10 Must-Know Tips Before Booking a Family Cruise

Photo by Virtuoso
Photo by Virtuoso

Kristi Marcelle is Ciao Bambino’s resident expert on family cruising and has cruised on ships of all sizes with her kids since they were babies. After her first multigenerational cruise with 15 family members, she was sold on the ease of the experience and the flexibility and convenience of cruises with kids. And as the dedicated trip planner in her own family, Kristi appreciates the stress-free planning of a cruise and is now planning cruise vacations for Ciao Bambino’s travel agency clients. Thanks, Kristi, for sharing your valuable insight below!

Kid-Friendly Cruises
Photo by Virtuoso

Best Tips for Cruises with Kids

Choose the Right Cruise Experience

There are an overwhelming number of cruises to choose from at any time of the year, and deciding on the type of cruise experience you want is key. Similar to a land vacation, cruise destinations and ship amenities vary greatly. There are cruises that focus on relaxation and beach, others that are all about adventure, and still others that visit the cultural hubs of Europe. It’s even possible to combine all of the above on a Mediterranean cruise.

TIP: Cruises that focus on adventure, like Alaska or the Galapagos, are often geared toward kids aged 6+ or 8+ due to the level of physical activity.

Different Cruises are Better at Different Ages

With babies and children under 6, larger ships provide a comprehensive program of activities and childcare (fee-based for babies on some ships) that the small ships do not offer. As a parent sailing with a toddler, I was grateful for the variety of supervised children’s programming available for my 4-year-old and ecstatic to have guilt-free, adult-only time with my husband. Cruise lines cater to all ages now, and structured programs for toddlers through teens are common on larger ships. The more specialized programming on small ships is ideal for school ages and up.

Small-Ship Versus Large-Ship Cruising

Small ships, typically carrying up to 100 passengers, offer different amenities and experiences than the large cruise ships, which have capacity for 3,000 to 5,000 passengers. Smaller ships can access areas that large ships cannot enter and are, in general, better with older children who don’t need room to run and structured play time. With fewer guests and dedicated social spaces, families often get to know one another in a more meaningful way on the smaller ships.

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Kids of All Ages Love Over-the-Top Amenities

“Kids of all ages” includes adults as well. Parents often choose a cruise with outrageous amenities in the name of kid fun, but when it’s time to go home, everyone is raving about them. Even if you like rock climbing or basketball or waterslides on land, these amenities hold extra allure on a cruise ship. Often, families who would never consider taking a theme park vacation find these same types of amenities one of the highlights of their cruise.

Cruising is For Landlubbers Too

There are usually two main reasons why travelers don’t want to take a cruise. The first is seasickness; the second is that they simply don’t consider themselves cruising types. Many of the latter stereotypes come from a time when cruising was centered on buffets and casinos. While those are still available, cruising has evolved as new cruisers, including families, have discovered the benefits of a stress-free vacation and want a more meaningful experience.

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It’s Easier Than You Think to Avoid Seasickness

I am that person who gets seasick on almost every whale-watching, snorkeling or sunset-sailing trip. And while I feel the motion on large ships, their size generally prevents nausea unless there is rough weather. There are, however, certain routes where seas are rougher, especially on open-water ocean crossings.  To avoid seasickness, choose cruises with routes in protected waters like Alaska’s Inside Passage, where it’s rare to encounter rough seas. Selecting a cabin in the middle of the ship, which is the most stable, will aid in preventing seasickness too.

Make Use of Sit-Down Dining Options

It’s easy to use the variety of grab-and-go restaurants for breakfast and lunch, but sometimes it’s nice to be served a leisurely meal, especially on days at sea when there’s no rush to get off the ship. This also a great opportunity for adult time when the kids are engaged in structured activities that include lunch.

Book Family Cabins Months in Advance

While the number of cabins that can accommodate families of five or more is increasing, these are typically among the first cabins that book up on cruises. This doesn’t have as much impact for destinations where the mega-ships cruise, like the Caribbean, but in regions such as Alaska it means that family cabins are often booked a year in advance. Families booking six months out or less are left with fewer choices.

Consider Independent Shore Excursions

With a family of four and up, a private guided shore excursion may be less expensive than the group tour offered by the cruise company. Ciao Bambino specializes in finding great private guides — in the Mediterranean, for example, we’ve helped families book all of their port excursions with independent guides tailored to their family’s interests. In other cases, like my favorite excursion in Skagway, Alaska (which actually travels to nearby Haines, Alaska), the logistics are complicated and the cruise line is the best option.

To Unplug or Not to Unplug?

WIFI and Internet service used to be prohibitively slow and expensive on cruise ships, so most passengers had little choice but to unplug while at sea. That is changing as new ships add technology that decreases costs and increases bandwidth and speed. For parents who appreciate an electronics-free vacation (and there are still plenty of electronics in the kids’ clubs) it’s important to set expectations before the cruise, especially with tweens and teens.

And a Bonus Tip … Book Through a Qualified Travel Agent

Even with the tips above, sorting through the options can get overwhelming quickly. Qualified agents can help you compare and contrast different lines and itineraries, and find the best fit for the type of cruise vacation you have in mind.

Relevant Links:

Browse all tips and ideas for family cruise vacations on Ciao Bambino

To cruise or not to cruise with kids

7 kid-friendly cruises we love

Alaskan Dream Cruises: Glacier Bay and Island Adventure itinerary review

UnCruise Adventures: Explore Panama and Costa Rica in casual small-ship comfort

Thinking about a river cruise with kids? Say hello to AmaWaterways

Start a Discussion

  • I would love to plan a family cruise with my brother’s family as well as my sister’s family. Since there is a baby in the family, I may hold off until I get older. But I will for sure be using these as great information for when I do book one for the entire family. It will be a great time for us adults to enjoy sometime together as well as the kids having time to spend with their cousins. Thanks for sharing!

  • We may be going on our very first family cruise this summer and I’m going on my first cruise in June. I am definitely taking these tips with me!

  • Great tips! We’ve been on a very small ship cruise (40 passengers) and a mega cruise (Disney), and this calendar year, we’ll go on a medium sized ship (700 passengers) and another small ship (150 passengers). Looking forward to seeing what I prefer!

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