What’s the perfect kind of vacation for families of all ages? A cruise, of course! With activities for all age groups along with top-notch childcare and teen-friendly activities, cruising with your kids is a blast for everyone. But a little bit of planning will make that family vacation even better, so here are my 19 essential tips for cruising with kids.
1. Choose the right cruise
Not all cruises are the same—even a cruise line that you’re familiar with can feel very different on shorter or longer sailings, on newer ships vs. older ones, and at different times of the year. When you’re planning your family cruise, there are a few things to consider to make sure the whole family has a good time.
Pick a cruise line that’s a good fit for you AND your kids
Most mass-market and premium cruise lines offer kids’ programs and activities, but some really cater to the smaller members of the family.
Some of the best cruise lines to consider include Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, and Disney Cruise Line. They’re perennial favorites for their kid-friendly activities and top-notch child care.
But they’re not the only family-friendly cruise lines! Norwegian Cruise Line’s casual atmosphere is great for those who enjoy a laid-back vibe (and no formal nights!) Princess, while a bit more traditional, offers a partnership with the Discovery Channel both on board and with many of their shore excursions, perfect for curious and adventurous kids.
Ultra-luxury cruise lines and river cruises, while attractive to adults, don’t usually have much (if anything) to offer young children. Steer clear of these kinds of cruises unless you want to hear the never-ending refrain, “I’m bored!”
Go during a kid-friendly time of year
Do your kids love making new friends everywhere they go? Make sure to plan your cruise for a time when lots of other families are on vacation. Cruises during summer break, winter holidays, and other school vacations typically will have lots more kids on board than at other times of the year.
Thinking about taking your kids out of school for a cruise? Just remember that there probably won’t be lots of other kids for them to hang out with.
Consider a newer ship
Although many of the most budget-friendly cruises are on older ships, a newer cruise ship might have more activities and features for kids of all ages.
Young kids will have so much fun splashing in a water park, while older children might enjoy activities like rock wall climbing, zip lines, or ice skating. A new ship may also feature expanded youth programs and teen centers.
Don’t choose a very short or very long cruise
Short, three- or four-day cruises are often called “booze cruises” for good reason—especially in tropical destinations. They’re often full of younger adults intent on getting the most out of their drink packages! Consider choosing a slightly longer cruise if you’d prefer the atmosphere to be less rowdy and more family-friendly.
On the flip side, cruises longer than seven days tend to attract older people and fewer families with children. With higher costs and limited vacation time, many families aren’t able to take the kids on longer voyages. Stick to week-long cruises or shorter if you want to make sure your kids will have plenty of playmates.
If you have your heart set on a longer cruise with the kids, consider doing two or more back-to-back cruises. You’ll get the benefits of getting to know the ship and the ports even better, and if your stateroom is available for both sailings you won’t even need to pack up in between! Plus, each individual voyage will be more likely to have more kids on board.
2. Pick the right stateroom for your family
Depending on the age of your kids, the size of your family, and your budget, give some serious consideration to what kind of stateroom (or rooms) you pick for your family cruise.
Classic interior staterooms are small, but can often sleep three or four. For a family with one or two littles, an inside cabin can be just right—and you can save money to put toward your adventures in port. Or for more cruises!
But if your kids are older, cramming into a tiny cabin can feel claustrophobic, especially when you’re all trying to get ready at the same time on a busy morning. Consider upgrading to a larger room (NCL actually has family inside staterooms!), or choose two adjoining rooms with a door in between.
Read more: Is an Interior Cabin Right for Your Cruise?
If your budget is larger, a deluxe balcony or mini-suite will give you plenty of room to spread out, but you’ll still have to share a small bathroom. Some (but not all) mini-suites also have a privacy curtain to separate the parents’ sleeping area from the living area with the kids’ pull-out bed.
Some cruise lines offer two-bedroom family cabins with two bathrooms, or you could upgrade to a full suite with lots of living and sleeping space for everyone.
