My husband and I cruised around the Western Mediterranean right before we adopted our son. It was our last adults-only trip before becoming parents together. I like to joke that that vacation was the last peaceful night’s sleep I enjoyed.
Actually, I’m not joking about that.
We enjoyed cruising and, really, what’s not to enjoy? Cruises are reasonably priced. There’s minimal planning, no navigation or driving, except getting to the port. You board the ship. You take part in activities that interest you. You get off in port (or not) and do what interests you. You soak up sun. You take part in competitive eating (possibly my favorite part).
I enjoyed our first cruise so much that I cried when it was over. I was that sorry to see it end. After we debarked (that’s fancy talk for leaving the ship) I knew we’d cruise again.
Five years and two kids later, my husband and I set sail with our small humans in tow.
Things were different. I was still sorry to see our vacation end because we had so much fun, but I was also ready to get my kids back into a routine. Going on a six-night cruise as parents of two six-year-old boys is completely different than going on a six-night cruise as an unencumbered childless couple. (You’re probably thinking “duh,” right?) I made a few packing and planning mistakes, but our family agrees that our trip was a success. In fact, we’re already planning our next shipboard adventure.
Thinking about cruising with kids? Here are 14 things you need to know:
1. Get the roomiest cabin you can afford.
When my husband and I traveled sans kids, we went cheap on accommodations. We didn’t spend much time in our cabin, so we splurged on excursions and shopping.
When you travel with kids, you spend more time in your room. Things like space, comfort, and amenities become more important.
Cruise ship cabins are much smaller than hotel rooms. On our recent cruise, we got an upper-deck balcony stateroom. We had a whopping 185 square feet, and our balcony was 35 square feet. That’s not a lot of room for a family of four, but the jump in price from balcony stateroom to suite would have been a budget buster. Depending on family size, preferences, and cruise line, you can book adjoining cabins, family cabins, or suites. The balcony stateroom worked for us, although by the end of the cruise, I craved alone time.
We really liked having the balcony, even though it was tiny. It gave my husband and me someplace to sit and chat (see also: get away from our kids), and it also gave us a way to gauge the weather outside and air out the room. My kids enjoyed their little private nook to watch the waves.
There are many things that go into choosing a cabin on a cruise ship, and your mileage will vary from ship to ship, but if you’re traveling with kids, space is your friend and sometimes worth the splurge.
2. Plan adults-only time.
Cruise ships have structured kids’ activities by age. Most activities are included in the price of your cruise, although there will always be upsells. Take advantage of these activities and enjoy some alone time with your partner or just some time to yourself. Most ships have adults-only areas—very worth checking out.
You might choose to travel with friends or extended family. We met families who traded off child-minding duty or bribed (or coerced) their teens into a few hours of babysitting duty.
You’re in a contained environment with free babysitting, and really, the on-board kids’ activities are so much more than just childcare. Take advantage.
3. Scope out the menu.
If you can’t find something that appeals to your taste buds on a cruise ship, you’re not looking very hard. You’ll find the standard kid fare—chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti—plus many options for the more adventurous eaters or foodies in your group. If you don’t see what you want, ask. When traveling with babies, contact your cruise line with questions about baby food or bottle warming/prepping. And, of course, if you have food allergies or restrictions, contact the cruise line ahead of time or speak to the maître d’ about your specific needs.
4. Scope out everything.
You can learn everything there is to know about your sailing with a little internet research. It helps to know the lay of the land when traveling anywhere with kids, and anything you want to know about your floating home for several days is published online. Search Facebook using your ship’s name and your sail date (e.g., Disney Wonder February 9th), and you’ll probably find a passenger group that’s full of info. Bonus: the opportunity to make friends ahead of time.
5. Use a travel agent.
I know, I know, who uses travel agents now that internet travel sites are so easy to use? Trust me—cruises are different, and you’ll thank me later if you take my advice on this one.
Travel agents are familiar with the various ships and cabins and will offer you the personalized attention you need to select the best vacation for your family and your budget. Travel agents have access to better deals, so you will save money. A travel agent will also complete the bulk of your registration for you, which saves a newbie cruiser time headaches. It won’t cost extra to use a travel agent—the cruise lines pay their commission.
6. Manage expectations.
Are you going to be up with the sun and first off the ship in every port, or are you a “sleep late and stay on the ship” family? Do you want to go on organized excursions or find your own fun in port? Will you get fancified for a four-course dinner every night, or chow down at the casual buffet in flip flops and bathing suits?
