You might think it’s insane to take your child on a boat for a week if you’ve never cruised before. But longtime cruise fans know the opposite is true—cruises supply plenty of activities to wear out high-energy tots and have clever ways to give you much-deserved couple time. “On a recent cruise, my husband and I enjoyed a week of date nights,” says Lea Nielsen, vice president of CruiseDirect.com. “After we ate dinner as a family, my children, ages 7 and 10, wanted to take part in the activities at the kids’ club, and we happily obliged.”
To have a blissful experience like Nielsen’s, figure out which cruise line is best suited for your brood. “It often comes down to how old your kids are, where you live so you can sail out of a nearby port, and whether or not extended family is coming along,” explains Cindy Richards, editor-in-chief of TravelingMom.com. Our planner will help you sort out the differences among six popular family-friendly lines. Then use the chart on page 89 to help you make the final call.
The most budget-friendly of the bunch, a weeklong Caribbean cruise on Carnival can be around half the price of sailing on Disney, notes McDaniel. Carnival also offers the most U.S. departure ports of any line, so many families can avoid airfare costs. Edna Ma, of Los Angeles, took a four-day Carnival cruise from nearby Long Beach, California, to Ensenada, Mexico, with her husband and children (ages 2 and 4) last April—a time of year when cruise prices are considerably higher than usual. “We spent about $1,900, including taxes,” says Ma. “When I researched our options, I found that it was the most affordable and offered availability during spring break.”
The Dr. Seuss-themed parade, storytime, and Green Eggs and Ham breakfast aboard all Carnival ships are much loved. “The parade wraps up with a cute, interactive performance in the theater,” says Stephanie Jarrett, of Arlington, Texas, who sailed on the Carnival Valor from Galveston with her husband and three kids in December 2016. “My middle daughter, who was 4 at the time, was pulled on stage to be Thing 2, and she still talks about being part of the show.”
Your kid has never been to a drop-off play area like Disney’s. Even typically shy little ones spend hours exploring the sprawling themed spaces, ranging from Andy’s Room (complete with a Slinky dog slide) to Marvel Super Hero Academy (with shields, swords, and a meet-up with Captain America).
Disney also offers technology that gives parents peace of mind to let kids as young as 8 sign themselves in and out of the clubs. And they think that freedom—to grab a free ice-cream cone with their new friends or swing by the theater to watch a movie—is awesome.
Families who want to stick together have a lot of activity options from games to musical shows. G-rated deck parties—including a pirate-themed one where many parents and kids dress up—are fun. And you never know who you are going to run into. “My husband, my 4-year-old, and I were strolling along the deck, and Mickey Mouse walked by and gave us a high five,” says Darlene Carenza, who sailed on the Dream.
With an abundance of connecting cabins plus no pressure to choose restaurants or dining times in advance, Norwegian will give your extended family lots of flexibility, says Colleen McDaniel, editor of CruiseCritic.com. “Norwegian also has the best food of the seven lines I’ve sailed on—most of them with my children,” adds Nielsen. “The dishes represent lots of cultures.”
Holland America is another grandparent favorite. “Both lines have stepped up their kids’ clubs and family programming to attract multigenerational families,” says McDaniel.
Of the four cruise lines allowed to operate in the waters around Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, the U.S. National Park Service notes that Princess offers the most educational activities including onboard naturalists and Junior Ranger programs. It also partnered with Discovery Communications on a new kids’ club. “Every session focused on a different sea creature or a place where we would port,” says Amanda Mushro, who sailed from Seattle with her husband and children (ages 5 and 7) last May. “My kids didn’t want to leave. My husband and I even got some ‘alone time’ to go to the spa and a date night.”
Mushro says the excursions were also impressive. “With whale watching, playing with sled dogs, and being on a fishing boat used in the TV show Deadliest Catch, my kids couldn’t stop smiling,” she says.
Its massive ships have space for skating rinks, indoor skydiving, bumper cars, rock climbing walls, and other activities that’ll wow a tween. “We went on the Anthem of the Seas for my daughter’s tenth birthday, and she loved roller-skating with flashing lights and a deejay,” says Dawn Ardito. Emma Cakmak, who sailed on the Liberty of the Seas with her mom and two daughters (ages 10 and 12), said the FlowRider—a surfing simulator—slayed.
“One day, we stayed on the ship when it was in port and took turns going on it over and over,” says Cakmak.
Royal Caribbean divides up its kids’ clubs into more age groups than Disney—a minus if siblings or cousins want to stick together but a plus for age-appropriate activities. One caveat: Evening “family” entertainment may be too adult-oriented for some tastes. “I covered my daughter’s eyes a few times during We Will Rock You,” says Ardito. “The show wasn’t rated, but I’d give it a PG-13.”
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.
Three ways not to sink your budget:
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.