Tip: If you don’t have time to research the best cruise line, time of year, and type of cabin that works best for your family, a good cruise travel agent can help you find the best choice for your needs.
3. Let your kids help choose your cruise destination and shore excursions
Especially with older kids, it’s a good idea to let them have some input in choosing your cruise (within reason, of course—you’re paying for it after all!)
Take a look at the different ports you’d visit on cruises that fit your family’s schedule and budget. See what there is to do for a few different options, then get input from the kids on what activities they’d like to do or things they’d like to experience.
Having the kids be an integral part of the vacation planning process gives them a sense of agency. When they feel like they were part of the decision-making, kids are often less likely to complain when things don’t work out exactly to their expectations.
Foodie kids might enjoy visiting the cultural home of their favorite dishes—imagine taking a Mediterranean cruise to sample authentic pizza in Naples, Italy or enjoying empanadas on the street in Cartagena, Colombia.
Or maybe your child is a little fish you can never get out of the water (even for lunch). A Caribbean cruise with lots of beach stops might be right up their alley. Do you have a kid who can’t stand hot weather but loves hiking? An Alaska or California coastal cruise might be the perfect vacation for your family.
Tip: Keep up with what your kids are learning in social studies classes. For example, if your child just learned about the Mayan civilization in school, a cruise that includes Costa Maya, Cozumel, or Belize can bring you close enough to see Mayan ruins in person.
But beware of letting your child have too much leeway in picking your cruise. As a teen, my daughter chose our Panama Canal cruise. We went way over budget (I’m a pushover), but we had an amazing time fulfilling her childhood dream of meeting baby sloths.
4. Consider making it an extended-family cruise
Cruises have so much to offer vacationers of any age, so why not ask your parents, in-laws, or your siblings and their families if they’d be interested in coming along?
You can all take turns sharing the childcare duties during the times when the kids club isn’t open. With larger family groups, consider swapping designated babysitter duties each evening to allow each adult plenty of grownup time (and all the kids can have sleepovers with their cousins).
Even with smaller families, grandparents can join in on the fun without feeling like unpaid babysitters. A cruise is a great way to encourage lots of multigenerational bonding while all the adults still have plenty of adult time to relax and enjoy lots of kid-free enjoyment.
Tip: If you’re the point person for a group that books a larger block of staterooms, cruise lines will often give you a discount (or even a free cabin!) for your cruise.
5. Have a pre-cruise family meeting to get everyone on the same page
As a parent, raise your hand if you’ve ever planned something really exciting only to realize that your partner or your kids just didn’t really understand the expectations? (You can’t see me but I’m hanging my head in shame and raising my hand right now).
Especially for new cruisers, planning a cruise vacation with your kids can be nerve-wracking—you just don’t know what to expect.
But having some baseline expectations for your kids (and with your partner regarding the kids) on a cruise, and sharing those expectations with them before you travel is key.
Basic family rules don’t go out the window on vacation
In our family, we’ve always had a few rules. Most of them are pretty basic—no snacks just before dinner, no swearing unless you drop something heavy on your toe, clean up your own messes, don’t hit your sister— the usual.
But lots of things that we know as a family are rules to live by can get ignored on vacation, and especially on a cruise where older elementary kids and tweens might have their first taste of “freedom”.
While you’re still in the planning stage of your family cruise, have a conversation about family rules with your spouse, partner, or other adult family members who are joining you on the cruise (and have authority) with your kids.
Every family is different, and kids of various ages will have different rules. But once all the adults are in agreement, have a meeting with all the kids before your vacation so everyone is on the same page.
Tip: Budget lots of time for questions for larger families or family groups. Kids will often run various scenarios through their heads that you might not have anticipated. This is a good thing! Encourage questions so you can provide answers, even if you’re unsure right away.
