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How to score a peaceful holiday cruise

The festive atmosphere on holiday cruises, all twinkling lights and Santa cheer, is a big draw for families with kids and ships routinely sail at full capacity. ... But what's festive for families with kids can be a nightmare for those seeking a more peaceful, relaxed and child-free ambiance.
File photo of Carnival Cruise Lines' \"Holiday\" cruising off Cozumel
Carnival Cruise Lines' 'Holiday' cruises off Cozumel, Mexico.Andy Newman / Carnival Cruise Li / Carnival Cruise Lines
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The festive atmosphere on holiday cruises, all twinkling lights and Santa cheer, is a big draw for families with kids and ships routinely sail at full capacity. Minors under age 21 often make up one third of the passenger load -- we're talking in the neighborhood of 1,000 kids -- on the biggest ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Disney, lines which don't routinely restrict the number of minors booked on any particular cruise.

But what's festive for families with kids can be a nightmare for those seeking a more peaceful, relaxed and child-free ambiance.

Though the vast majority are well-behaved, rambunctious kids can spoil a cruise - during the holidays or any other school vacation time -- for everyone. One of the most contentious issues on Cruise Critic's message boards is that of kids-run-amok; community members report on fist fights, excessive profanity, elevator "games," stairwell hang-outs, deck-chair-tossing contests (they hurl them overboard) and so on and so on.

And while the issue can be troublesome enough for parents who are keeping tabs on their own brood during a cruise vacation, the issue is particularly irksome for those traveling -- sans kids. For the child-free seeking to sail on a holiday voyage, there are two points to keep in mind when selecting a cruise line -- and a cruise ship.

Cruise lines say they are cracking down on troublemakers with roving uniformed security guards that keep an extra eye on younger passengers. Many have developed a three-step program; if a child is problematic, parents first get a warning. Next occurrence? There's a meeting with a security officer and/or the hotel director. The family might even be required to sit down with the captain. And, finally, if there's no improvement, cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian say they will disembark the family at the next port of call - at the passengers' expense.

Some cruise lines are going a step further and taking a more positive, pro-active approach, that targets teens in particular. "Teens have and always will be a rather difficult group to cater to," says Kieron Buffery, a cruise director on NCL's Norwegian Dawn. "Some teens get right into the program but some just want to do their own thing and hang out in stairs! This is a challenge we face from time to time, but we are always striving to cater to this age group."

NCL, as do Disney, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, figures if they create genuinely appealing teen facilities they can contain potential disruptions. On NCL, for instance, Buffery says ships open the disco for teens every single night. Plus, they show late night movies for teens in the ships' cinemas, which are very popular.

Carnival is also investing in new facilities. Design guru Joe Farcus says the expanded size of the Conquest and Glory offered the opportunity to create a ship-within-a-ship for teens. "The space evolved from the video game room we have on older ships into a self contained teen club with disco, soda bar, video games, and teen promenade. The teen area is its own world and has proved quite successful," he says.

If you're still skeptical that child-management strategies will successfully rein-in troublemakers we suggest this key tip: Avoid a family-focused cruise altogether. Some additional hints:

Small Ships
Across the board, smaller ships attract fewer families; you can expect a handful but there will hardly be enough to change the atmosphere. The intimate ships of high-end lines like Silversea, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Regent Seven Seas are genteel, dignified and geared to adults (and also among cruise-dom's most expensive voyages). While there may be kid-oriented facilities to some extent, these lines will never attract "the masses."

Exotic Itineraries
The true-blue Caribbean is family central -- so go elsewhere. And there's plenty of choice. During the holiday months of November and December cruise lines base ships in other appealing regions of the world as well, namely the Far East, South Pacific, Hawaii, and even Antarctica. Norwegian, Princess, Holland America, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Star Clippers, Regent, Silversea, Seabourn, Windstar and Crystal are among the cruise lines to offer more off-the-track itineraries during the holiday season.

Longer Cruises
Families tend to take week-long or shorter cruises. Choose a longer itinerary and you're pretty much guaranteed to be sailing with few kids. If you're set on the Caribbean, choose a 10- or 11-night itinerary, particularly those that include a partial Panama Canal transit.

Kid Limits
Princess is one big ship line that limits the number of kids per cruise. The 2,600-passenger Grand, Golden and Star Princess never carry more than 440 minors. The new 3,110-passenger Caribbean Princess will carry a max of 438 kids, with no more than 200 teens.

Senior Ships
Often, older vessels in the fleets of major cruise lines attract a more senior (and less young-family-oriented) passenger base. That's primarily because kid facilities are usually limited on the smaller of the mass market vessels and also because they often sail longer, more exotic itineraries. Among the pretty safe bets in this category include Princess and Holland America.

Making the Best of the Big Newer Ships?
Then upgrade to suites, for a more intimate experience, and book tables at ship's alternative restaurants. In particular, good choices include Celebrity's Infinity, Constellation, Summit and Millennium, for instance, which offer significant pampering amenities in highest category staterooms and fabulous restaurants -- if the $25 per person, per night service fee is not a barrier of entry. On NCL's Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Star, the lavish Garden Villa suites -- with three bedrooms, huge patio, dining room, grand piano, and ocean view bathroom - offer little reason to stray. At the very least, try to book a verandah cabin for a little extra outdoor privacy - and take advantage of room service.

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