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Family cruises: Best cruises for teens

Matching your teen's personality with that of the cruise ship is crucial. Here are our editor's picks of the best cruise options
Freedom of the Seas
Eugene Zhuravlev, center right, of Ukraine rides a small surfboard on a Flowrider wave machine aboard the Freedom of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, as it was docked in Bayonne, N.J., Thursday, May 11, 2006. Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises' newest liner will be docked in New York harbor and Cape Liberty in Bayonne over the next few days before it leaves on May 18 for a trip to Boston. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)Mike Derer / AP file
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Teenagers are in hot demand by the cruise industry. Both surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that parents in search of a pleasant vacation would do well to not only consult but also seriously consider the input of teen members of the family. This age group is one of the travel industry's most demanding. And it's no secret that a dissatisfied teen can create a messy imbalance among an otherwise happy family.

Cruise lines are interested in drawing teens, too, knowing that they have a special impact on family vacation choices. And there's another reason: Today's teens are tomorrow's adult passengers. As such, a handful of cruise lines are creating special programs, facilities and amenities for the teenage cruise traveler.

Highlights of these include: teen-only discos, lounges and sun decks; shore excursions geared (and limited) to teens; youth spa programs on several lines that now offer treatments such as mother/daughter facials, father/son massages, spray tans and pedicures.

Matching your teen's personality with that of the cruise ship is crucial. Also, cruise length can be an important factor for busy teens, with short itineraries often working best. Families with both teens and younger siblings will want to select a ship with a solid children's program, so the entire clan will be happy.

Speaking from experience, here are our editor's picks of the best cruise options for families with teenagers.

For the teen who is an uber-social party animal
Try Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Liberty.

  • Why: Carnival Liberty, the newest in the Conquest-line of the fleet (the line with the biggest ships) offers a unique-to-Carnival amenity: the drive-in-movie-like Seaside Theater cinema screen that sits above the pool area. We also like the fact that its newly designed Without Batteries -- the newest incarnation of a teen disco -- is located not upstairs with the kiddie facilities but in the heart of the otherwise adult-oriented promenade.
  • Best features: For older teens, 16 to 18 years old, there's a mixer on the first evening, a Mocktail Party in the disco on the first formal night, and an afternoon ping pong tournament. Each night, the Disco Dance Club is open from 9:30 to 10:45 p.m. for kids age 12 to 18. At 10:45 p.m., the DJ announces that the Disco will reopen at 11 p.m. for guests 16 to 18. Younger teens can shift to another activity -- like a movie, karaoke or a swim. There are also teen spa services and a discounted teen shore excursion program where the kids vote on which tour to take.
  • Beware of: You may never see your kids (which can be a plus or a minus).

For the energetic teen looking for all the comforts of home
Try Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas (or any of its other Voyager-class siblings, including Voyager, Adventure and Explorer of the Seas).

  • Why: We picked Navigator of the Seas in particular because it offers a range of six-, seven- and nine-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries. Onboard, the 3,000-passenger ship is a floating playground with features that include an ice skating rink, rock climbing wall, miniature golf course, full-size basketball court and dedicated teen facilities. If the kids are looking for fuel, we heartily recommend a pit stop at either Ben & Jerry's or Johnny Rockets.
  • Best features: One big plus is that the ship's youth program divides teens into two groups. 12- to-14-year-olds are wisely separated from 15-to-17-year-olds for activities like karaoke, toga parties and sports tournaments. Parents are banned from The Living Room, Back Deck and Fuel -- the teens-only facility where teens can drink mocktails and dance the night away (until 2 a.m.).
  • Beware of: Navigator is a huge ship and it can be easy to lose track of your teen (and unsupervised teens on big ships are one of the cruise industry's biggest hassles). We'll also warn you about this plus-and-minus factor: With fifteen Internet stations in The Living Room and Fuel -- plus unlimited Internet access via laptop in all cabins -- parents may need to exercise supervision.

For the teen who is adventurous and into water sports
Try Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf.

  • Why: The combination of a cool, five-masted sailing vessel -- and a can't-be-beat exotic itinerary. The ship will spend winter of 2005 sailing a new, six-night itinerary in the Mayan Riviera, with stops in Belize and Honduras. This is a fabulous itinerary for both history (Mayan ruins in particular) and scuba diving (not to mention excursions like a trip to Belize's Jaguar Paw Resort, where guests can fly between treetop platforms along zip-line cables).
  • Best features: Back to the region's appeal for scuba divers, Wind Surf is offering a Discover Scuba Diving Program, gliding by manta and eagle rays, turtles, dolphins, barracuda and reef sharks. The fairly priced dive program ($140) features a class by the pool, pool session, and supervised dive. The program is open to teens (the rule is 12 and above) though they must be accompanied by a parent.
  • Beware of: This is definitely not a ship for younger children or pre-teens, so it's pretty much off limits to multi-kid, multi-age families. There are no planned activities (or facilities) onboard for kids of any age.

For the teen who is an urban (or suburban) sophisticate
Try Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dawn.

