Being a parent is a demanding job. Raising little human beings is an all day, everyday responsibility with no holidays. While singles and couples can escape their everyday lives and truly decompress when on vacation, parents don’t have the same luxury. Parenthood is a job we bring on vacation with us.
Fortunately, a cruise can be an outstanding family vacation option for parents needing to relax and recharge. Challenges encountered with other types of vacations are frequently already solved for parents on a cruise ship. But don’t assume that it will be completely smooth sailing.
There are a few things to be aware of or might be helpful when taking your children on a cruise.
Below are 10 tips to help make your cruise the best that it can be for the entire family.
1. Select Kid-Friendly Cruise Lines and Ships
Children can cruise on almost any cruise line, but when it comes to keeping them happy and occupied, some are better than others. My kids have been on 14 cruises on 5 different lines. They’ve enjoyed all of them, but if you ask, they definitely have preferences.
The most family-friendly cruise lines include Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, and MSC Cruises. These lines tend to offer more for children. Generally, cruise ship pools are on the smaller side and geared more toward cooling off rather than horseplay. A ship with additional areas where they can run around, get wet, and burn off some of that never-ending energy makes for a great day at sea. Cruise ships with waterslides and splash areas will keep kids occupied and happy for days on end.
These above cruise lines generally have other outdoor deck activities available that also appeal to children. Miniature golf, rock climbing, ropes courses, zip lines, carousels, and even go-cart racing are other ways in which cruise lines try to entice families to sail with them.
Fun inside the ship may include arcades with both traditional video gaming and physical games such as skee-ball. Like gaming centers on land, some of these games reward play with tickets that can be traded in for candy and prizes.
Still unsure about which ship to choose? Sometimes I get my children involved in the decision-making process. We’ll go online together and look at all the different kid-friendly features for the ships I’m considering. Occasionally, they surprise me. I’ll think something looks really cool only to find they don’t consider it very important.
2. Make Babysitting Reservations Early
When cruising with infants and toddlers, cruise line selection isn’t as important. Babies must be at least 6 months old to go on a cruise and youth programs are generally limited to children 3 years and older. However, Carnival will take children as young as 2. Unless you take advantage of babysitting services, small children are going to be with you.
Most major cruise lines do offer some sort of babysitting service for an extra charge, but times and availability are limited. Generally, shipboard babysitting takes place in a group setting, such as in a nursery or in the kids’ club, but Celebrity and Holland America, still offer in-cabin sitting.
There is quite a bit of variation between lines when it comes to what ages may use babysitting services. Disney, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Cunard, and some Norwegian ships offer services for children as young as 6 months. MSC has a complimentary baby care program for children aged 1-3.
Parents who know they would like to take advantage of babysitting services during their cruise should make reservations as quickly as possible. Disney allows nursery reservations to be made online prior to embarkation, but otherwise, it’s best to try and secure reservations as soon as you board.
3. Not Potty Trained? Don’t Expect to Use the Pool
Many parents have been shocked to discover that cruise ship pool rules differ from land-based resorts. Parents of small children need to know that non-potty trained kids are NEVER allowed in ship pools or hot tubs. Not even swim diapers. This is a health and safety regulation established by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Perhaps even more surprising is that for most ships, even the splash areas are off-limits to little tykes in swim diapers. Only Disney and some Royal Caribbean ships have specific splash areas approved by the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program for swim diaper use.
For little ones still in diapers, it can be a huge bummer when you can’t enjoy some shipboard water play. Instead, look for port-intensive cruises where you can hit a local beach for a few hours of sand and sea fun during the day before heading back to the ship for naps.
4. Stay on Their Schedule
Every parent dreads our twice-yearly time changes because they know how difficult it is for kids’ bodies to adjust. Cruising often involves travel across time zones to reach the embarkation port or ship’s time may change during the cruise itself.
Nothing will send a small child into the spiral of a full on screaming meltdown faster than being over-stimulated and over-tired. Therefore, it’s best to try and keep smaller kids on their normal schedule. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to do on a cruise.
Being on kid-time has advantages on a cruise ship. The buffet is delightfully calm in the early morning. It really is the best time to go, especially with a little one who wants to see all of the options before deciding.
Parents of early-risers rarely have to fight the morning chair hogs. Being up early with the kids gets you prime deck space where you can enjoy some quiet time on deck before all of the other passengers are up. And in the afternoon, when suddenly everyone is at the pool, naptime in your air-conditioned cabin is just a short walk away.
