Top Tips for Cruising with Kids
Not long ago, cruising was synonymous with partying, romance, or exploring farflung destinations, often post-retirement. These days, there's a completely different way of looking at cruise ships—not just as playgrounds for overgrown children but for, well, your children. But traveling with kids is never as simple as tossing some clothes and a smartphone into a backpack, is it? Here, we share expert advice on everything from how to pack smart, keep the little ones safe, find reliable onboard child care, and which cruise lines are rolling out the red carpet for families.
If you're traveling with a baby or toddler, get used to the idea of schlepping your own formula, jars of baby food, and diapers, which are not among the myriad products a typical cruise ship can sell you. And don't squirrel away all those must-haves in your suitcase—on embarkation days you may be separated from your luggage for hours and you'll be able to keep your little one happier if you have a tote bag stocked with food, wipes, change of clothes, etc. The good news is you may be able to leave your baby's portable crib at home—ask your cruise line (early!) if you can reserve one in advance. "To lighten your packing load, consider planning a laundry day at sea," advises David Molyneaux, editor of TheTravelMavens.com. "Most family-friendly ships will have washers and driers in the cabin areas—check the line's website."
BOOK A SAFE CABIN
Yeah, we all had a collective gasp when a toddler fell off a cruise ship balcony over the holidays in Florida. Of course you should brief all kids, from toddlers to teens, about keeping off railings, but Molyneaux suggests, "Even if it's only for your peace of mind, avoid balconies until your kids are old enough to know better." You can book an interior room for the whole family, or give older older kids an interior room and take an exterior balcony room across the hall for yourselves. Many cruise lines will offer family cabins, which can sleep up to four, and deeply discount the cost of the kids' berths—but Molyneaux notes that sometimes booking two adjoining cabins on a lower deck instead of a suite can save you money and get you more elbow room. (Disney even throws in an extra "half bathroom," with a toilet and sink, in most cabins. The ship will also have its own rules about how and when kids are allowed to participate in organized activities. Some lines allow elementary school-age kids to sign themselves up for activities and walk the ship's corridors unsupervised—but that kind of choice is really only yours to make.
GET A SITTER
Although some lines offer so many organized activities for kids during the day that some parents actually complain that they didn't see enough of their kids on their cruise, most couples will value some alone time, especially when the sun goes down. Some cruise lines offer private in-cabin babysitting at a premium—it can run you around $20 per hour. But if your kid wrinkles his nose at the idea of being "left with a sitter," you're in luck: Many cruise lines disguise evening babysitting as "late night parties," allowing parents to drop off their kids for around $10 per hour per child. (On Disney cruises, the party goes till midnight and it's free of charge).
BOOK A FAMILY-FRIENDLY CRUISE
When it comes to going the extra mile to put smiles on your kids' faces, these cruise lines are tops:
If your kids can imagine summer camp at sea, that's Camp Carnival—complete with counselors to supervise daily activities and meals. The line divides children into three age groups from two- to 12-years old and employs counselors who have education or childcare experience; play spaces resemble nothing less than the playroom of your dreams (carnival.com).
No surprises here—Disney knows how to keep kids happy. The line is famous for its roaming characters like Mickey and Minnie, of course, but it also offers Broadway-style musicals, first-run films in 3D, and port-of-call activities tailored for kids like glass-bottom boats and up-close-and-personal dolphin encounters (disneycruise.disney.go.com).
Splash Academy sets the bar high—to entertain and educate children from six months to 12 years old (divided, of course, into age-appropriate groups, with parents required for the littlest ones). Whether your kid is into low-key arts and crafts projects or adrenaline-charged circus activities (including juggling and tumbling) taught by real circus performers, Norwegian's foray into family fun goes big (ncl.com).
When you're reaching out to families, it helps to have some trusted names in your Rolodex, and Royal Caribbean has partnered with Crayola, Fisher Price, and DreamWorks to offer a blend of educational and entertainment options to its littlest passengers. From quiet play groups to full-on surf simulators, climbing walls, and the first carousel-at sea, there's something for every taste. Oh, and you may want to warn your little ones that they may bump into Shrek or Kung Fu Panda onboard (royalcaribbean.com).
