Have you ever taken a family cruise? Have you thought that a cruise was out of the question as a family vacation because it would be too difficult with kids? Well, I’m here to change your mind! We recently took eight kids on a week-long Caribbean cruise and I’m going to give you lots of tips and tricks on how to cruise with kids from the very beginning planning stages, right through your trip.
This is NOT a sponsored post. We just love cruising as a family and hope to inspire other families to give it a try. It really is a great vacation.
This is part one in a three-part series about how to cruise with kids.
Part 1 will cover the PLANNING stage. This includes why a cruise is a great family vacation in the first place. We’ll go over your basic choices, discuss the breakdown of costs and help make a countdown for your trip.
Part 2 will cover PREPARATION. You’ll find out what to bring on a cruise with the family, how to pack for a cruise with kids and supply a great packing list to help you have it all together on boarding day. We’ll also talk about ways to save money while on board – important, right?
Part 3 will discuss the ADVENTURE of life on board and how to survive it with the kids along. We’ll talk about things to do with kids on a cruise and how to cruise with a toddler. This is definitely not a couples cruise. You’re going to need a plan.
How to Cruise With Kids Part 1: PLANNING
Why take a family cruise?
Cruising is one of the best ways to travel for anyone, couples or families. We originally took a cruise without the kids to see what it was like. We had an amazing time and wanted our children to experience the same things. Cruising is like no other vacation. It truly is a way to relax and spend time with the family because everything is taken care of for you.
Your stateroom attendant will clean your room twice a day. They come in while you’re away at breakfast and make the beds and tidy up for you – refreshing towels and things like that. Then, they return while you’re at dinner to tidy up after the day and turn your bed down. Trust me, you won’t have to lift a finger to clean rooms or bathrooms all week – bliss!
The dining room and buffet will meet all your dining needs, and your wait staff will amaze you. They are skilled in making each meal seem like an event. Fabulous table settings and great food that you didn’t have to shop for, prepare or clean up after. Just walk in with a smile and walk out with one as well.
Cruises are full of activities and things to do – all planned out before you even board the ship. We like to think of it as summer camps – for families. There will be classes, shows, and activities each day. Depending on your ship and itinerary, you can challenge the kids in a game of mini golf or watch a belly flop contest by the pool. The best cruise ship for kids is the one that provides enough activities to keep them busy and also has extra things like a kids pool, mini golf, rock wall etc.
One of our favorite things about cruising is the wonder of the sights and sounds of the ocean. We love to watch the wake off of the back of the ship or catch the flying fish while strolling the promenade deck. You can grab a lounge chair and watch the amazing sunset as it dips below the horizon before dinner.
Where else can you unpack once and visit several countries in the course of a week? Your stateroom becomes your temporary home while you visit a new port each day and get the opportunity to explore and discover together.
Know Your Options
One of the greatest things you can do for yourself before you book a cruise is to research everything. Here are some of the major things to consider when deciding on the best family cruises for kids:
Fly or Drive?
If you’re fortunate enough to live within driving distance of an embarkation port, you’re lucky. You can save quite a bit of time, stress, and money when it comes to getting to the ship. However, driving can also limit you when it comes to availability of cruises.
We chose to drive as we live approximately one hour from a major cruise port. It was an easy decision for us because we wanted to avoid flying with eight children.
If you do opt to fly, for more choices or for necessity, we recommend adding an additional day to the start of your trip to ensure that you make it to your embarkation port without any incidents. No one wants to miss a cruise because of a delayed flight due to weather or something out of your control.
Length and Destination
Cruises come in all different shapes and sizes. They vary in length from one night cruises to nowhere (where your ship does not visit any ports) to several week long world cruises. If you’re unsure whether your family will fare well on the high seas, aim for a shorter cruise to get a taste for it. Because we had previously been on a week-long cruise, we opted for another of the same length.
We ended up taking the same itinerary that we had visited as a couple. This gave us an advantage with the kids because we were comfortable in the ports that we had previously visited.
Inside or Outside Stateroom
Stateroom sounds so regal doesn’t it? It really means a closet-sized room that you will share for the duration of your cruise. Staterooms are priced based on size and location on the ship. Inside rooms and those on lower decks are usually priced lower than windows or balconies on upper decks. Makes sense, right? But price is not the only thing for you to consider.