With older kids, think about some questions that might come up, and spell out the answers before your cruise. Here are some examples to think about:
- Is there a certain meal that you want to always enjoy as a family? If family dinner time is important, spell that out with your kids. Be prepared if your older child wants to try a formal dinner with another family—this can encourage independence.
- Where is your child allowed to go on the ship without permission? You might be fine with your kids playing basketball without supervision, but you don’t want them swimming without you.
- What happens when a new cruise friend invites them back to their cabin to hang out? What are your family rules around that?
- Will your child be able to sign themself out of the kids club? (You’ll need to provide blanket permission for this)
Obviously, depending on the age of your kids, your cruising experience, and your own family’s rules and expectations, your meeting might look a bit different.
Regardless of your situation, take a minute to let your kids know about some basic rules that apply to everyone on every cruise:
Teach your kids about cruise etiquette and safety before you go on the cruise
- Let others get off the elevator before you enter
- Dry off after swimming before sitting in a restaurant, entering an elevator, or entering any indoor areas
- Put a coverup or tee over your bathing suit, and wear shoes before entering the hallways or dining areas
- Use indoor voices in hallways and indoor places
6. Research the theme parties or formal nights your cruise might have
Whatever type of cruise you’re on, odds are there’s going to be some kind of theme party or dress-up night where both you and your kids can join in on the fun. Part of the fun of cruising is dressing up! Even if you’re not into donning formalwear or crazy costumes, chances are your kids will want to dress up if their friends do.
Find out if your cruise line has a formal night (or two!)
If you’re cruising on a more traditional line (think Princess, Holland America Line, or Cunard), you’re going to have at least one formal night. But don’t panic—you can always book an alternative dining venue or skip the public areas in the evening if you really dislike dressing up.
But for those of us who love seeing our kids scrubbed up and donning a miniature suit or tiny gown, find out if your cruise line has a formal night. Some cruises longer than seven days have two or more!
Formal night is also the ideal time for a family portrait. Cruise line photos are notoriously expensive, but you only have to buy the pics that you like.
Tip: Save tons of money by only purchasing the formal photos that you and your family love, and you might just score an amazing family photo with all the kids for about $25.
Read more: What to Wear on Formal Night on a Cruise
Does your cruise have theme nights? Find out before you sail!
Even if you choose to cruise on a less-traditional cruise line, your cruise might have theme nights that you may want to pack for.
Some cruises have parties where everyone dresses in all white like NCL, or many passengers dress in a pirate theme, like on some Disney cruises.
Ask your travel agent or the cruise line what theme nights you can expect so you can pack appropriately for the cruise.
7. Notify the cruise line early of any food allergies, sensitivities, and special diets your kids have
If your kid has a food allergy, dining out is never an easy feat. But on a cruise, the kitchen and dining staff are actually more likely to pay close attention to your kids’ needs than many land-based restaurants will.
Let the cruise line know ahead of time—at least 30 days before you sail—that your child has special dietary restrictions.
Then on embarkation day, take a few moments to visit the main dining room before mealtime and ask to speak with the maître d’. Let him know about your child’s needs, and he’ll walk you through options that your child will be able to safely eat.
He’ll also make sure that your server knows about the dietary restrictions (but it’s a good idea to remind your server before ordering).
On some cruise lines, you’ll be able to pre-plan your child’s special menus for the next day with the restaurant staff—just ask if this is a service they’re able to help you with.
8. Join a roll call to find other families with similar-aged kids before your cruise
Wouldn’t it be nice for your kids to make some new friends on the cruise? Maybe you’d like to get to know some families with kids close in age to your own?
You don’t need to wait until you’re on the ship to connect with other cruisers on the same sailing! Just join a roll call to say hello to other passengers who’ll be cruising with you.
