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updated 7/20/2006 1:18:32 PM ET 2006-07-20T17:18:32

It all started with an e-mail blast: Panama Canal, anyone?

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Personally, I had wanted to spend a week in Paris with my husband, Gil. However, he overruled me (Nag, nag: "It's too cold there in winter"). The next thing I knew, we had invited friends and family to join us on a Panama Canal cruise.

In the end, 16 of us -- ranging in age from 2 to 79, and spread across the U.S. from Massachusetts to California -- took a 10-day cruise on Princess' Coral Princess. I can't say there weren't a few challenging moments. But overall, we found that our at-sea holiday presented an ideal way to spend time together.

How to explain? I had my first-ever play date in the ship's Fun Zone with my stepdaughter's 3-year-old, Eli. I spent more time with a couple of my cousins in a week and a half than I have in decades. And who in my crew could have stood to miss watching my sister perform -- not once, not twice, but three times -- in the Princess Idol karaoke contest (think Sister Sledge's "We are Family"!)?

Would we do it again? Absolutely. Will we benefit next go-round from lessons learned? Sure. Here's our take-away advice:

Before you go
Without a doubt, smart planning is the key to a fun and successful "friends and family" cruise. I like the idea of appointing a group leader -- someone willing to handle the responsibilities of making executive decisions and keeping people informed and on track.

princess.com
Coral Princess
In our case, Gil and I picked our particular cruise because we wanted to see the Panama Canal. Additionally, our research suggested the Coral Princess was a family-friendly ship with an agreeable price point and plenty of activities to entertain our multi-generational crowd. That was the easy part.

Big Lesson #1: We learned that the e-blast, which we forwarded to a bunch of folks, not only helped us put together the friends and family passenger list -- it also turned up our de facto group leader, Cousin Pam. A seasoned Princess traveler, Pam knows the ropes. (Me? I would have hung myself with them.) Initially, Pam spent 30 hours online: getting cruise prices, studying deck plans for preferred cabins, scoping out shore excursions, and checking out the weather forecast for that all-critical "what to wear" category.

Her exhaustive research on pricing led her to a travel agency that's one of the leading sellers of Princess cruises. Pam, who had booked her agent before, asked the firm to beat or match the lowest price she had found. They beat it -- by $100 per booking -- and threw in a $150 per-cabin credit.

Big Lesson #2: Here's where things got messy. Twelve of us booked through that travel agent but my stepdaughter Loren, her husband Nick and their two boys used an Internet agency. The 12 of us opted for the early dinner seating and I thought Loren's family had done the same. In fact, they had chosen an "anytime dining" plan, which meant we wouldn't share the dinner meal together.

I suspected there was a problem early on -- and our agent tried to fix it. But when we all arrived for dinner the first night, our two tables of eight failed to materialize. An unhappy maitre d' finally acquiesced and created a 6-top and a 10-top. It wasn't a perfect arrangement but at least we got to sit together.

So, trust me when I advise you to book your group through the same agency to keep things streamlined. Also, in the case of our pick there is an added benefit: We could get one free berth for every 16 passengers who reserve double occupancy.

Big Lesson #3: Loren's family had a quad, and here's another heads up. Triples and quads, limited in number, tend to fill up first -- so it's wise to book early if your group has a demand for them.

Pam's vigilant e-mail reminders over the few months leading up to the cruise were extremely helpful -- details like the "opening day" for booking shore excursions through the cruise line, and a recommendation to fill out our passenger information forms online. The latter was a huge time-saver when we first boarded.

(Not So) Big Lesson #4: I wish I had paid as much attention to Princess' Web site as Pam had. Then I would have known about the laundry rooms on board -- and saved myself $75 in extra fees for our overweight baggage.


Sigh of Relief: We Are Onboard

The terrific thing about cruising with friends and family is that it offers up a nice blend of togetherness and alone time. But you have to get comfortable with the rhythm.

Loren, for example, worried: Were we spending enough time together? What were peoples' expectations? Was the mix of togetherness and alone time similar to other "friends and family" vacations her dad and I had taken in the past?

Our advice on that one follows a very simple construct: Do what it is you enjoy doing, when you want to do it. Make the evening meal your social touchstone. And the rest of it will sort itself out as people's interests and habits align.

One morning, for example, every single one of us showed up for a double elimination family shuffleboard tournament. I enjoyed meeting up with my sister and her high school buddy for poolside umbrella drinks. Gil, my father and I are early risers so the three of us tended to have breakfast together. After that, Gil and I generally hit the Promenade Deck for some vigorous walking.

Evenings, we would all get together for happy hour in one of the cabins, followed by dinner. In fact, eight of us had four adjoining cabins with balconies and that facilitated a lot of room-hopping. Nights followed a different pattern, generally dictated by bedtime preferences. One night, Loren joined us for dinner for an 18-course meal at Sabatini's while Nick took the boys to a pajama party in the Fun Zone.

Cruise lines generally recommend that larger groups book shore excursions in advance, due to limited seating availability in some cases. But we were so overwhelmed by the vast array of choices -- almost 200 touring options -- that we waited until we were onboard to make a decision.

Gil and I took three ship-sponsored excursions: a pretty marginal biking/snorkeling excursion in Cozumel, a fabulous bus tour of Old Panama City and a fun four-wheel drive "country safari" in Montego Bay.

Big Lesson #5: If you're traveling with children be aware that some tours have age restrictions. Both Loren and I had inquired as to whether the kids could do the country safari and we were assured that they could. The tour operator felt otherwise and it wasn't until we convinced him that the boys would be safe in their collapsible car seats that he okayed it.

Pam, during her online research phase, had run across two independent operators we hooked up with -- Native Way for its land-and-sea tour on Grand Cayman, and OkeyDokey Tours in Costa Rica for a zip-wire and boating excursion. In each case, we had our own small bus and guide, which is an advantage.

One other point of information: Even though we traveled with toddlers, we purposely scheduled our cruise so that it would not coincide with any traditional school breaks. Remarkably, there were only 25 passengers under 21 out of a total of 1,970 people. Let's just say the young girl with the "Sweet by Birth, Sour by Choice" T-shirt was something of an aberration.

One man in his 50's complained, "This place is like a morgue after dark," and the demographic did trend up the age scale -- in part, we were told, because 10-day cruises attract a more mature crowd and seniors happen to be particularly interested in the Panama Canal.

If the shipboard demographic matters to you, it would be worthwhile to do some extra research on Cruise Critic's message boards, for instance, before choosing your cruise.

Back Home

Three weeks after the cruise, I find myself going now and then to the live bridge cam on Princess' Web site to see where "our ship" is. At the moment, it's anchored in sparkling waters off of Grand Cayman.

We all have continued to touch base with one another -- if only to leave lines from "We Are Family" on each other's voice mail. Those of us who shot digitally posted our photos at KodakGallery.com, and that's been a nice way to reconnect as well.

Best of all, we're planning our next cruise. Paris will have to wait.

Ellen Uzelac, is a finance and travel writer from Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

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