The Most Family-Friendly Cruise Lines
Major ships want to reel in parents and kids, so they’re offering epic experiences, conveniences you didn’t know you wanted, and the happiest times. Find the best line for your crew.
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.
If Budgets Are Tight: Carnival Cruise Line
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.”
Offers The Most For Young Kids: Disney Cruise Line
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.
If the Grandparents Are Coming Too: Norwegian Cruise Line or Holland America Line
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.
If You Dream Of Alaska: Princess Cruises
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.
Offers the Most For Older Kids: Royal Caribbean International
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.