If it's high time you hit the high seas, you have many options. We help you narrow it down to these six cruise lines that travel experts told Parents are the most family-friendly. Read on to find the lines that best match your family's vacation style then consult our map on page 32 for ones with ports closest to where you live. If you're craving even more info, head to websites like expedia.com and tripadvisor.com and directly compare various lines. You can also scan the real-people reviews for any ship at cruisecritic.com. From there, it should be smooth sailing!
CARNIVAL CRUISE LINES (24 ships)
Jesse Burke / Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines
best for If you want a lot of couple time--knowing the kids are happy and cared for--Carnival is a great choice. "It offers the most comprehensive camp and babysitting programs," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com. When you do want to hang together, all of the ships have great pools for families, but the Carnival Sunshine, which debuted in May, is home to the largest water park at sea, including racing slides, a tipping bucket, and 40 interactive water toys.
for kids All of the ships boast an enormous drop-off indoor play area divided into three sections--for kids 2 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 11. It's one of the few cruise lines with a free supervised program for 2-year-olds, even if they aren't potty trained yet. "My almost 3-year-old was leery about going to Camp Carnival, but she enjoyed playing with kids her age," says Stacy Hughey, of Wichita, Kansas. Among the activities: arts and crafts, climbing mazes, and scavenger hunts.
for you Twenty-two of the ships feature Serenity, a kid-free haven that offers whirlpools and comfy lounge chairs. You can use it at no cost. All ships, especially the Carnival Magic, Carnival Liberty, and Carnival Sunshine, provide tons of nightlife to check out. Don't miss the comedy club.
DISNEY CRUISE LINE (4 ships)
Courtesy of Disney
best for If your kid is dying to high-five Mickey and the gang but you're looking for a more relaxing trip or simply something different from the theme parks, test the waters on a Disney ship. Character meet-and-greets on board are a shorter wait than those in the park. "My daughter saw four princesses in 20 minutes," says Jeanenne Tornatore, a senior editor at Orbitz.com, who recently sailed on the Disney Dream. The characters also appear in shows every evening; have your child sit next to the aisle and she might get some special attention from performers exiting and entering the stage.
for kids All the ships offer two giant themed kids' areas, Disney's Oceaneer Club and Disney's Oceaneer Lab, stocked with art supplies, games, pretend-play gear, and much more, for children ages 3 to 12; they're typically open for 15 hours a day when the ship isn't at port. (Bonus: The newly refurnished Disney Magic now features Marvel characters in the kids' club too.) Children ages 3 months to 3 years can be dropped off in the It's a Small World Nursery for an extra charge of $6 per hour; kids ages 11 to 14 have Edge, their own digs complete with a dance floor and a sound station. On all of the ships except Disney Wonder, water features include a splash zone with pop-up jets for young kids. The Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream feature a crazy-fun AquaDuck "water coaster" for children 42 inches and taller, while the Disney Magic offers the more thrilling AquaDunk for kids 48 inches or taller. Download an example of the "Personal Navigator" (Disney's onboard newsletter with activities and hours) from past cruises at disneycruiselineblog.com for an idea of what's offered.
for you Take advantage of the adults-only pool, nightclubs, and, for an extra fee, spa and one or two upscale restaurants that don't allow anyone under 18. "First-timers are surprised by how tastefully the ship is decorated," says Amber Blecker, a travel agent with CruiseOne in Denver.
MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line
MSC CRUISES (1 ship in the U.S.,12 worldwide)
best for Families who want to stick together most of the time, rather than doing individual activities, will appreciate this Italian line, which allows kids 11 and under to sail free on all cruises and offers vastly discounted rates for older children. "My husband and I took our two kids on a ten-day MSC cruise over Thanksgiving a few years ago for $1,200," says Ruth Thomson, of Longmont, Colorado. "The kids spent some time at the children's club, but mostly they loved the pools and shows with magicians and acrobats."
for kids On the Divina (the line's only ship with a port in the U.S.), the drop-off children's club divides kids by age--3 to 6 and 7 to 11. Parents can bring younger kids for "baby time" and stay with them. Only one group at a time occupies the kids' club space--the others do an activity elsewhere on the ship such as pool games, scavenger hunts, or cooking classes with the pastry chef.
for you Four MSC ships, including the Divina, feature Top 18, an adult-only sanctuary on the top deck with lounge chairs, a tiki bar, and an infinity pool; daily passes cost about $25. You can also take advantage of adult-only fitness classes, like Aqua Cycling, which uses bikes in the pool.
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE (13 ships)
Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
best for If you're bringing the grandparents or traveling with another family, Norwegian will give you the most flexibility. Famous for its "freestyle" cruising, the line doesn't require you to have a set dining time or an assigned table. The line also offers more connecting cabins than its competitors do.
for kids In Splash Academy, the Norwegian kids' program, campers are divided up by age--3 to 5, 6 to 9, and 10 to 12. The highlight: a circus school where kids learn juggling and tumbling. Younger kids are welcome as long as you stay, but babysitting services aren't available for them. On deck, the under-6 crowd can mingle with Nickelodeon characters and have a blast in the Kids Aqua Park, with pools, slides, and pop-up jets.
for you The entire line offers adults-only pools, fitness centers, a spa, bars, and Broadway-style entertainment, including the Blue Man Group on the Norwegian Epic. But the newest ship, the Norwegian Breakaway, also offers two kid-free outdoor enclaves.