Discover a New World of River Cruising
Budget Travelers have long known that river cruises offer unique experiences that deliver the value and authenticity they crave: smaller ships that feel like "floating B&Bs," frequent port stops that allow for immersive cultural experiences, and onboard dining that reflects the local cuisine. Now, Avalon Waterways is enhancing the river cruising experience even more, introducing Active Discovery, a new way for cruisers to not only see everything they want to see, but also to actually do things they love to do (cycling, hiking, wine-tasting, hands-on arts and crafts, and much more) along the way. Some highlights of Avalon’s new Active Discovery program include: THE RHINE Itinerary: An 8-day Active Discovery cruise between Wiesbaden, Germany (near Frankfurt) to Amsterdam (cruisers can choose to sail northbound or southbound) along the historic, gorgeous Rhine, known for its castle-laden landscapes, mountains, and forests. At each stop, travelers choose their own activity from options that include an active outing, an off-the-beaten path site, or a traditional sightseeing tour. Activities along the Rhine include: Get Active: Hike near the picturesque towns of Eltville and Duisburg, climb up to Marksburg Castle for a guided visit with incredible panoramic views, participate in a reenactment of ancient Roman games at an archeological park (yes, for real!), cycle along the Rhine, and join a running tour in the city of canals, eye-popping Amsterdam. Try Hands-On Experiences: Do some wine tasting at Eltville, learn the art of chocolate making at the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, and taste German culinary delights on a tour of Duisburg. You can also bring home “bragging rights” by touring the former basalt-mining corridors in an ancient volcano, or take a painting class in the country that gave birth to masters such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Mondrian in Amsterdam. Take a Guided Tour: Travelers who crave a more traditional (but no less stunning) experience can tour a monastery so beautiful it was the setting of the classic film “The Name of the Rose,” take a guided walk in Cologne, a cable car ride to historic Ehrenbreitstein Castle in Koblenz, and, of course cruise Amsterdam’s canals, among other guided tour options. Eat Like a Local: Onboard dinners devoted to local culinary specialties will be a highlight for foodies, including regional dishes and wines offered in the ship’s Panorama Bistro. You can also eat your way through the town of Duisburg when you take a culinary walking tour. THE DANUBE Itinerary: An 8-day Active Discovery cruise between Linz and Budapest along the deservedly legendary “Blue Danube,” where unique cultures, natural beauty, and historic towns wait active travelers. Cruises are available eastbound and westbound. At each stop along the Danube, cruisers will have several exploration options that include an active outing, an off-the-beaten path site, or a traditional sightseeing tour. Activities along the Danube include: Get Active: Enjoy the gorgeous natural wonders of the Danube region while exercising your body and mind when you hike along a “vintage” smugglers’ route, cycle to an ancient fortification, paddle a canoe along scenic local waterways, and take a running tour in Vienna, where Strauss composed his classic waltzes celebrating the Danube and other regional landmarks. Try Hands-On Experiences: Taste the exceptional fresh local cheeses, sip beer produced by Trappist monks near Linz, meet local farmers in the fertile Wachau Valley, attend an authentic medieval knights tournament in Visegard, and learn Hungarian during your day in Budapest. Take a Guided Tour: More traditional port activities are available, with the opportunity to watch bustling Vienna come to life on an early -morning walking tour (including breakfast at a classic Viennese cafe and a visit to Habsburg private art collection at the Museum of Fine Arts), meet an actual European count in his actual castle, and devote a day to tolerance on a visit to a WWII concentration camp. Eat Like a Local: In addition to beer- and cheese-tasting tours, a tasting tour of Durnstein is available, along with a visit to the alluringly named Wine World for sipping local vintages. Regional culinary specialities and wines are also offered at dinnertime onboard in the ship’s Panorama Bistro. THE SHIPS Avalon Waterways’s river cruise ships serve as an elegant, contemporary home away from home, with Wall-to-Wall Panoramic Windows, headsets for guided excursions in ports, complimentary bicycles onboard, complimentary Nordic walking sticks, and much more. BOOK YOUR ACTIVE DISCOVERY CRUISE To book, or to learn more about Avalon Waterways Active Discovery cruises, please visit Avalon Waterways.
