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Family cruises: What to know before you go

While most cruise lines are now full of child-friendly fare and comfy cabins, it's the differences that will determine which ship is the right fit for your family.
Royal Caribbean International's Freedom of the Seas.Jonathan Atkin / Royal Caribbean International fi
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Now that nearly 1 million children are sailing the high seas each year, you can find family-friendly amenities and programs on everything from luxurious ocean liners to low-key tall ships.

As each new ship makes its debut, cruisers can choose among increasingly innovative perks, like onboard nurseries, planetariums, ice-skating rinks, and movies on a giant screen under the stars (or opt for simpler, more basic sailings on smaller ships).

And yet, while most cruise lines are now chock-full of child-friendly fare and comfy cabins, it's the differences (and how they match up to your interests and children's ages) that will determine which ship is the right fit for your family.

Before we get started, we offer a handful of tips you should consider prior to even starting your search for the right ship, whether you are traveling with babies, teens, or kids in between:

  • Kids per counselor: Ask about the ratio of kids to counselors and counselor qualifications. Most lines have dedicated youth staff that are college-educated in the field, have professional childcare experience or are former nurses or nannies.
  • Pagers: Is it important to you to have a pager while your child is in the youth program? Disney and Princess provide pagers for parents. Other lines have you sign your children in and write down where you expect to be on the ship.
  • Screen time: If you have firm rules you'd like followed about television and computer time, ask how much time kids spend parked in front of those massive video walls, about the type of shows shown, and if there are any restrictions when selecting appropriate video games.
  • Home port: One of the biggest advantages -- these days -- of family cruising is the industry's embrace of U.S. home ports. Ships are increasingly establishing bases of operation on a seasonal or year-round basis in drive-to ports of call, ranging from San Francisco and San Diego to Galveston, Texas; Mobile, Ala.; Charleston, S.C.; and Baltimore. The best news? The option eliminates both the additional cost and the extra bother of flying to traditional embarkation cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
  • Kid season: And there's a caveat to note for the small and/or luxury lines (like Crystal, Regent and Windjammer). Since they offer relatively small children's play areas (if any at all), you'll want to be sure that you're on one of the holiday or other selected sailings where children's activities are in full swing.

What does your family like?

What's your idea of family fun? Are you sports enthusiasts? Artsy-craftsy? Do you prefer a vacation with plenty of educational or cultural offerings? Or an outdoorsy voyage on a tall ship where almost every day is spent in port? You'll see as you investigate cruise lines that each one has its own vibe and particular strengths.

For example, Royal Caribbean is a sports lover's cruise paradise complete with full-court basketball, mini-golf, ice-skating and volleyball courts along with health clubs so well-equipped you'll wish you had one like it at home. Princess offers activities with a brainy bent for all ages, from financial workshops and photography classes to interactive science activities where children can study coral reefs and dissect a squid. And on Windjammer, families can partake in a summer-camp-style vacation at sea.

Family time: There are two types of activities to look for in a family cruise. The first: What can we do and enjoy as a family? Carnival offers water slides and craft nights; Disney, a nightly stage show that is entertaining for the whole family. And Royal Caribbean hosts game shows, shipbuilding regattas, and (via its new Fisher Price partnership) music- and art-oriented "play groups" for parents to join with their 6-month-to-3-year-old children.

And the second? What's fun for kids to do with like-minded peers (see below for more detail under "children's programs").

Baby on board? First and foremost, check the minimum age required to sail. It varies from as young as 12 weeks (Disney) to 4 months old (Carnival), to 6 months old (Princess) and even 6 years old (Windjammer).

Disney Cruise Line is hard to beat for babies, offering a full-service Little-Mermaid-themed nursery at sea (for ages 12 weeks - 3 years old) complete with a boatload of toys and special porthole windows for parents to peek at their children (price: $6 per hour for the first child, $5 per hour for the second, minimum of 2 hours). Even if you don't need the nursery, Disney provides parents with everything from Diaper Genies, cribs, and strollers to fresh pureed vegetables delivered right to your cabin.

Another baby-friendly line is Cunard, with a nursery for children age 1 and up. And Carnival and Norwegian offer children under 2 the opportunity to play in the playroom when accompanied by a parent.

In some cases, cruise ships will loan out key baby equipment. Check with the line you choose to see which of the above they provide.

Children's programs: One of the great things about these programs is that your children get to hang out with others their age and do cool kids' stuff for as little as one hour to several hours a day, depending on your family's preferences. It also gives you a chance to hit the gym, attend a cooking class or read a book at an adults-only spa pool for a bit.

