Phelan M. Ebenhack  /  AP file
The sun rises on the Disney Magic cruise ship.
By Travel columnist

Taking a floating vacation with kids, no matter what their ages, doesn’t have to be fraught with anxiety.

But it can be — scratch that, will be — unless you pack a few strategies along with your luggage. I’m speaking from experience: I thought my family and I were surely going to be kicked off our first cruise (more on that in a moment).

How do you keep it together when you’re cruising with your offspring? Here’s how I do it:

Plan with your kids. Can you imagine being put on a boat and not knowing where you are going? This is exactly what it feels like to your kids when they are not involved in the planning of the trip. This is a family cruise and they all need input. Go shopping for some port guides, do some Internet research, go visit a good travel agent — talk to someone who has been there and knows the lay of the land. You will gain valuable information about any local events that may be happening while you are docked. Armed with that information, make a list of your “must-do’s” and the “wanna-do’s.” Delegate pieces of the research to each family member and then finalize your plans together.

Prepare your kids. Once you have your cruise and ports outlined, make sure everyone know what’s happening. Do you have an eight-hour stopover? What are you going to do? Browsing the bookstore gets old after 15 minutes (make those 3 minutes for very young kids). Be sure you load up with some snacks, small toys, books, and a CD player to keep everyone entertained during the trip to the ship as well as on board. Don’t forget about the transfer from the airport to the ship. If it is a three-hour transfer, it is best to be prepared. If they know, you can avoid the “are we there yet?” conversation but you are on your own for the “I gotta go to the bathroom.” Finally, equip each family member with their own disposable camera. After the photos are processed, I guarantee that you will see the vacation in a totally different light — there’s nothing like a three-year old’s perspective.

Be flexible. Things rarely go as planned. Face it: planes are late, ports of call are cancelled, shore excursions are sold out, and cruise ships don’t wait for you. Don’t focus on the disruption, focus on the solution. Before you head from home, make sure you know the name and number of the port agent. They can be a lifesaver when you literally miss the boat. When things go wrong, having a travel agent back home working on your behalf makes a lot of sense as well.

Ditch your kids. Your cruise is a time to get away from it all — and “all” includes your kids. Hey, they probably want to get rid of you as well. Most cruise ships have children’s programs for all ages. One of the best is Royal Caribbean Cruises and its Voyager Class ships. You can sign in the young ones to a supervised center and let the older ones venture on their own while you finally have that romantic dinner you have been planning for the past ten years. Don’t forget to set the rules, but cut them loose for a bit and everyone will be a lot happier.

Play with your kids. I know, I know, I just said to ditch them. But again, this is a cruise and it is time for play. Go ahead and act like a kid — chances are no one will know you there, anyway. Break out of the parent mold and challenge them to see who can scale the rock climbing wall on the cruise ship. Do a cannonball in the pool. Participate as a family in the shipboard activities. Not only can you have a new vacation experience; you might just get a brand new kid experience as well.

So who is family friendly? Aside from Disney Cruise Line, whose ships the Magic and Wonder are made for kids, two of the best lines are Royal Caribbean Cruises and Princess Cruises. Both have programs for children as young as two, and I think you will find that once your kids get a taste of the onboard life, you may be hard-pressed to get them out of the kids’ club. (Remember, I’m not just a father of three — I’m also a travel agent.)

So about that cruise we were almost booted from. I remember it well. The idea seemed perfect — seven days of sun and pampering. I felt the idea turning south, with a couple bouts of sibling rivalry, my son, JT, spoiling the magician’s act because he knew the trick, and that unfortunate onboard scavenger hunt that turned up a lacy, racy nightgown.

Despite our behavior, we were always allowed back on the ship. And we’ve been cruising ever since.

If you can involve everyone in the planning process, expect the unexpected, and let your hair down a little, your family’s floating vacations will become lifelong memories for you, too.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company which operates the Carlson Wagonlit Travel associate office in Arnold, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Frenaye's forum.

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