How to Plan the Perfect Family Cruise
So many ships, so many destinations! It isn't easy finding the right mix of amenities, ports and costs
Before our first cruise, my husband and I wondered whether seven days in the same cabin with our children was sane or sadistic; if the kids could forgo T-shirts and sibling rivalry at our formal dinner seatings; and if we'd return fat, bored, and broke. Instead, we had one of our best vacations ever.
Since then, more than eighteen years ago, we've been on many cruises together. Cruising's not perfect--the ports get flooded with "boat people," shore tours can be expensive, and the food can be mediocre--but being on a ship frees us from the usual family nemeses: packing, unpacking, schlepping suitcases and dealing with cranky children in a hot car.
"Cruising is a very easy way to travel," says Barbara Koltun, a Potomac, MD clinical social worker. "Life is simple and fun. All you have to do is pick your shore tour. The rest is taken care of. You do not have to worry about what the evening's entertainment will be or how much dinner will cost and there's something for everyone to do." Last summer the Koltun's sailed to Alaska with 13-year-old Sarah and her grandparents.
Like many cruisers Wayne Poverstein, a Morris Plains, NJ, high school teacher appreciates the freedom cruising affords parents and kids to do things together and apart, including eating. "Kids can get whatever they want to eat whenever they want it. Most of the time on a cruise, Shaun, at 12, 14, and 16, didn't want to be stuck in a 1 ½ to two hour dinner with us. He was interested in eating hot dogs and pizza with his new friends. And that was fine with Mary Jane and me."
It's no wonder that the family market, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), has grown nearly 200 percent in the past five years. In 2004, CLIA projects that 1.1 million children, age 17 and younger, will have sailed, up from 1 million in 2003.
But to sail on the ship of your dreams, plan ahead. You need to pick the voyage as well as the vessel that's right for your family. And so that you don't go overboard on your budget, you need to book wisely, choose shore tours carefully, and be mindful of all the extra ways cruise lines in recent years have come up with to separate you from your dollars.
Choosing the right destination and cruise length
Part of cruising's allure is getting what you wish for, so be honest about practical issues and whether your family prefers sand and sun, rainforests, glaciers or European capitals with 17th century churches.
Caribbean cruises work well for all ages, especially with tag-alongs tots or teenagers. Give a pail and shovel to a 2-5-year-old, sit him on the sand near the water's edge, and he can dig and play for hours. Give a teen some dollars to try WaveRunners, and parasailing, and she'll be back to beg for more money before you've even read three pages of your novel.
Caribbean and Scandinavian cruises can be budget-stretchers because you can forego the cost of organized shore tours and still have fun. In Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, and other islands, simply take a taxi to a nearby beach. In Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki the ships dock within an easy walk or short cab ride to the city center, making it easy to stroll, window shop and find the museums. Most lines also run either complimentary or inexpensive shuttles to town.
European/Scandinavian capitals, however, go over best with history-oriented pre-teens and teens. They tend to like browsing the boulevards, touring the castles, and of course, shopping the trendy stores for sweaters, jeans, and jackets. However, beware of voyages that promise London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. You'll get there but only after a 1 ½-2 hour bus ride from the port. That not only adds transportation costs, but lots of opportunity for scowls, as few tweens and teens willingly get up early then sit quietly when stuck in traffic.
Alaska's best for nature loving kids age 10 plus who want to hike a glacier, dog sled, fly over an ice field, sea kayak through bays populated with seals, or take a float trip through a Bald Eagle preserve. Such active outings, on average, cost $100 or more per person, per port. Despite the expense, doing at least one of these gets you beyond the tacky port areas and into America's last, great wilderness.
Feeling tentative about cruising? Then, book a three-to-four day sail, a less costly option that enables you to sample ocean life and convince yourself that you really can stomach undulating waves. However, on a short voyage you might miss one of cruising's great lures: lazy sea days for lounging and admiring the limitless horizon.
Choose a children's program that fits your family's needs