  • Why: Norwegian Dawn has 10 restaurants (all open seating), ranging from Tex-Mex to steakhouse to sushi to French. Not only does that mean terrific flexibility (particularly at dinner time) it also means teens can eat with -- or without -- their families. The ship is also strong on entertainment for young folks, and future American Idols can participate in a Junior Star Seeker competition, with winners receiving a free cruise and a chance to perform for fellow passengers.
  • Best features: Teens will gravitate to the teen-only club/disco as well as the ship's video arcade, basketball court, paddle tennis and giant chessboard. Organized social activities include a farewell party the last evening, an afternoon dance party and a pool party. A discounted beverage card is available -- for $34.50, your teen can order 20 smoothies and other nonalcoholic drinks. Another plus, particularly for families based in New York and the mid-Atlantic? The ship sails, year-round, to the Bahamas and Caribbean from New York -- which means airfares aren't necessarily required.
  • Beware of: Some of the ship's smaller dining venues are very popular (Tex-Mex and Le Bistro, for example) and reservations are a must, available one day in advance. A handful have surcharges (not to mention one that actually has an all a la carte menu).

For the teen who is relaxed and low-key
Try Windjammer's Legacy.

  • Why: This casual, relaxed cruise is perfect for teens who like to venture off the beaten path, complete with sleeping under the stars and dining in flip flops and bathing suits.
  • Best features: Shore excursions that active, nature- and water-oriented pursuits and an easy-going, just-about-anything-goes atmosphere on board.
  • Beware of: This is a no-frills vessel and entertainment is pretty limited; teens should be self-motivated (i.e. enjoy solitary pursuits like reading and more social ones like conversation with fellow passengers).

For the teen who has younger siblings
Try Princess Cruises' Grand Princess.

  • Why: This 2,600-passenger ship, which the cruise line dubs a "floating city," offers something for every conceivable age group (we love Caribbean Princess for the same reason). For teens in particular, there's a dedicated teen facility, a video game arcade, four pools, a huge gym, a sports court, and a nine-hole putting course complete with golf simulator. We also love its choice of itineraries. From its seasonal homeport in Galveston, Texas, the ship winters in the Western Caribbean. With calls at Cozumel, Costa Maya, the Grand Cayman and Belize, its voyages are ideal for more adventurous teens who would love snorkeling with stingrays and swimming with sea lions. In summer, the ship sails European itineraries -- also increasingly popular with families.
  • Best features: The teen center on this ship really is fine. It's got a private whirlpool and sun deck, big-screen television, Nintendo, Karaoke and jukeboxes. Recently added to the ship is Princess' outdoor theater, "Movies Under the Stars." We also love the flexibility of dining options offered by Princess' Personal Choice so that families can dine together some nights and kids can eat with other teens on others.
  • Beware of: With so much to do on the ship, there's a risk that teens may not experience the destinations -- such as the history-, archeology- and marine-rich Mayan Riviera and the history-, archeology- and culture-rich Europe.

For the teen who is already an exotic eco-adventure traveler
Try Lindblad Expeditions' Islander.

  • Why: This is a great choice for a bonding trip between mom and teen (or dad and teen). Two hundred years after Charles Darwin's famous voyage of the Beagle, the Galapagos archipelago remains amazingly pristine, a place where animals are still unafraid of people. This 48-passenger ship offers an unforgettable nine-night adventure, where passengers meet marine iguanas and giant tortoises, penguins and sea lions, boobies and albatrosses.
  • Best features: Survival of the fittest isn't an issue aboard the Islander. After a day exploring the wild and rugged islands, teens (who incidentally are treated as adults rather than a subset of a cruise line's youth program) will return to a comfortable ship and cabin. Naturalists lead daily excursions via four zodiacs which make it possible to access landfalls and cruise alongside reefs. The ship carries wetsuits and snorkeling gear, key for playing in the water with curious sea lions. We were surprised -- and pleased -- to find that even on this small ship there are two Internet stations for remote emailing.
  • Beware of: Reaching the Galapagos takes time and money, with flights to Quito, Ecuador, and then Baltra Island in the Galapagos.

For the teen who is traveling on a multi-generational family trip
Try Holland America Line's Ryndam.

  • Why: Where Ryndam (as does Statendam and other ships in the fleet's S-class) really stands out is with its teen-only facility. Teens have their own space at The Oasis, an outdoor area toward the ship's stern featuring a cave and waterfall, as well as The Loft, a bright, comfortable lounge designed to resemble an artist's studio. Activities run the gamut, including dance lessons, arcade games and sports tournaments (and there's a disco). Teen shore excursions like rock climbing and kayaking are also available. Teens with laptops can surf the Internet using an in-cabin connection or via wireless in public areas of the ship.
  • Best features: What really smokes, though, is its outdoor Oasis. This newly constructed area, completely outdoors, feels like it's a shade removed from Gilligan's Island, with hammocks, a fabulous optically lit waterfall, and Adirondack-style chairs -- and the atmosphere is even further developed by the exterior, rimmed with wood slats, not to mention faux pineapples and palm trees (and vending machines for snacks and beverages).
  • Beware of: The ships offer a set-seating assigned-table meal situation in their main restaurants though the lido buffet is open most nights and room service options are fairly plentiful.

For the teen who is internationally savvy
Try Star Clippers' Royal Clipper.

  • Why: Star Clipper's 227-passenger, five-masted flagship sails from historic port to port in the Western Mediterranean on 7-, 10- and 11-night summer and fall itineraries. From the Colosseum in Rome to the famous Greek Theatre of Sicily, this voyage is ideal for teens who like history and sailing.
  • Best features: A platform lowers from the ship's stern for water sports. Teens can climb the mast to the crow's nest and watch the dramatic hoisting of 42 sails each morning.
  • Beware of: This ship attracts primarily European passengers, so teens need to be open to other languages and cultures. In general, teens will need to entertain themselves. There are no children's programs or menus for younger siblings.