Princesses Cruises and Royal Caribbean International
PRINCESS CRUISES (17 ships)
Courtesy of Disney
best for If you're looking for an educational trip for yourself and the kids, Princess is the head of the class. In addition to a regular kids' program, the line teamed up with the California Science Center on a Science on the Seas program for kids ages 8 to 12. Depending on the cruise, they may dissect a squid, perform chemistry experiments, or learn what's involved in building a roller coaster. For you, every cruise offers enrichment classes, including cooking lessons, art tours, and the chance to perform in a Pop Choir. "The atmosphere is generally a bit more upscale and sedate than other lines," says Eileen Ogintz, founder of TakingTheKids.com.
for kids All ships, except the Pacific and Ocean Princess, offer drop-off kids' clubs divided by age group. Kids younger than 3 can join in the fun, but you have to stay with them.
for you Escape to The Sanctuary, an adults-only area with lounge chairs and MP3 players. Morning and afternoon/evening sessions cost $10 each.
ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL (21 ships)
best for Families with toddlers and tweens will find that this line does a fantastic job of entertaining kids of all ages. "You won't have a happy 3-year-old but a bored 10-year-old, or vice versa," says Ogintz.
for kids Every ship has an Adventure Ocean kids' program divided by age--3 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 11. The youngest kids take part in Pirate Party Parades and dinosaur digs while older ones put on talent shows and sports tournaments. For the under-3s, babysitting in the Royal Babies and Tots Nursery is available for $6 to $8 per hour and playgroup sessions that you stick around for are offered daily. Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and other DreamWorks characters are aboard six of the ships--the Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas, and Mariner of the Seas. Those ships plus the Independence of the Seas have a water area, with thrilling slides for tweens and water geysers, pop-up jets, and water canyons for kids under 6.
for you All but one of the ships offer an adults-only Solarium, an indoor/outdoor pool area with a sliding roof and hot tubs.
Is your family shipshape?
Four in five Americans have never cruised--and many who have did so in their childless days, says Eileen Ogintz, founder of TakingTheKids.com. See whether a cruise would make sense for your group.
Sail if ...
- You have a toddler and a tween. "A cruise is the best type of vacation if there's a wide age gap between your kids," says Ogintz. Unlike at some resorts, on most cruise lines 3- to 12-year-olds aren't put in the same program.
- The grandparents are coming along. They'll get to spend time with your kids but have their own activities so they don't feel like a third wheel.
- Your kids want to hang with other kids their age. The children's clubs on cruises are included in the price of your fare--and they're typically much more popular with kids than ones at resorts. "Your child could be there all afternoon and not get to do everything," says Carolyn Spencer Brown.
- You want to see a lot of places. When you cruise in the Caribbean or Europe, it's possible to visit five cities or more in a week--without having to schlep luggage.
Bail if ...
- You have a newborn. Most cruise lines require babies to be at least 6 months old to board and some don't allow kids until their first birthday for Hawaiian and transatlantic trips. The two exceptions: Disney permits kids 12 weeks and up, while MSC doesn't have an age restriction.
- You're pregnant. Many lines restrict women 24 weeks along or more from boarding.
- None of your kids are potty trained. Kids in diapers (even swim ones) aren't allowed in pools because of U.S. Public Health Service regulations. (They can use "splash" zones if a ship offers them.) And activities for under-3s are generally limited. If none of your kids can take advantage of the free fun, wait until they're older, says Ogintz.
- You're a free spirit. Your ports and time ashore are scheduled. Meals and entertainment may not have much flexibility either, depending on the line.
Score a great deal.
Three ways not to sink your budget:
1. Think autumn.
If your kids aren't in school yet, September and October are ideal months to take a cruise. "You'll save 40 percent or more compared with peak winter and spring seasons," says Jeanenne Tornatore. Next-lowest-price time to go: the summer.
2. Keep tabs on the cost.
Most lines will give you the lower price if the cost of your trip drops between the time you book it and when your final payment is due. But you have to call to get the better deal. And if you booked on Carnival's Early Saver plan, you can get the lower price up until the time you sail. Simply submit a Price Protection form. "I watched the price every few days, submitted the forms, and ended up with $400 refund when we got on board the ship," says Stacy Hughey.
3. Account for extras.
Soft drinks, bottled water, and alcoholic drinks aren't included in the price of your cruise on most lines. Tap water, iced tea, coffee, and, in the mornings only, juice and milk are typically free. The exception: Disney Cruise Line gives your family unlimited soft drinks, milk, coffee, and juice. To save money, be sure to pack refillable water bottles for the whole family.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.