Check out some of the most popular cruise roll calls:
- Cruise Critic roll calls
- ShipMate roll calls (download free IOS/Android app)
- Royal Caribbean Blog roll calls
9. Pack an embarkation day bag with all the essentials
When you arrive at the ship for the first day of your cruise, you’ll leave your larger suitcases with the porter before you check in for your voyage. Crew will deliver your bags to your stateroom later that afternoon, and this process often takes several hours.
To make sure the kids (and you!) have the most fun on embarkation day, make sure you pack all the things they’ll need for those first few hours. The onboard shops will be closed while you’re in port, so have all the essentials in your carry on including:
- diapers and wipes
- a hat or sunglasses
Read more and get a free packing list: What to Pack in Your Cruise Carry On Bag
10. DIY a family first aid kit
No one wants to get injured or sick on a cruise, but it’s best to be prepared in case it happens. Although you could always visit the ship’s medical center (all large cruise ships have one), it can be expensive.
Most ships also have shops that sell some over-the-counter medications—but often only the adult versions.
When you’re in port, you might be able to find a pharmacy to pick up the medicine you need, but foreign ports may not have the brands or formulations you’re looking for.
For minor issues, it makes sense to pack a basic first aid kit for the entire family, and include common items you might need for the kids, including:
- ice pack
- pain relievers
- cold medicine
- seasickness remedies
Read more and get a free checklist: How to Make a Cruise First Aid Kit
11. Purchase travel insurance for everyone, including the kids
I get it, travel insurance probably isn’t the first thing on your mind when you’re planning a cruise. But it’s so important to buy a good travel insurance policy for each member of your family, even the little ones. And the good news? It’s very affordable.
You can buy travel insurance from your travel agent or save money by purchasing your own (I always use World Nomads).
If the unexpected happens (think injury, illness, stolen luggage, or a canceled flight or cruise), travel insurance gives you peace of mind that you’re covered. Plus, a good insurance policy will cover emergency medical evacuation to get you or your kids the care they need in case of a serious illness or injury.
Read more: Do You Really Need Cruise Travel Insurance?
12. Plan to get to the port city early
When planning your family cruise vacation, you might think that you’ll have plenty of time to fly into the port city the day the ship sails. However, flights can be delayed and even canceled. If you don’t make it to the ship on time, the cruise will leave without you.
Even if your journey to the embarkation port goes smoothly, it can make for a super-long day for the kids as well as the adults. Getting up hours before usual and facing a long day of travel before you even get on the ship can make even the most well-behaved kids turn into cranky little monsters.
I always advise cruisers to get to the port city at least the day before your cruise if you’re flying or have a long drive, but especially if you’re cruising with kids.
If you arrive the day before, you’ll have time to explore the port city, have a restful night’s sleep, and enjoy a stress-free embarkation day.
13. Visit the kids’ club on embarkation day
Most cruise line kids’ clubs offer free daily programs for kids ages 3-17, with age-appropriate activities for each age group. Some cruise lines also have programs for babies and toddlers, but often charge an hourly fee (or require that a parent or guardian supervise their little one in the club).
Whether or not you’re planning to use the children’s program on board the ship, it’s always a good idea for parents to tour the club with the kids during open house on embarkation day.
If you decide that you’d like to use the kids’ club services, it’s best to sign the kids up on this first day and find out what the activity schedule looks like for your cruise.
Your kids can also meet new friends in the kids’ club on embarkation day—often friendships form right away and will encourage your child to want to return knowing they already have friends waiting.
For teens that might not like the idea of hanging out in a supervised teen club, encourage them to at least check it out on that first day. Seasoned cruise kids know that this is the best time and place to meet other teens, even if they don’t want to use the club.
You may also like: What Should You Wear on Embarkation Day on a Cruise?
14. Set up a spending account for each child
Cruises are generally a cashless environment, and you’ll make all purchases with a cruise card (or RFID wearable) that also serves as your room key.
If your kid is old enough to carry their own cruise card around to get into the cabin, that means they’re old enough to use it to make purchases on the ship.
