Whether you're new to cruising or a seasoned passenger, these tips will help you navigate the waters for the ultimate in smooth sailing.
1. Choose your cruise line wisely.
Some companies— like Royal Caribbean International and Disney Cruise Lines— cater to kids with features like kiddie pools, water parks, character meals, and play zones. Others— like Viking and Seabourn— are adult-centric (hello, anniversary getaway!). Many lines have formal dinner seatings: You eat at the same time, same table, with the same servers, every night. Others, like Norwegian Cruise Lines, are "freestyle:" You eat at any restaurant you choose, any time. Love The Love Boat? Book a special sailing with Princess Cruises, which occasionally has cast members from the show onboard. (Check with Princess Cruises at www.princess.com for details.)
2. Choose your itinerary wisely.
Want to go international? Tropical? Do you want to sail right from New York (or Bayonne, NJ)? Or would you rather fly to Fort Lauderdale or Miami for an itinerary that reaches destinations farther south (and perhaps gives you an opportunity to visit the grandparents)? How many ports of call would you like? Too many days at sea can translate into boredom. Too many days in port, especially if they're consecutive, can be exhausting. Look for sailings with a happy balance.
3. Select a great cabin.
Have a big family? Book adjoining rooms or a family suite. An interior cabin may shave off a few dollars, but an exterior room with a balcony is a treat. Throwing your curtains open in the morning and coming face to face with a gorgeous new landscape is priceless. The same applies when sitting back with a glass of wine as you watch the ropes go up and the ship push off the dock at the end of the day.
4. Be excursion-smart.
Check out online reviews before you book. Pre-arranged excursions take the planning pressure off, but be prepared to overpay and be herded around. A day at a private beach, for example, can cost $150 per person. If you're more adventurous, most ports of call are lined with taxi drivers and private excursions waiting to take passengers anywhere they want to go. The cost varies. In Roatan, Honduras, you can catch a $40 cab to a private beach (and back). Anchoring in Naples, Italy? For about 300 Euros, a driver will give your family a tour of the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, and Sorrento.
5. Pre-approve the kids' club.
A rockin' kids' club is a major plus. Some ships, like the Regal Princess, have clubs that are fully loaded with Xbox stations, skeeball, and the latest electronic equipment. Others, like the Norwegian Jewel, are more activity-based, with themed activities and programs. Some feature interactions with Disney, Nickelodeon, or DreamWorks characters. Pick one that entices your kids the most.
6. Let them go!
Register your kids for the kids' club on the very first day. If they're reluctant, check it out together. Counselors expect kids to be shy and have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to whisk them into the fun zone. Not sure what to do after you sign them in? Let us count the ways! Try a massage, a drink with your partner, lounging with a novel on a deck chair…
7. Let them grow.
A week on a ship can translate into a bonafide growing experience. Put your grade schooler in charge of her suitcase and wardrobe. Let your preschooler serve himself in the cafeteria. (Some, like the Norwegian Jewel, even have pint-sized buffet tables filled with kid faves.) Let your tween freely roam to the food court, kids' club, or arcade. Opportunities for independence abound, so take advantage.
8. Learn something amazing.
Many ships have employees from around the world. Notice staff nametags, which list their home countries, and point them out to your kids. Strike up conversations. Check out the hidden parts of the ship. Visit the bridge. Roam around, and you may find perfect reading nooks, lounge areas with less wind (and fewer passengers), a hidden-away ice-cream machine, or a shuffleboard court.
9. Manage your screens.
You'll definitely have downtime in your cabin, so bring iPads or personal devices for the kids. Pre-downloaded e-books or episodes of a favorite show go a long way. Need Wi-Fi? You can buy a package on the ship (but the connection may be torturously slow). Some ports have shops or cafes that sell Wi-Fi by the hour or offer it for free.
10. Bring the relatives.
A cruise has something for everyone and lots of breathing room, so bring the whole crowd. You can split up during the day, share babysitting, then meet up every evening for a big, happy family dinner.
If you go, try these cruise lines:
Why we love it: a decked out kids' club (PlayStations, karaoke machines), yummy food, upscale-yet-relaxed vibe, ties to The Love Boat
Why we love it: freestyle dining, friendly service, Nickelodeon parties, circus school
Why we love it: Fisher-Price toddler play areas, Dream-Works characters, onboard iceskating rinks, climbing walls, and skydiving simulators