Before our first cruise, my husband and I wondered whether seven
days in the same cabin with our children was sane or sadistic;
if the kids could forgo T-shirts and sibling rivalry at our formal
dinner seatings; and if we’d return fat, bored, and broke.
Instead, we had one of our best vacations ever.
Since then, more than eighteen years ago, we’ve been on
many cruises together. Cruising’s not perfect—the
ports get flooded with “boat people,” shore tours
can be expensive, and the food can be mediocre-- but being on
a ship frees us from the usual family nemeses—packing, unpacking,
schlepping suitcases and dealing with cranky children in a hot
“Cruising is a very easy way to travel,” says Barbara
Koltun, a Potomac, MD clinical social worker. “Life is simple
and fun. All you have to do is pick your shore tour. The rest
is taken care of. You do not have to worry about what the evening’s
entertainment will be or how much dinner will cost and there’s
something for everyone to do.” Last summer the Koltun’s
sailed to Alaska with 13-year-old Sarah and her grandparents.
Like many cruisers Wayne Poverstein, a Morris Plains, NJ, high
school teacher appreciates the freedom cruising affords parents
and kids to do things together and apart, including eating. “Kids
can get whatever they want to eat whenever they want it. Most
of the time on a cruise, Shaun, at 12, 14, and 16, didn’t
want to be stuck in a 1 ½ to two hour dinner with us. He
was interested in eating hot dogs and pizza with his new friends.
And that was fine with Mary Jane and me.”
It’s no wonder that the family market, according to the
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), has grown nearly
200 percent in the past five years. In 2004, CLIA projects that
1.1 million children, age 17 and younger, will have sailed, up
from 1 million in 2003.
But to sail on the ship of your dreams, plan ahead. You need
to pick the voyage as well as the vessel that’s right for
your family. And so that you don’t go overboard on your
budget, you need to book wisely, choose shore tours carefully,
and be mindful of all the extra ways cruise lines in recent years
have come up with to separate you from your dollars.
**Balance your fantasies and your budget.
Part of cruising’s allure is getting what you wish for,
so be honest about practical issues and whether your family prefers
sand and sun, rainforests, glaciers or European capitals with
17 th century churches.
Caribbean cruises work well for all ages, especially with tag-alongs
tots or teenagers. Give a pail and shovel to a 2-5-year-old, sit
him on the sand near the water’s edge, and he can dig and
play for hours. Give a teen some dollars to try WaveRunners, and
parasailing, and she’ll be back to beg for more money before
you’ve even read three pages of your novel. However, after
you say “no,” the scowling will cease as she gets
into the people watching and the sun.
Caribbean and Scandinavian cruises can be budget-stretchers because
you can forego the cost of organized shore tours and still have
fun. In Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, and other islands, simply, take
a taxi to a nearby beach. In Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and
Helsinki the ships dock within an easy walk or short cab ride
to the city center, making it easy to stroll, window shop and
find the museums. Most lines also run either complimentary or
inexpensive shuttles to town.
European/Scandinavian capitals, however, go over best with history-oriented
pre-teens and teens. They tend to like browsing the boulevards,
touring the castles, and of course, shopping the trendy stores
for sweaters, jeans, and jackets. However, beware of voyages that
promise London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. You’ll get there
but only after a 1 ½-2 hour bus ride from the port. That
not only adds transportation costs, but lots of opportunity for
scowls, as few ‘tweens and teens willingly get up early
then sit quietly when stuck in traffic.
Alaska’s best for nature loving kids age 10 plus who want
to hike a glacier, dog sled, fly over an ice field, sea kayak
through bays populated with seals, or take a float trip through
a Bald Eagle preserve. Such active outings, on average, cost $100
or more per person, per port. Despite the expense, doing at least
one of these gets you beyond the tacky port areas and into the
Alaska dubbed America’s last, great wilderness.
Feeling tentative about cruising? Then, book a three-to-four
day sail, a less costly option that enables you to sample ocean
life and convince yourself that you really can stomach undulating
waves. However, on a short voyage you might miss one of cruising’s
great lures: lazy sea days for lounging and admiring the limitless
**Choose a children’s program that fits your family’s
Children’s facilities and activities not only vary from
line to line but also may differ among ships flying the same flag.
Most programs operate at sea from 9am to 10 pm except for meal
breaks. From 10 pm to about 1:00am most lines offer group babysitting
for a fee. Before you book, be sure that the kids’ program
functions for your age child and for your sailing.
With a non-potty-trained two-year-old, choose Carnival because
their counselors change diapers. NCL’s program accepts two-year-olds
but counselors beep when it’s time to redo the Pampers,
a situation that may leave your tot wet and whining.
