I've always joked that the inventor of Goldfish crackers deserves the Nobel Prize. As a mom, I've been rescued by these smiling fish in countless situations, from supermarket trips to plane rides and pretty much everywhere in between. And while I highly recommend you bring a stash for your toddler on your next cruise, let's face it — you're going to have to get a little more creative than that with the packing. The point is, there is a lot to be said for having the right item handy at the right time on a cruise, since you can't exactly run out to the nearest Target on a whim.
Smart planning and packing pays for everyone, and that goes tenfold when you have children in tow. Sure, you know about the 1,001 uses for zip-lock bags, and you've got inflatable toys and sippy cups packed up the wazoo. But we've got a few items you may not have thought of, or even heard about. There are so many travel gadgets for kids out there now, that unless you've used them yourself, it's hard to know which ones are worth the money, and which ones are right for a cruise.
Here are 10 lifesavers, from stuff to keep kids safe on shore to providing entertainment onboard, that parents should pack:
What: Who's Shoes ID Tags
Why: Identifies your child if he is lost or hurt
Who: Young, mobile children
How much: $8
No parent wants to imagine the possibility of one of their children becoming lost at any point during a cruise, but the fact is, kids wander. Even at sea. I like these tags, made by Who's Shoes, because they are inexpensive, durable and can be easily attached to your child's shoe. Personal information is protected inside the ID tag, so you don't need to worry about a stranger calling out your child's name. You can put your cabin number, name, and other personal info on the tag, so if your child loses you, adults coming to his aid can more easily locate you. Plus, Who's Shoes donates a portion of all sales to the Laura Recovery Center for missing children.
What: Cobra 10-Mile Two-Way Radios
Why: Makes keeping in touch fun and easy
Who: Older kids and parents
How much: $25
When your kids reach an age where they can wander the ship solo or with friends, it's a blessing and a curse. You won't have to make sure the kids are entertained if they are permitted to go out and explore, but keeping tabs on them can become more stressful than it's worth. Walkie-talkies can make your life easier, and allow you and your children to make plans quickly and easily. Many ships will rent them to you, but if you cruise often (once a year or so), they are a good investment.
Cobra's 10-Mile Two-Way radios are affordable and effective. If you opt for another brand, you will want a set with at least a two- to five-mile range, and one with several sub-channels, since other onboard family groups will be utilizing the same channels. Caveat: Two-way radios may not work in every area of the ship, especially the larger ones. And remember your manners! There is a reason why many people bristle when they see passengers using them. Nobody wants to hear you lecturing your son or daughter for 20 minutes via walkie talkie during meal times.
What: The Pac Back
Why: Allows you to carry any car seat on your back
Who: Parents cruising with car seats
How much: $40
Car seats are my nemesis. I am counting the days (only 10,000 to go) until my youngest can travel without one. So I understand why some parents opt to leave the seat behind, rather than lug it about and attempt to stow it in a tiny cabin. But for the majority of parents who would not travel without a car seat, the Pac Back can be a life-saver. It allows you to quickly and comfortably strap any car seat or booster to your back for easy transport — great for a cruise.
You could opt for a more elaborate contraption: the dolly that attaches to the seat and lets you wheel it (with your kid strapped in) like a stroller; the car seat and stroller in one (which I have, but would not recommend for a cruise); or the travel seat that straps onto your luggage, so your kids can ride your bags. I say keep it simple. Bring the Pac Back to keep your hands free and a small umbrella stroller for getting around once you arrive (they are much more convenient and handle far better than the combo-contraptions).
Caveat: Watch your back! The seat sticks out a bit and you can easily clock people if you're not careful.
What: Gin Gins Ginger Candy
Why: Stave off motion sickness
Who: Kids of all ages
How much: A couple bucks
Children are not immune to motion sickness. There are a thousand different sea-sickness remedies, and everyone you ask will tell you something different. That's because different remedies work for different folks, and the same is true for kids. Talk to your pediatrician about any medications you are considering packing for your child, and throw a bag of Gin Gins in your suitcase.
Ginger has long been known to aid in motion sickness (not to mention morning sickness, for all you pregnant cruisers), it's perfectly safe for kids, it won't make them drowsy and it's delicious! There are lots of companies who make ginger candy and crystallized ginger products, but the Ginger People at Royal Pacific have the best variety and taste.
What: Timex Kid's Watch
Why: No excuses for being late
Who: Kids old enough to roam solo
How much: $20 to $25, and $10 to replace
If you plan on allowing your older children to roam solo on your cruise, a reliable, durable and inexpensive watch for meet-up times is a must. The Timex Kids line of watches is a great option. They are inexpensive at $20, durable and fun, and water-resistant for up to 30 meters. They are available in fun styles and colors for boys and girls, and are equipped with an Indiglo night light, which makes them readable in the dark.
