A cruise is a great vacation for couples, but it’s also a fantastic option for families, as the same great value proposition applies to multiple generations. Plus, what parent wouldn’t appreciate the convenience of unpacking their family once and having their hotel (or ship, in this case) travel to several destinations with plenty of food and entertainment at their beck and call? That said, here are some things you should know before taking a cruise with the whole brood.
1. Some kids of a certain age may not be permitted onboard.
Before progressing too far ahead in planning, it’s worth noting that not all children will be allowed onboard. There are even limitations for pregnant women joining the cruise, if they are too far along. (Generally, if you are at week 24, it's best to verify with the cruise line.) Some cruises don't allow babies younger than six to 12 months, while others have a no kids policy altogether, in order to maintain a certain decorum. Viking Ocean Cruises is one such line that only permits adults, but the bulk of the industry is very family-friendly.
2. Children can occasionally sail for free.
Some cruise lines offer incentives for children to sail entirely for free (with a stay in the same stateroom as their parents). Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is one that always offers this perk to kids under 12, with Cunard following suit as well. Meanwhile, Crystal Cruises and MSC Cruises extend the kid freebies on select cruises, and brands like Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean International occasionally offer complimentary third and fourth guests regardless of age as well. In other cases, discounts may be available to extra passengers. That said, always keep an eye out for cruise line specials indicating any such offers.
3. Gratuities aren’t usually expected from the youngest in your party.
Another topic to be mindful of is gratuities. While many cruise lines do tack on a daily service charge per person, some do not require it of those under 2 or 3 years of age. Policies tend to change, however, so be sure to verify with your specific brand to be sure.
4. Not all family staterooms are created equal.
More and more cruise ships are showcasing so-called family staterooms, but they differ considerably from line to line. Typically, the larger they are, the more expensive they will be, but many smaller ones can still accommodate their fair share of occupants. The first thing to keep in mind is that guest capacity does not necessarily equal comparable storage capacity. Naturally, stowing clothing in a smaller cabin that sleeps six will be harder than in a larger one that sleeps four.
Secondly, consider the cabin configuration and its features. For example, Disney Cruise Line introduced split bathrooms to make it easier to get ready with greater privacy, and other brands repeated the concept. Others tack on an additional bedroom and living areas for even greater options. Of course, the size will have to be weighed against the cost of each individual traveler to determine which is best for the circumstances. Alternatively, booking two regular adjoining cabins might be ideal for simply doubling up on a full-size bedroom and bathroom.
It’s worth asking which amenities will be sold onboard. In many cases, cribs can be requested and diapers and other child necessities can be purchased ahead of time and delivered to the stateroom. This often eliminates the need to pack any heavy extras in suitcases. Some, however, lack tubs, requiring parents to bring inflatable tubs or drain stoppers for showers.
5. Laundry can be fully serviced or self-attended to.
In considering the aforementioned storage situation, laundry may also be a factor. Thankfully, cruise lines offer full-service or self-service laundry facilities (or both), which might help make packing a more efficient chore. Researching and budgeting for any associated costs and time can free up more space -- not only in suitcases, but also in a cabin full of children.
6. Kids’ and teens’ clubs let parents take a break.
One of the greatest benefits of a cruise is its supervised children’s facilities, which allow parents to enjoy some alone time. What’s more, most of the youth clubs are complimentary, with nurseries for the youngest generally being the only to charge extra. While there are plenty of activities for families to enjoy together onboard, kid-exclusive spaces often have children not wanting to leave, and parents are likely to feel the same of their adult-only venues as well. Some authorization can be granted by parents for certain aged children to check themselves out periodically, but otherwise they remain supervised.
7. Dining is both kid- and adult-friendly.
These days, cruise ships are not only conducive to juvenile and mature tastes, but they are also very attentive to allergies and special diets. Kids will be able to enjoy macaroni and cheese while adults partake in surf and turf plates. Gluten-free and peanut-free options are also available. It’s best to notify the cruise line of any dietary requirements ahead of time, so they can prepare accordingly, but most can accommodate on the spot, too. Those with infants, however, should note that not all cruises offer baby food or can mash food upon request, although some do.
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