Most cruise lines offer an app that will allow you to access the schedule of on-board happenings while sailing. You can plan your vacation out to a T, play it loosey-goosey, or anything in between. Whatever works for your family, works for your family, but it’s helpful to make sure everyone is on the same page.
7. Communicate differences in the rules.
Are you going to maintain routine, or are you going throw bedtimes out the window and call it a bath if your kids took a dip in the pool? Will you let older kids go their own way on-board, or expect them to stay with you 24-7 and participate in activities as a family unit? Will you establish curfew? If you have a larger family and you’re splitting up during the day, how will you check in and how often?
Life aboard ship is different from your daily routine. Lay out the ground rules before you leave.
8. Decide on Wi-Fi before you sail.
You can stay connected on-board a cruise ship—for a price. If you’re planning to completely unplug, communicate that to your family in advance. Your 14-year-old who expects to text her BFF a play-by-play of her entire vacation might still be disappointed, but hopefully laying out the rules before you leave will mitigate the drama.
9. Pack a small pharmacy.
All cruise ships have medical stations, so if you need medical attention, don’t stress. However, it isn’t free. You’ll want to avoid consulting a doctor or nurse for minor issues. Pack Band-Aids, Neosporin, hydrocortisone cream, pain reliever, something to treat bug bites, cough and cold remedies, and anti-diarrheal meds.
Don’t forget to pack vitamins and any meds your family members take daily. Even though hand sanitizer gel was available at the dining areas on our cruise ships, I felt better having our own (along with disinfectant wipes). I’m not a germaphobe or a clean freak, but when so many people are contained in a small area, it doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions.
10. Prepare for sea sickness.
My husband is an established sea sickie, so we always take an arsenal of preventive measures for him. Since this was my kids’ first sailing, we packed a variety of kid-friendly motion sickness remedies. If you’re into essential oils, check out DIY remedies before you sail.
We had three-plus days of open ocean sailing (which tends to get a little choppier than hugging the coastline) and found the midship area the most stable, which is something to take into consideration when choosing your cabin.
11. Plan excursions early.
If you’re going to do organized excursions, book them early to avoid disappointment. Spaces on group tours are limited. We waited until the last minute to book a stingray encounter, and we were out of luck. If you want to explore on your own, Google “things to do” in your port; you’ll find lots of ideas.
12. Make a photo plan.
On-board photographers are available to capture your every moment. There will be opportunities for both formal and informal pictures. You can get professional shots of your family for…well, a lot. If you budget for great quality family photos, maybe the sticker shock isn’t so shocking.
A more cost-conscious option is to make a list of what photos you’d like to take on your cruise and designate someone as the family photographer. Need inspiration for cruise photo ideas? Pinterest.
13. Pack light, but…
Cabins are small, and while storage is efficient, there’s only so much space to work with. Consider packing knits that can be rolled up in your suitcase or dry-weave fabrics that can be washed out in the sink and worn again. We’re big fans of minimalist packing, but consider that you’re not going to have much opportunity to buy anything you forget or run out of…and if you do, it will be at least twice the cost you’d pay at home.
If you have a child in diapers or pull-ups, pack enough to get through the trip. Also keep in mind that kids who aren’t potty trained might not be allowed in the pools on board.
You can—and should—scour the internet for sample packing lists, but here are a few items that I was happy we had along:
- Twine and clothespins—The shower had a clothesline, but with four of us hanging up wet bathing suits, it helped to be able to rig a second one.
- Power strip—Outlets in your cabin are limited.
- Nightlight—Your cabin will be very dark, and with limited space and unfamiliar terrain, our travel nightlight saved me from biting the dust on my way to the bathroom at 3:00 A.M.
- Water bottles—There was ice water available all over the ship, but no bottled water. I liked having a bottle of water for the cabin and to take ashore. If you’re a coffee drinker, bring a travel mug so you can take coffee back to your room or enjoy it on deck.
- Cheap beach towels—If you take the cruise line’s beach towels ashore and lose them, you’ve just bought very expensive beach towels.
- Card games—We had the best time hanging out on deck each night before dinner playing Uno and Skip-Bo.
14. Arrive at port early.
Family travel is always unpredictable. Make sure you allow yourself enough time to get where you need to be. For both the cruises we took, we arrived in port the night before sailing. The expense was minimal and absolutely worth the peace of mind and lack of rushing the morning of embarkation. If you’re driving to the port, check nearby hotels for park ‘n’ go packages.