Jump on These Spring Cruise Deals
As the days get longer and the sun shines warmer, a lot of people start thinking about the sea. Well, there’s no better way to get up close and personal with the Caribbean, the Pacific, and Europe’s legendary rivers than hitting the water on one of these luxurious, but affordable, cruise ships. WORLD’S BIGGEST CRUISE SHIP FROM $607 Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas recently completed its first trials and is preparing for its debut in May, offering the chance to be one of the first to sail on the world’s biggest cruise ship. With a crew of more than 2,000, seven “neighborhoods" (including a tree-lined Central Park, boardwalk, promenade, and other distinct areas), and 20 dining options, Harmony of the Seas is the newest in Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class fleet. Thrill-seekers will enjoy the tallest cruise-ship slide, Ultimate Abyss, a kids area called Splashaway Bay, and my particular favorite, the Bionic Bar, where robots craft the cocktails (not kidding). And Royal Caribbean’s commitment to onboard technology can make your trip more convenient: Geraldine Ree, Senior Vice President of Sales at Expedia Cruise Centers, notes that “Royal Caribbean’s Royal IQ App lets you track your luggage to your stateroom.” Harmony of the Seas’s maiden voyage is in May, a short sail from Southampton, UK, to Cherbourg, France. Western Mediterranean cruises are planned for this summer and fall starting at $607, with Caribbean cruises planned for the fall and beyond. CARIBBEAN CRUISE FROM MIAMI FROM $549 The Norwegian Getaway sets sail from Miami for seven days exploring some of the Caribbean’s most alluring ports, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Caymans, and Cozumel, Mexico. And "Norwegian’s iConcierge App enables you to book shore excursions and make reservations at the ship’s specialty restaurants,” says Ree. You'll love the delicious Miami-inspired and Caribbean cuisine and great entertainment and nightlife aboard the Getaway. Book this deal from Dunhill Travel Deals starting at $549. BAJA MEXICO CRUISE FROM $344 The Carnival Imagination leaves Long Beach, California, for amazing Catalina Island, then on to such Baja Mexico highlights as Ensenada, Puerta Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas on a five-day cruise that’s perfect for shopping for authentic Mexican clothing and crafts, hitting the beach, and maybe even knocking back a little tequila. Cruises.com has a deal that starts at $344. DANUBE RIVER CRUISE FROM $999 “River cruising continues to gain momentum,” says Ree. “With only nine new ocean ships being added to waters in 2016, there will be 18 new river cruises to debut throughout the year. River cruises are especially popular with multigenerational cruisers. River cruise lines are designing family-focused sailings and family-friendly design elements on board, such as bigger cabins.” We especially love how these smaller ships make more stops in beautiful little cities and towns across Europe. On this Danube cruise you’ll spend eight days exploring gorgeous Vienna and the fairy-tale town of Melk in Austria; Bratislava in Slovakia; and amazing Budapest, Hungary. Book NOW at YMT Vacations and you can nab a deal at $999 per person. TIPS FOR CRUISE NEWBIES Ree also offers some advice for first-time cruisers: Try to jump into “onboard life” – cruise lines offer cool events ranging from educational port lectures to raucous Dancing with the Stars, Shipboard Idol, and talent shows that bring the house down. Sign up early for activities like cooking classes, fencing, or rope climbing; some sessions fill up fast. Take care of anything you need from the Pursers desk on the second-to-last day of the cruise; on the very last day, lineups start early and remain pretty long until you disembark. If you're flying to your embarcation port, buy your plane tickets early and splurge a little on nonstops. Throw in a swimsuit in the carry on! Who wants to wait for the luggage to be delivered when a pool or beach are available? Choose a ship and destination together as a family. This allows all of the family members to “buy in” and get involved, building the anticipation for every family member. Make reservations as far in advance as you can. Adjoining and “across the hall” cabins become more difficult to find the closer you get to departure. Fly in a day before the cruise to ensure that temperamental weather doesn't cause you to miss the boat.
Hottest New Cruise Ideas
Word on the seas is that cruises are skyrocketing in popularity. The Cruise Lines International Association recently reported that 24 million passengers are expected to set sail in 2016, up from 23 million in 2015. That's the highest number ever recorded. If you've looked into booking a cruise lately, you know that we live in an age of mega ships that consider over-the-top contraptions like rooftop surfing simulators a standard amenity. That would make for an unforgettable memory, to be sure, but if you're seeking a more intimate experience, some cruise lines are banking on going small, with a tight focus on curated activities, excursions to lesser-known ports, and, in some cases, smaller ships. “We’re definitely seeing cruise lines across the board looking to offer more authentic experiences for their guests,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. “I think the big buzzwords in the industry today are ‘immersion’ and ‘experiential’—and that applies to everything from river ships to the larger mega-ships.” Smaller ports are hot right now. Classic cruise stops like Paris and Amsterdam never go out of style, but lesser-known ports—like Cuba—are trending. Starting in May, Carnival's new Fathom cruise line will offer Cultural Exchange cruises to Cuba (from $1,800 for seven days, fathom.org). On Viking Ocean Cruises, the relatively small Viking Star carries a slim 930 people, as opposed to thousands, which allows for access to less-trafficked ports like Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kotor, Montenegro; Kusadasi, Turkey; and Santorini, Greece (from $1,999 for eight days, vikingcruises.com). “What Viking does particularly well is that it offers a tremendous value-for-money experience,” Spencer Brown says. “There’s so much included in the cruise fare—thoughtful inclusions like free shore excursions in every port, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary wine and beer at lunch and dinner.” Experiences for niche interests are popping up on cruise lines. Royal Caribbean, for example, has revamped its shore excursion program, with specialized categories like Culinary Delights, which offers pizza-making classes in Naples, Italy, and Family Connections, a menu of activities including a family kayak trip in Alaska (from $164 for three days, royalcaribbean.com). Want a really unique jaunt? That can be arranged. Viking Cruises CFO Richard Marnell says Viking’s no-fee concierges have hooked passengers up with bespoke outings like helicopter rides through tulip fields in the Netherlands. Tailored excursions cost extra, but Viking itineraries often offer a Local Life experience, like a trip to a local market, gratis. Artisanal fare is flooding cruise ships. Farm-to-table isn’t limited to dry land, Spencer Brown says. “One great example is Princess Cruises’ new partnership with celebrity chef Curtis Stone, who’s known for creating comfort food out of the freshest ingredients, which will be exciting to see executed on Princess’s ships” (from $59 for one day, princess.com). In a month, Holland America’s Koningsdam will launch a farm-to-table dinner menu out of its show kitchen (from $449 for four days, hollandamerica.com), and in the near-4,000-passenger Carnival Vista’s RedFrog Pub will brew its own beer, complete with tastings and brewery tours (from $379 for five days, carnival.com). No matter the cruise company, take advantage of shoulder season. Cruising in November, December, January, and February is an excellent way to save, Marnell says. “Although the weather may not be as warm, you have far fewer crowds in many of the sites that you’re going to visit, so it can actually be a very, very pleasant experience.”