Some parents are uncomfortable staying in a balcony cabin when they have little children in their party. Although balcony railings are safe if you act responsibly, some people just want to eliminate the stress altogether and go with an inside room. I have stayed in a balcony cabin (7688 for those in the know) and a lowly inside and, I have to say, I enjoyed both cruises equally.
Consider your budget and your level of worry/stress when deciding on your cabin. There are definite advantages to the inside – which I’ll share in the next post on how to survive onboard with the kids.
Also, consider the deck your stateroom is on. Lower means cheaper, but it also means longer waits for elevators and/or longer hikes up the stairs. We chose a cabin in the middle. A couple of decks up from the promenade and a couple of decks below the pool deck. It worked out great for our family.
Set Dining or Anytime Dining
Cruise dining has changed. It used to be that you only had a choice between early or late dining each evening. You would then be assigned to a table based on that choice, often with strangers for the remainder of the week. In recent years cruise lines have rolled out another option: Anytime (also known as My Time Dining). With Anytime Dining you’re able to choose a more flexible schedule and not usually required to sit with strangers while you dine. I’m a huge fan!
Don’t let the fact that you’re bringing your children keep you from the dining room. You’ll enjoy the great atmosphere and the wait staff will go bonkers over your babies. We’ll talk about this more in the following posts – but don’t banish yourself to the buffet just yet.
Travel Agent or Direct?
After you decide on a particular cruise, you’ll be ready to book. You have basically two choices when it comes to booking your cruise vacation. Use a travel agent/service or go directly to the cruise line through their booking process – usually online or by telephone. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Going through an agent gives you peace of mind and can relieve some stress when it comes to all of the variables of cruise travel. A good agent can walk you through the ins and outs and communicate on your behalf with the cruise line regarding travel options. If you have to coordinate flights, hotel stays and rental cars as well, an agent can make every aspect of your trip work seamlessly. They will also sometimes provide you with some kind of booking bonus such as onboard credit or prepaid tips.
The most difficult thing about using an agent, however, is finding a good one. If you get an incompetent agent who is unfamiliar with cruising, you may be adding stress and trouble to yourself. Also, once you book with an agent, the cruise line often will not communicate with you regarding your booking. So, any questions or changes you may want to make (including inquiring about price drops) must be taken care of by your agent.
If you do decide to go with an agent, make sure to check around with family or friends for recommendations. Check ratings and reviews of online agents as well so that you can make an informed decision.
Booking directly with the cruise line is your other option. When you book direct, you have control over your reservation. Just a simple phone call will allow you to change stateroom locations or dining times. You’re even able to make certain show reservations this way, depending on your sailing.
If you choose to book directly, it’s even more important for you to do your research. You will want to be familiar with the ship, ports, and schedule of the vacation you’ve chosen. You may miss out on agent specific bonuses as well, but only you can decide if these bonuses are worth giving up control of your booking. Unless this is your first cruise and you are unsure of the process, booking directly with the cruise line is the way to go.
Booking Your Cruise
Booking a cruise is relatively easy. It’s simply a matter of telling the agent or the cruise line which ship you want, choosing a stateroom, providing your party’s names and birth dates and mentioning any special accommodations or reservations that you may need. They’ll also be happy to take your payment at that time. You will be required to make a deposit or pay in full depending on how many days out you are from your sail date.
After researching all of our options, we chose a 7-day Western Caribbean Cruise aboard the Serenade of the Seas by Royal Caribbean.Our Itinerary looked like this:
Costs of Cruising
The price of your cruise depends on what time of year you sail, your departure port, your ship, and (as mentioned above) the size and location of your cabin.
I recommend visiting the website of the cruise line of your choice and doing some “mock bookings”. This will allow you to get a feel for the per person cruise fare, additional taxes and fees, as well as the cost of gratuities.
If you have questions regarding your options, definitely call a travel agent or the cruise line itself. Usually, they are very friendly and willing to help you figure out how to get your family on board.