Consider what the ship offers
Here are a few important strengths and weaknesses to consider when sizing up the programs:

Unique offerings: While most lines offer video games, scavenger hunts, and arts-and-crafts projects, several cruise companies have developed one-of-a-kind partnerships that allow them to offer a little something extra. Princess leads the pack in this arena. For example, children have a chance to meet U.S. National Park Service Rangers in Glacier Bay or participate in a marine-life program through the California Coastal Commission. On Disney, kids can learn all about animation. And on Norwegian Cruise Lines and Celebrity, future theater buffs can learn how to act or produce a show in "star seekers" and summer stock theater programs.

Age groupings: Some cruise lines (Carnival, Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean) group children in only two- to three-year spans (for example: 2- to 5-year-olds, 6-8, etc.). Others have broader groupings (for example: ages 3-7, 8-12, and 13-17, which is the case on Holland America, Princess and Crystal). If you have a bashful 3-year-old, he or she might feel intimidated in group activities with older children and prefer being in a program that offers a 2- to 5-year-old group, whereas a 12-year-old who thinks she's going on 20 might feel too cool to be hanging out with youngsters, and be better suited among the 12- to 14-year-old set.

The plight of the un-potty-trained: On a recent cruise with my 2-year-old I was surprised to discover that he wasn't allowed to play in the playroom, even if I stayed with him the entire time. Why? It is against Royal Caribbean's (and Celebrity's) regulations to allow children in who are not "completely toilet-trained." However, on Carnival and Norwegian this is not an issue since parents have the option of enrolling 2-year-olds in their programs (Norwegian will beep a parent when it's diaper-changing time). And younger toddlers are allowed in to play when accompanied by a parent.

Tweeners and teens: Several cruise lines now offer at least some of the following for teens: teen-only hot tubs, private sunbathing decks with pool, teen nightclubs and even spa services tailored to teens (Carnival and select Princess ships). Depending on your teen's level of independence you'll want to look at the type of supervision, if any, that exists and whether or not teens are broken down into smaller groups with activities geared to the younger 13- to 15-year-old set. A few unique offerings for teens include Princess's special evening for teens to have dinner together in the main dining room complete with photographs and a group night out at one of the line's stage shows. And Holland America is in the process of revamping their ships (Ryndam completed in late 2004) to include a special passageway to a secluded deck where teens can cool off in a waterfall and cave.

Best bets in baby-sitting: If you'd like to hit the casino or head to a show sans kids a night or two, a cruise line's baby-sitting policy will be high on your priority list. Certain lines prohibit in-cabin babysitting (Carnival and Princess) and instead offer a slumber-party type of atmosphere in their children's center (not the best situation for younger children). Other lines (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian and Crystal) allow you to hire sitters that come to your cabin.

Your best bet is to head to the front desk on arrival day and ask about the experience of the sitters (many aren't from the children's programs) and if they speak English (if that's your preference). Then schedule your in-cabin sitting times for the week so that you'll have the same person throughout the cruise. Pricing typically ranges from $5 per hour to over $12 an hour, depending on the cruise line and the number of children you have.

Cabin comfort: Fortunately, there are now a wide variety of options to fit all budgets. Carnival, for example, has some of the largest standard cabins in the industry, accommodating up to four people. Disney offers a unique setup with a floor-to-ceiling drape to close off a portion of the room, and two bathrooms (one with a tub, which is hard to come by in the majority of cruise cabins).

And while Royal Caribbean's standard cabins are a bit on the small side for a family of four, their family staterooms can accommodate up to six people, and their multi-room family suites eight. In addition, most of the major lines offer balcony cabins, which give parents a private place to relax and talk with each other after the kids have gone to sleep. Be sure to compare the cost (and bedding configuration) of having two adjoining staterooms vs. a family suite -- pricing varies by cruise line and sailing.

Dining: For family meals, consider whether your children can cope with an hour-and-a-half dining room experience without your having to skip out on dessert. If not, you might prefer lines like Carnival (24-hour pizza and ice cream); Royal Caribbean's Voyager class (with their Johnny Rockets restaurants); or Norwegian, Princess or Disney, which offer a different type of family-friendly dining almost every night of your cruise.

Itinerary insights: Take a look at how many days of your cruise are spent in port and at sea. For some, several days at sea are preferable (Carnival cruisers), whereas others prefer to see as many places as possible. A popular port call with families are the private islands owned and operated by cruise lines like Disney, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Norwegian and Holland America. These islands frequently offer a safe environment for exploration and an extension of the line's children's programs on land.

In addition, parents of young children may want to look for itineraries with port calls where the ship can dock right at the island and they can stroll off, as opposed to waiting in line to load wiggly tots and strollers onto tender boats.