, so bringing some things for kids to enjoy in the cabin may help them take a break from the hubbub on deck. Coloring books and crayons, word searches and a portable DVD player with a selection of movies are just a few suggestions. These will also come in handy on any days that the weather is poor.
Take advantage of kids clubs
Many of the top cruise lines that cater to families feature supervised children's clubs. Kids can socialize and make new friends while parents take some time to relax by themselves. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian and Disney have some of the most popular youth programs for kids ages 2 or 3 to 17, with games and activities geared toward specific age groups. Youngsters can participate in everything from treasure hunts and pool games to arts and crafts while teens can enjoy karaoke and dance parties. The best part? The kids clubs are free.
Keep in mind, though, services for infants and toddlers are more limited. Some cruise lines offer tailored clubs or babysitting services for cruisers younger than 3 (Norwegian's Guppies program and Disney's It's a Small World Nursery, for example), but there are usually fees required, time constraints in place and sometimes parents may be required to stay.
Make a daily plan
If your children are old enough to explore the ship on their own, going over a rough itinerary before leaving the stateroom every morning will help both you and your kids know where one another are throughout the day. Bring a highlighter or two, grab print copies of the kids club and onboard activities schedules and have your children highlight what they're planning to do or would like to do each day. That way, if you want to join them for an activity or want to check up on them, you'll know where they're planning to be. Discuss your plans for the day as well so if they need to find you, they can.