Disney’s children’s program divides
into a group for ages 3-4 and another for ages 4-5, a system that
works well for timid youngsters who may be unused to group play.
On each ship, Flounder’s Reef, one of the few nurseries
at sea, tends to infants as young as twelve weeks for an hourly
fee. The facility has limited capacity and hours.
For kids still young enough to believe in fairy dust, Disney
offers dream encounters. On no other line can your kids take tea
with Wendy, dance with Snow White, kiss Belle, or figure out how
to help Peter Pan foil the dastardly Captain Hook.
RCI’s youth program is another good choice,
offering creative activities for ages three to five.
Kids ages 6 to 12, the easiest cruisers to please, like most
any program as long as they meet a new buddy. Scavenger hunts,
art and crafts, and big-screen computer games play well with this
Good options: Disney because of their innovative sessions in
cartooning and science fun, and their sensitive grouping of ages
5-7, 8-9, and 10-12; RCI because of their caring and counselors
and separate programs for six to eight year-olds and nine to eleven
Avoid NCL with children ages 8 through 12, particularly if they’ve
sailed before. These junior cruisers will rebel against NCL’s
policy of only allowing teens 13- and older to sign themselves
into and out of the children’s program. Most lines start
this self-policing policy with eights year-old and junior cruisers
relish their new-found freedom to roam in mini-bands from the
pool deck to ping pong to the pizza parlor.
Unless large numbers of kids participate, both Holland America
and Princess lump ages 3 to 7 together, a strategy that could
make shy little ones feel overwhelmed and older kids self conscious
about being with “babies.”
RCI offers the best program and facilities for
teenagers, the hardest passengers to keep happy. First of all,
RCI separates 12-14 and 15-17-year-olds, a philosophy that acknowledges
a pre-teen’s non-kid status without forcing a shy eighth-grader
to keep up with a seen-it-all high school junior. Secondly, RCIgives
teens ample territory to meet. They can gather at the Living Room,
a hang-out, or dance at Fuel, the non-alcoholic disco. The Navigator,
Mariner, Monarch and Sovereign of the Seas also add the Back Deck,
a teen only fun and sun spot.
Carnival’s program functions for ages 13-15. With a teen
onboard, book the Conquest, Glory, or the new Valor, debuting
in December in Miami, as on these vessels the dedicated teen rooms
keep the too cool generation separated from the children’s
Disney’s also added more space for teens. Ages 13-17 years-old
hang-out and dance in the Stack on the Magic, and, beginning Oct.
17, in a similar top deck club called Aloft on the Wonder.
Princess’ Caribbean Princess hosts Off Limits, a teen club
complete with multi-screen monitors, blaring music, and non-alcoholic
bar. Holland America ships feature the Loft, a getaway for teens.
The Ryndam inaugurates the Oasis, an outdoor deck area for teens.
Unless large numbers of teens sign-up, Disney, Princess and Holland
America mix thirteen year-olds with seventeen year-olds, an often
**Be savvy about pricing and extra costs.
Voyage rates: Brochure rates are deceptive.
Often high-volume, cruise only agencies can get you the same cabin
for less. Often, but not always, especially now that RCI and,
starting January, Carnival, require travel agencies to offer only
those rates approved by the line. “We’re trying to
level the playing field by offering the same rates to big agencies
as well as to small agencies” says Carnival spokesperson
Jennifer de la Cruz.
For the lowest rates, book with a high-volume, cruise only travel
agency, whether online or over the phone, and always shop around.
“We still get volume discounts from some lines,”
says Tara Rogers, World Wide Cruises, www.cruises.com. “On
an NCL 7-day Caribbean cruise we can generally save a couple $250
on an inside cabin and more on a deluxe cabin. RCI still offers
us discounted ‘happy hour rates’ on Tuesdays, when
they try to unload inventory.”
High volume agencies also can often get their clients upgraded
on a space available basis. “We play by the rules,”
notes Mark Venezia, CruisesOnly, www.cruisesonly.com, “but
because of by partnering with other companies we provide added
value often in the form of upgrades or cash back or shipboard
credit. For example, through the end of the year if you book an
NCL cruise from a port near you, you get a free $100 gas card
so you can drive to the dock. And with us, you always get someone
on the line. We’re here 24/7.”
It used to be that except for drinks, shore tours, gambling,
spa treatments and the occasional specialty coffee, everything
else onboard came with your cabin price. Not any longer. Although
cruise lines haven’t “unbundled” these items,
charging for services and amenities once included for free, the
ships now offer a range of new possibilities, each at an add-on.
To avoid busting your budget, simply say “No” or
just be selective. A firm talk ahead of time and a family limit
on such extras as Hagen Daz ice cream Sundaes, specialty dinners,
wine tastings, computer workshops, and intensive Yoga may head
off some on-board conflict.