Now if your eleven-year-old walks into the fancy jewelry shop on the ship and tries to buy a diamond tennis bracelet, odds are they’re going to be met with a polite giggle and an invitation to come back with a grownup.
But playing fifty rounds of skee-ball at the arcade? Buying premium gelato (when there’s plenty of free ice cream in the buffet)? Or heading to the pool bar to get bottles of water for the gang?
You guessed it, they’ll be able to charge all these things on their cruise card, just like they’re running around with their own personal credit card. The problem? You’re stuck with the bill.
Having a conversation with your kids about how much money they’re allowed to spend on their own (if any) each day is a great idea. You can also check your stateroom TV or cruise app at any time to see what’s been charged to each family member’s account.
But on a cruise ship, it can even be confusing for adults which perks are included and which are complimentary! The most mature and best-intentioned kids can accidentally run up a large tab if they don’t have a spending limit.
On the first day of your cruise, head to the guest services desk and ask to set up a spending limit for each of your kids. Depending on the cruise line, you can set a hard limit for the duration of the cruise, by the day, or revoke all charging privileges. However, some cruise lines will let your child go a bit over that limit.
If you’re worried about the kids overcharging, bring cash and ask them to set a hard limit of that amount for the duration of the cruise.
You may also like: Do You Need to Bring Cash on a Cruise?
15. Post a day-by-day agenda that everyone can access
If (like me) you’re the designated vacation planner in your family, you probably spent a lot of time planning your cruise vacation, including fun shore excursions and activities that you know everyone’s going to love.
Seasoned cruisers might even book specialty dining reservations before the cruise and hop right on that daily planner each day to pick awesome activities that you know are must-dos for the family.
But if your family’s anything like mine, no one’s interested in all the fun things you’ve carefully planned until you’re on the ship. Then, once you’re relaxing by the pool with a book (and only then), they decide to ask you constantly:
“Hey Mom, what are we doing tomorrow? What are we doing Wednesday? Can I have lunch with Taylor’s family the day after tomorrow? (Wait, what day is it even right now?)
Unless you have a photographic memory, it’s a great idea to post a daily activities schedule in your stateroom, listing what you’re doing each day.
Many cruisers use a three-ring binder with tabs for each day, but I prefer to use an entire wall. This makes your cruise schedule super-visual so everyone’s on the same page—including the other (non-planning) adults.
Cruise cabin walls are made of metal, so buy some inexpensive heavy-duty magnetic hooks that you can take along on every trip (I also use them to hang and organize small items like hats, bags, and umbrellas). I also pack a few markers and highlighters to decorate our cruise calendar.
Tip: Invite your kids to help you set up your visual cruise planner wall. Ask smaller kiddos to draw pictures illustrating what they think they’ll see in each port! Older kids can help with lettering and sticking each day’s plan on the wall.
Make a column on the wall for each day of your cruise. I start each day’s column with a half-sheet of paper (repurpose some of the paper you’ll get for daily announcements and sales) that says something like:
PORT DAY: NASSAU
Then for each major activity planned for the day, I do a half-sheet of paper with the activity and the time, along with the tickets or instructions we’ll need. For example:
BEACH DAY AT ATLANTIS!
WAKE-UP TIME: 7:00 AM
FAMILY BREAKFAST IN MDR: 8:00 AM
MEET BUS AT PORT: 9:00 AM
BACK TO SHIP: 4:00 PM
Of course, tailor your schedule chart to your own family’s needs and where your kids are on their reading journey.
16. Aim to keep younger kids on a similar schedule to what they’re used to
Any parent of a toddler or preschooler knows that having regular sleep is the key to happiness. And that’s not just their sleep schedule, it’s ours too! But any vacation—especially one with lots of travel, schedule upsets, and time zone changes—can throw even the most seasoned traveler off their “A” game.