Choose a dining time that most closely matches dinnertime at home if you plan on eating in the main dining room. Or choose a flexible dining time if available. Service in the dining room can take up to 90 minutes, which is an eternity to a young child. They will do so much better if it’s their normal dinnertime.
For children old enough to participate in the youth programs, ask your wait staff to serve your children’s meals right away. Once the kids have eaten, one parent can quickly run them over to the kids’ club and return for the remainder of the meal. Some cruise lines, like Disney and Royal Caribbean, can save you the trip. They will pick up children from the dining room and escort them to the clubs.
5. Encourage Youth Program Participation
The youth programs, or kids’ clubs, are one of the big reasons why cruising is so popular with families. But not all kids immediately warm up to the idea of checking into a space where they don’t know anyone.
If you’d like your children to use the kids club during the cruise, encourage them to go on the first day. If there is an open house or family time on the schedule, go and check it out together. Also, let the staff know if your child is anxious or apprehensive. They are great about engaging kids and making them feel comfortable.
At the beginning of the cruise, everyone is new, so it’s the best time to break the ice and make friends. This is especially true to for ages 13 and up. The teen clubs don’t have as many organized activities and tend to be more like supervised teen hangouts. By day 3, social groups are already well established.
6. Teach Them How to Navigate the Ship
Cruise ships can be tricky to find your way around. It’s not uncommon to see adults confused about where they are or how to get somewhere. Even if your children are too young to be given free rein of the ship, it’s a good idea to start teaching them how to find their way around a cruise ship.
From a very young age, I always asked my children to lead the way when out and about the ship. “What deck are we on?” “Where is the dining room?” “Is it forward or aft?” They were forced to pay attention to where they were, learn ship terminology, and utilize stairwell signage. When I was finally ready to let them explore on their own and give them check in and out privileges for the kids’ clubs, I was confident they could make their way around the ship without getting lost.
Disney’s Imagineers have gamified learning onboard navigation with the Midship Detective Agency. Aboard Disney Dream and Fantasy, kids search for clues from “enchanted” works of art to solve one of three mysteries. The game takes them all over the ship, learning forward from aft, and getting a lot of exercise along the way.
Once they know their way around, kids may still have a difficult time recalling their cabin number. Cruise ship hallways are long and there may not be many visual clues to help kids find the right cabin.
The best way to ensure the kids will always be able to find the correct cabin door is to decorate it. Decorating your cabin door is HUGE on Disney, but you’ll see door decorations on many other cruise lines as well.
The decorations do not need to be anything elaborate. If you are celebrating a birthday or anniversary, a few things from the party store would are perfect, but even a small sign works. Not only will your kids be able to find your cabin, but other passengers may let you know your decorations have helped them find their own cabin as well.
Cruise lines are very tolerant of the decorations. Just make sure they are family friendly, do not impede passageway traffic, are fire-resistant, and won’t cause any damage to the surface of the door. Some ships, like Disney, have metal doors and magnets work well. Otherwise, Command Poster Strips work well and don’t leave behind any sticky residue.
If you are going to let your kids explore the ship, it’s a good idea to get them a lanyard for their cruise card. They are far less likely to lose track of it when it’s around their neck.
7. Create Little Foodies
Okay, so “foodie” might be a bit of a stretch, but a cruise is a perfect opportunity for your little ones to expand their horizons and try foods that might be new to them.
The dining room will have kids’ menus available with standard kid fare such as mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, and hamburgers. But have them take a look at both the kids’ menu and the adult menu.
Encourage them to try something new from the adult menu. When you are eating out at home, you may not want your child to order mahi-mahi, take one bite and declare they hate it. But on a cruise, there should be no pressure.
When our family cruises, my normally strict rules regarding meals and snacks become very relaxed. I’m just happy I don’t have to cook! By the time we go to dinner, the kids have probably had multiple slices of pizza, french fries, cookies, and who knows how many of those self-serve ice cream cones. I’m honestly surprised they are hungry for anything more, so I don’t have high expectations at dinner.
I have fairly adventurous little eaters and I credit a lot of that to the cruises we’ve taken. They are allowed to order whatever they want from the menu. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it. Dessert is never a bargaining chip to eat more.
I don’t like food waste, but I think having new experiences is important and this way they feel free to experiment. As a result, they’ve tried escargot, oysters, sushi, calamari, caviar, frog legs, and just about every type of fish cruise lines serve. They don’t like it all, but they are always willing to try.
