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Cruising With Kids

Tips to Consider Before Reserving Your Next Family Vacation

By Paul Mermelstein

Cruising is a fantastic vacation option for families; parents can enjoy the flexibility of partaking in excursions together as a family, or take pleasure in peaceful alone time while the kids make new friends and participate in the cruise lines' many exciting supervised programs.

According to the Cruise Lines International Association, over one million children cruise every year. As a result, in recent years, cruise ships have upped the ante with comprehensive programs, excursions and amenities specifically catered for families and children onboard; outstanding features range from ice-skating rinks, surf-simulator pools and Broadway-style shows to organized snorkeling expeditions, nature reserve hikes and scavenger hunts around private islands. With the plethora of exciting family-friendly activities, every member of family will be entertained throughout the day; ensuring smooth sailing with your children-whether they are tots, tweens or teens.

Depending on your family's interests and age groups, some cruise lines may be a better fit than others. Below are some tips on how to pick the best cruise for a fun-filled family vacation.

Cruising with Teens

Every parent knows a surly teen can ruin a vacation for the entire family. Cruise ships provide plenty of opportunity for teens to hang out independently with their newfound friends as well as share adult-oriented activities with their parents-so even the most hard-to-please teens can't help but be swayed into having a blast.

Cabin Amenities: Parents should consider booking connecting staterooms for their teens, giving both parties additional privacy and space (having a second bathroom is also a godsend when it's time to get ready.) If you opt to stay in one cabin, some cruise lines feature curtains to partition the room for extra privacy and a separate sink and shower area so sharing a bathroom is more convenient.

On Board Activities: In addition to stimulating onboard activities (experimental science labs, classes covering art, dance and theater, rock-climbing courses etc) many cruise ships do a terrific job catering to teens with splashy pool parties, designated teen-only sunbathing decks and late night activities such as karaoke, toga parties, teen nightclubs and live theater shows.

Teens will also love cruising the ship's 'mall' area just like they do at home or hanging out in teen-only, basement den-style areas equipped with the latest high-tech plasma screen TVs, video games, books and iPod docks. Internet stations are also on hand for staying connected to friends back home. The recent introduction of mother/daughter spa packages allows the chance for family bonding over indulgent massages, facials and pedicures.

Dining Options: Late-snoozing teens can take advantage of 24-hr room service and order breakfast in bed if they miss the morning buffet. Cruise lines such as Princess organize special dinners just for teens and their counselors while parents enjoy a meal on their own. Discounted beverage cards ($4-6 per day) can include non-alcoholic 'mocktails' as well as sodas.

Ports of Call/Offshore Activities: Some cruises offer thrilling, teen-only port of call excursions such as one-day sailing lessons with their peers and scuba classes and zip-lining tours for teens and adults. Sun-worshipping adolescents will love Teen Beach, a lifeguard-patrolled sandy alcove just for young adults on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.

Cruising with Children 4-13 YEARS

Cruise ships do a magnificent job of catering to kids. The extensive children's programs and activities-ranging from finger-painting and sing-a-longs for youngsters to water parks, chemistry labs and offshore jet-skiing and banana boats for the older ones-will keep your children thoroughly entertained from day until night.

Cabin Amenities: Family staterooms can fit up to five, with almost all cruise ships offering either a special rate for children under 17yrs or a discounted rate for the 3rd, 4th and 5th passengers. If your budget allows, spring for a room with a balcony; the extra area provides a place for parents to relax after the kids go to sleep. Want more space? Carnival and Disney have a reputation for having the roomiest cabins in the industry.

On Board Activities: Art and crafts activities, kid's-only swimming pools, movie night and video game arcades are pretty standard on most cruise ships, and the scope of youth counselor-led activities extends far beyond the basics. Parents may want to enroll their kids into Princess Cruise's 'Edu-tainment Programs', featuring fascinating coral reef studies, marine biology classes and guided tours with national park rangers at various ports of call. Disney's Oceaneer Club hosts a variety of art, movie-making and animation classes as well as science labs where children can make their own gooey 'flubber'. Royal Caribbean's full-sized basketball and volleyball courts, ice-skating rink, rock-climbing wall and mini-golf course score high points with sporty types. Carnival's Fun Ship cruises are a leader in action-packed amenities for the whole family to enjoy together, including onboard water slides, ping-pong tables, poolside theaters, a 4,200 sq foot play area filled with toys, games and jungle gym equipment. Do you have a child-star in the making? Norwegian and Celebrity's theater programs will have your kids starring and producing live shows performed for guests onboard. My 9 year old son has been so excited by the kids explorer programs on our many cruises that it is all we can do to get him to leave the program to do some of the other shipboard activities.