Since even the most reliable of kids will misplace something at some point during a cruise, the watch is covered by the Timex Kids' Loss Protection Plan. Get this: If the watch is lost, Timex will replace it with the same or a similar model for $10 for up to one year from the date of purchase.
And don't forget: If you are changing times zones during your cruise, be sure to change your children's watches as well as your own.
What: Fisher-Price Kid-Tough Digital Camera
Why: Allows children to create their own memories
Who: Kids ages 3 and up
How much: $55
Why not allow your children to create their own memories during your next cruise? This camera is a great choice for kids who like to take pictures on their own but aren't old enough to be trusted with an expensive digital camera. My six-year-old uses this camera constantly with great success, but even younger children can easily use it because the controls are simple and don't require reading. The camera has a color LCD preview screen that lets kids instantly see the pictures they've taken, and over-sized buttons that make it easy for small hands. And this thing is durable — ours has been dropped dozens of times and still works fine. Many parents opt for disposable cameras for the kids on a cruise and that's definitely an option, but this one's more fun. When we get home, our son can upload, print or email the pictures he took himself.
What: Medibuddy First-Aid Kit
Why: Convenient, compact cruise size
Who: Kids of all ages
How much: $20 for a four-pack
Even if your daughter has worn the same pair of sandals two dozen times, you know the day she wears them ashore for an hour of sightseeing, they'll give her a giant blister — and incidentally that will be the same day you forget the Band-Aids. The Medibuddy First-Aid Kit is a great idea for cruises because it's small and lightweight enough to throw in any purse or bag, and contains just the most commonly used items kids need. The Medibuddy kit contains 40 kid-friendly first aid items — 15 red, blue and yellow crayon bandages, a knee and elbow bandage, a sting relief pad, four gauze pads, three antiseptic wipes, burn relief cream, antibiotic ointment, and 12 stickers. There are lots of compact first-aid kits, but this one is kid- and cruise-friendly. Plus: All products are latex-free, all of the plastic used is 100 percent recycled and every purchase gives back to the disabled community.
What: Solio Universal Hybrid Charger
Why: You'll hear about it if the iPod dies
Who: Kids (and grownups) of all ages
How much: Under $100
Older kids and grownups will love this portable and convenient solar charger for all those gadgets that you simply can't leave behind. The Solio Universal Hybrid Charger is a great little pocket-size charger designed to solar charge your Apple iPod, iPod Mini, iPod Nano, PDA, GPS, game players, digital cameras or cell phones (using the correct adapter tips). It's perfect for a cruise for obvious reasons: charge while you lounge on deck! Just one hour of sunshine will give you 40 minutes of MP3 music. The Solio Charger can also store energy from a wall socket.
What: Coppertone Kids Continuous Spray
Why: Spray-on sunscreen beats messy creams any day
Who: Babies and kids of all ages
How much: About $10
It's a necessary, and often messy, evil. We know they need it, they know they need it — but getting kids to sit still while you lather on the sunblock can turn into an unpleasant event. Coppertone Kids Continuous Spray sunscreen takes most of the pain away simply because of the easy application process. Shoppers have a choice of a variety of spray sunscreens, many of which are also good. But Coppertone is the house favorite here because it doesn't bother my kids' eyes when they rub them, it sprays at any angle, and it's hypoallergenic. It goes on clear, and best of all, it smells good.
What: Mommy I'm Here Child Locator
Why: Know where your child is at all times
Who: Young children
How much: $30
I know some parents swear by them, but personally I could never bring myself to use a child harness — something about it just feels too, well, canine. But I can easily appreciate the need to know where your child is at all times. Whether you and your family are wandering an unfamiliar and crowded street, or if your child is just playing quietly in the kiddie pool nearby on the ship, this child locator will allow you to find him quickly in the event he wanders off or becomes lost.
This product is really easy to use: You just attach the teddy bear receiver (which comes in pink or brown) to your child's shoe or belt, and then attach the transmitter to your key ring or put it in your pocket. If your child becomes lost, press the button on the transmitter and the bear emits a series of high decibel beeps, allowing you to track down your child right away. It works for distances of up to 150 feet, even through concrete walls. Both the transmitter and receiver are water and shock resistant, and come with long-life batteries already installed.
Have your own favorite? Drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll update our story with some of your best recommendations.
Carrie Calzaretta is Family Travel Editor for The Independent Traveler, Inc. The New Jersey-based mother of two has traveled extensively with her children, Tess, 1, and Tyler, 6.