8. Consider Granting Charging Privileges Carefully
When completing your online check-in pre-cruise, you will be asked if you would like to allow charging privileges for your child. Obviously, there’s no need to for your 3-year-old to be able to make any onboard purchases, but for older kids, this is something to carefully consider.
Swiping a card to make a purchase not something most children are used to doing, let alone trying to keep track of how much they’ve spent. If you do decide to allow your child to make purchases, set limits and be sure to periodically check their account activity.
Some cruise lines will allow you to fund your child’s account with a specific amount of money. If you decide to try this, you’ll want to verify that once that money is gone, they will be cut off and additional charges won’t roll over to your account.
What I’ve done with my kids is this. I let them know exactly how much money they are allowed to spend. They can spend it on anything they want. Sodas, milkshakes, souvenirs, arcade games, etc., but when it’s gone, it’s gone. I show them how to track their spending in the cruise line apps. If they go over, they will not be allowed charging privileges on our next cruise.
You know your kids. Mine are pretty good at following rules, so this has worked well for us. But kids are still kids and impulse control can be difficult. Keep tabs on their spending. You don’t want to find out your child spent $200 on arcade games in one day.
You should try to be with them the first time they make a charge they need to sign for. I realized although we’d taken them on many cruises before, they had no idea how to sign for their charges. Once taught how to do that, they were up and running.
9. Look for Age-Appropriate Excursions
Every child is different. This is another area where you have to know your children and their limitations. Taking a 2-year-old on a long hot bus ride to Tulum is probably not a great idea. Hiking may be another activity that some younger kids can do and love, but others may become whiney and miserable. A good rule of thumb is that if they don’t enjoy doing it at home, they won’t enjoy it any better on vacation.
If planning to take your child snorkeling for the first time, try to get some practice in at a home first in a pool or other body of water if you can. Even a bathtub will help them get the feel of breathing through a snorkel. But be prepared that they might still be afraid by the sheer size and depth of the ocean. Our littlest one spent years riding on our backs, while our oldest took off like a fish. One of my favorite cruise memories is hearing the excited screams coming out his snorkel the first time he spotted a real live fish.
Get older kids involved in the excursion planning. Surly, impossible to please teenagers are much more likely to enjoy the adventure if they’ve had a say in planning it.
Most countries outside of the US do not have the same car seat regulations. Many cruise line excursions travel by bus, but small tours or independent excursions frequently use vans or taxis. If you would like your child to have a car seat, unfortunately, you will have to lug it around.
Pro tip: if it doesn’t fit it in the closet, store the car seat in the shower when not in use so it isn’t taking up precious cabin floor space.
10. Safety/Onboard Behavior
As a parent, you always fear the worst. While cruise ships are incredibly safe, they are not 100% free from danger.
Some parents worry about booking balcony cabins when sailing with small children. It is a valid concern. Again, you need to know your children and make this call yourself. I’ve found that balcony doors are quite heavy, much too heavy for a small child to open on their own. Plus, all of the balcony cabins I have sailed in have balcony door locks that are up high and well out of reach.
Balcony safety should be discussed with children. We had strict rules. When mine were small, they were not allowed to spend any time out on the balcony without an adult. Railings are roughly chest-height and very safe with normal balcony use. Unfortunately, small kids like to be able to see over the railing. It’s very tempting for them to climb on to the furniture for a better look. We never allowed this, even when an adult was present.
Other safety rules we have with our children is that they are not allowed to go into anyone else’s cabin or bring anyone into our cabin with them. They make friends and want to hang out together, but they know they need to do it at the kids’ clubs or in other public areas of the ship.
Running is probably the most difficult behavior to curtail. Kids are so excitable on a cruise that it seems like they run everywhere. Being loud and running down the passageway is annoying and rude, but running up and down the stairwells could very well result in injury to themselves or someone else.
Children should know to follow all safety instructions from crewmembers as well as show appropriate respect. It’s tough working day in and day out so far from home. The crew works very hard to ensure both adults and children have a fun and safe cruise. Kids should have fun and enjoy themselves, but they should not make any crewmember’s job more difficult than it already is. A little respect and appreciation go a long way in making it a great time for everyone.
Traveling with kids is always an adventure, but it’s not always easy. Cruises are a wonderful way for parents to introduce children to other countries, cultures, and experiences. When prepared with a few tips and tricks, cruises can also be a fun-filled and relaxing vacation.