Why You Should Take A Windjammer Cruise
To really savor the rugged beauty of Maine's coastal scenery, consider a Windjammer Cruise, a seafaring adventure that lasts between three and six nights, departs May thru October, and is a total escape from modern life. Leave your cell phone and laptop behind because mother nature is the star of this show. You’ll be privy to dramatic seascapes as you beachcomb along Maine’s sparsely populated islands and get up-close to whales, porpoises, eagles, and other coastal wildlife. Plus, there’s no better way to partake in a genuine slice of New England’s maritime history. The Windjammer cruise experience For starters, Windjammers are eco-friendly vessels that don’t rely on fossil fuels. Treasured by environmentalists, these traditional tall ships are powered by harnessing the force of the wind. If you crave harmony with nature, few experiences are as soul satisfying. The captain and crew take their roles as stewards of the sea seriously and are passionate about preserving the pristine waterways. They strictly adhere to the “leave no trace” code of conduct, leaving each harbor or village cleaner than it was found. Life on board Passengers may help the competent crew as much or as little as they please. If there’s a sailor lurking in your soul, let the genie out of the bottle and hoist a sail, take a turn at the wheel, or help navigate. If laying low is more your style, read, sketch, or mingle with friendly fellow passengers as the salty seabreeze carries you away. When darkness falls, the glorious night sky means stargazing is the activity of choice. The rhythms of shipboard life are punctuated by three Downeast-style meals daily, ever-changing scenery, and stops to go ashore and explore the small fishing villages and eye-candy lighthouses that dot the coastline. There’s no set itinerary as the next destination is determined the old-fashioned way, by winds and tide. Meet The Fleet Each of the nine windjammers has a distinct personality, while beauty, grace, and speed unify them. They carry between 16-40 guests and 4-10 crew members, and depart from either Rockland or Camden in Maine. Some cater to families while others are better suited to adults only. There are a variety of themed specialty trips that appeal to everyone from birders to beer lovers to yogis. Life on board is about simple pleasures, so leave your designer threads at home. Snug accommodations are rustic yet comfortable. Basic resources such as food and water are precious, so wasting is a big no-no. Sailing aboard the Stephen Taber First launched in 1871, the Stephen Taber is the oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States and a tribute to 19th century craftsmanship. I chose it for its historic attributes as well as for the sterling reputation of its fun-loving Captain Noah Barnes, his wife and partner Jane Barrett Barnes’ oenophile expertise, and for its widespread culinary notoriety. Maine’s chilly waters are overflowing with mollusks and crustaceans of every shape and size, making it a paradise for seafood lovers, plus the state’s hyper-local agricultural heritage assures the freshest seasonal produce from sustainable farms and purveyors. The food is prepared on the Stephen Taber’s back-to-basics vintage woodstove, though flavors rival those of the finest restaurant kitchens. The crew is committed to showcasing farm-to-table and boat-to-table products that are sustainable as well as delicious. A hearty breakfast includes an abundance of homespun hot dishes and freshly baked goods, while lunch leans towards full-bodied soups and fresh salads served with hot-from-the-oven bread. Wines are accompanied by a selection of farmhouse cheeses before the mouth-watering evening meal. The culinary climax of each trip is an all-you-can-eat lobster bake on a secluded beach. A splurge, but worth every penny Windjammer cruises are an excellent value. The all-inclusive price really does include everything, so except for your crew’s deserving tip at the end of the journey, you may leave your wallet at home. On the Stephen Taber, home-cooked meals, evening wine, a cozy cabin, and the priceless nautical experience can be had for $200 per person, per night. Early birds who book the Stephen Taber by March 1, 2016 will receive a 5 percent discount off the regular rate. Other schooners offer similar prices and discounts. Cabins are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis, so there’s an added incentive to book early and score a primo berth.