Also consider how cruise ships determine their programs by age; some separate the children into two-year spans (3-5yrs, 6-8yrs, 8-10 yrs etc) while others have broader groupings (3-7yrs and 8-12 yrs). Wider range groupings are great if you want to keep siblings together. Otherwise, smaller groupings typically work better; activities are more age-specific (what may be fun for an 8yr old may not amuse a 12yr old) and your children may feel more comfortable interacting with peers closer in age.

Dining Options: Traditional cruise line dinners can feel long for fidgety kids, so variety is the key. Most cruise ships offer several dining options so families can rotate between formal dinners and casual cafes with burgers and pizzas. Kids will be buzzing over Carnival's 24-hr pizza and ice-cream parlors and popular diner, Johnny Rockets, on select Royal Caribbean ships. Disney is famed for their themed meals including the exhilarating Pirates of the Caribbean dinner, concluding with a spectacular fireworks show. Norwegian does away with the formal dining program altogether and allows guests the flexibility to dine whenever, wherever, with a multitude of casual and upscale restaurants to choose from. If your kids guzzle down soft drinks like water, youth soda cards ($4-6 per day)- offering unlimited fountain drinks throughout the voyage-are a money-saving option.

Ports of Call/Offshore Activities: While all Caribbean islands' golden beaches and calm, sparkling waters provide a naturally enthralling aquatic playground for kids, some destinations are more geared towards children; popular excursions include dolphin encounters in Cabo San Lucas, Grand Cayman's 'Stingray City' for crystal-clear snorkeling and Cozumel's enchanting butterfly sanctuary. Several lines also own private Caribbean islands- with cabana-lined beaches and activities all over the island-accessible only for their passengers.

Cruising with Infants/Toddlers

If you have a newborn, inquire about the cruise ship's policy on the minimum age required to sail-most restrictions range between 3-6 months. Also, a week's supply of diapers and baby formula can max out your carry-on luggage; save yourself some heavy packing by checking what baby amenities you can pick up at the onboard store instead.

Cabin amenities: While most ships provide cribs and stroller rentals, quantities are limited so include your request at the time of your reservation. Parents of toddlers can also ask for safety bedrails on lower bunks. Also, check if your bathroom comes equipped with a full tub rather than just a shower (a nice convenience for bathing babies.)

On Board Activities: If you want to take your tyke for a dip, select cruises such as Disney, feature a wading fountain pool especially designed for diapered babies not yet potty trained. Although youth programs aren't available for children under 3yrs old, there are plenty of in-cabin babysitting ($5-12/hr) and group nursery services ($6-8/hr for the first child, $4-6 for additional) available. Most major cruise lines such as Carnival, Princess, Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean also provide pagers so parents can always stay in touch. However, not all nurseries offer diaper-changing services, so in some cases, expect to be paged for diaper duty. Spots fill up fast so nab a spot by signing up early online or on the first day you set sail.

Dining Options: If adhering to the main dining room's assigned mealtimes interferes with precious baby naptime, parents can indulge in complimentary room service or look into Princess and Norwegian's more flexible, 'dine-anytime' options. While parents should BYO baby food, some kitchens offer fresh pureed vegetables by request and a handful of cruise lines are stocked with baby formula and food at their onboard store.

Ports of Call/Offshore Activities: Infants aged 3yrs and under sitting on a parent's lap (and therefore not occupying a seat) are not charged for most shore excursions.

Whichever cruise line you decide upon, you will find plenty of riveting attractions to entertain the whole family and keep the kids happy. And happy kids mean happy parents-as well as an unforgettable family vacation.

Dominican Republic
Puerto Rico
St. Barts
St. Croix
St. John
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Maarten
St. Martin
St. Thomas
Turks & Caicos
Virgin Gorda