Money saving tip: When we called the cruise line directly about taking our family on a cruise, we were told that a child age 3 and under could be booked as a fifth person in a four-person room. For example, a family of five could book a four-person room as long as one of the passengers was 3 years or younger. So, for our trip, we had ten people booked in two rooms (we had two children ages 3 and under at the time). If I hadn’t called, I may never have known.This helped us save quite a bit because they were running a kids sail free promotion. Essentially we paid for the first two passengers in each room, and the remaining three in each room sailed for “free” – which basically meant we saved the cruise fare for them.
The cost breakdown looks like this:
This is the basic ticket price. The first two passengers in the room are usually the same price and 3rd and 4th passengers are usually at a discount. Again, this price depends on your ship, sailing and cabin selection. There are often discounts throughout the year such as kids sail free – where you pay for the first two passengers and the others in the room have a $0 cruise fare.
Taxes and Fees
Taxes and fees are charged to every passenger, regardless of whether they are the 1st or 4th passenger in a cabin. There is no getting out of this fee.
The cruise fare and the taxes/fees are what your cruise costs. Included in this cost are your accommodations, most meals while onboard, some drinks (lemonade, tea, milk, etc.), and most entertainment onboard.
This is a set amount (somewhere near $13.50 per person per day – higher for suite guests) added daily to your sea pass card (or prepaid), that goes to the hard working staff who take care of you and cater to your every need. Your stateroom attendant and dining staff for example. We like to prepay ours so that we don’t have to worry about it while on board. Of course, if there is a problem with inadequate service, you can visit the front desk on the ship and have your gratuity adjusted. We’ve never had any problem whatsoever, so have always left it alone. And, yes, we pay gratuities for everyone in our party – including the babies.
There will also be a gratuity added to any bar tabs or spa services.
Extra you say? Yes, in addition to all of the above-mentioned things, you should also plan extra money for things like laundry, bar drinks, bingo cards, tips for room service delivery, specialty dining, spa treatments, fitness classes, and shore excursions. You’ll also need to budget for parking at the port and tips for luggage handlers there. Sounds like a lot, but most of these extras can be avoided – we talk about that in part 2.
Something that is often overlooked when planning a cruise is travel insurance. Unless you often travel out of the country – you may not have considered it on past family vacations. We have only ever purchased travel insurance for cruises and, while we never had to use it, we were glad we had purchased it ahead of time.
We recommend insuremytrip.com when you’re shopping for travel insurance. This is not an affiliate link, we just like the ease of use and the ability to compare several plans all in one place. Oftentimes your children will be covered for free under your policy.
You want a policy that will cover things like:
- trip interruption
- trip cancellation
- trip delay/missed connection
- baggage loss/delay
- emergency evacuation
- job loss
You can even add on things like cancel for any reason or upgraded medical coverage.
You can buy trip insurance almost up to the day before you leave on your vacation, but we don’t recommend it. You will not be covered for pre-existing conditions in that case. Consider buying your insurance when you book your cruise or shortly after. HERE is an excellent article outlining the benefits of travel insurance, including some real world examples to help you understand it all.
Telling The Kids
This is the fun part. We decided to give the kids the cruise as a Christmas gift. We made the purchase in the summer because there was a kids sail free promotion running. I’m horrible at keeping secrets so it was really, really hard for me to keep quiet for five months. Especially when I was eager to pick up extra swimsuits for the kids when they went on clearance in the fall. I just kept saying
“What if we go to the beach next year? Everyone could use an extra swimsuit, right?”
We decided to print out our boarding passes and wrap them up in the cruise fund box that my son started several months earlier. We had them open it on Christmas morning and recorded their reaction. Because they weren’t sure what the papers meant, it took an older child to yell out
“ARE WE GOING ON A CRUISE!?!”
Needless to say, they were so excited. And, we only had 10 days to prepare before our departure. I learned a lot about how to prepare and what to pack in a short amount of time, that’s for sure!
Countdown to Cruise
As part of the excitement of getting ready to cruise, I made a countdown to put on the wall so that the kids could tell how many days we had left before it was time to set sail. I printed out photos of ships from the internet, laminated them, and stuck them on the wall. Each night they would take a ship down as we got closer and closer to the big day!.
And there you have the basics on how to cruise with kids. Check out part 2 and part 3 to find out how to prepare for your family cruise and how to survive on board.
Go to part 2 of How to Cruise With Kids
Check out our guide for what NOT to do on your first family cruise!