Little kids are used to waking up, eating regular meals and snacks, and having naptime on a pretty regular schedule. But on vacation, it’s so important to keep kids on a similar schedule to what they do at home—for their sanity as well as your own.
Keeping to a regular wake time and bedtime can avoid meltdowns during the day. Plan your activities around dropping the little ones off at the kids’ club.
If you get up at 6:30 AM each day at home and have a morning feeding or breakfast right after, do that on a cruise. Don’t drop hungry and cranky kids off at the kids’ club at 8 AM expecting the staff to deal with them.
17. Pack some downtime activities
You might be tempted to make a proclamation like “this cruise is going to be a screen-time-free vacation”, or “you don’t need to pack any toys—we’ll have too much to do on the cruise.”
But cruises are just like any other type of vacation—you need to balance active time with downtime to make sure everyone feels relaxed.
Let your kids be in charge of their own relaxing activities. What they like doing to relax at home is generally a good start. Do they like reading before bed? Pack some books or download ebooks for their tablet. Do they love roleplaying stories with some stuffies? Pack a couple of favorite stuffed animals to make them feel more at home on your cruise.
Do your kids love video games? They may not have enough bandwidth to keep up with their MMORPG on a cruise, but consider letting them take a portable system on the cruise. They might not be able to play their fave game, but having the chance to do some solo gaming will stop lots of arguments, even if they can’t connect with their online friends.
18. Commandeer your own mini-fridge and pack it full of kid-friendly essentials
Every cruise cabin I’ve ever been in has had a (very) small refrigerator, which is always an amazing amenity to have when traveling with kids. However, when you get to your stateroom they’re often half-full with tiny bottles of wine and cans of beer.
Kids’ and teens’ rooms, (if they have their own) shouldn’t be stocked with alcohol (there might be soda or water), but check it out for yourself—don’t assume that your steward removed everything before you boarded.
At some point during the afternoon of embarkation day, your steward should knock on your door to introduce themself. When they ask if there’s anything else you need, it’s the perfect time to ask them to clear out the minibar! (This is a totally normal request and not an imposition at all.)
Tip: In case you’re thinking of saving some alcohol, soda, or water from the mini-fridge to drink later, just know there’s a huge upcharge, and it’s not included in your drink package unless you’re on an all-inclusive cruise or you received a complimentary minibar because of your loyalty status.
Once your refrigerator is empty of overpriced drinks, feel free to stock it to your liking.
Here are some things you might want to stock your fridge with on a cruise with kids:
- milk or juice from breakfast
- leftover baby food
- pumped breastmilk
- nutmilk that you asked for at breakfast/MDR
- refrigerated packaged snacks you brought on board (yogurt/applesauce/string cheese, etc)
Tip: If you prefer to cover open glasses of juice or milk in the fridge, you’ll get plastic wrap with room service continental breakfast, which is often free. Or buy inexpensive environmentally-friendly reusable silicone wraps from Amazon—check the price here.
19. Know that your kids have options at mealtime
Most kids are picky (to a certain extent) with what they like to eat. Unless you’re a gourmet chef (or employ one), odds are your kids are used to a specific rotation of meals.
Some kids are adventurous and love trying new things. But many only like what they’re used to and will put up a fuss with any new dish, or even one that’s called by a different name!
Most cruise lines will cater to even the pickiest eaters. Outside of the buffets where food is pre-made, you can totally ask for special off-menu orders, within reason of course.
On a cruise, it’s totally fine to ask for a pared-down version of any item, even if it’s not specified on the menu. But if your kids are adventurous eaters, encourage them to try something new—you can always change it up if they don’t like it, at no extra charge.
Tip: If one member of your party has “kid duty” for the evening, ask your server to make sure the kids’ meals arrive with the adults’ starters. The kids will get to bed on time and the other grownups can enjoy a leisurely meal.
Have you taken your kids (or grandkids) on a family cruise? What are your favorite tips for cruising with kids? Let me know in the comments below!
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