How to choose a Family Cruise
Cruising is my absolute favourite type of holiday. I went on my first cruise with my husband (then boyfriend) in 2007 and we loved it so much we did two back to back cruises for our honeymoon in 2008. As we’ve grown older our tastes have changed and we’ve adjusted our priorities, but we’ve loved every single cruise we’ve been on. In 2017 I cruised for two weeks whilst 6 weeks pregnant, which was certainly interesting and since then, we’ve had to adjust for family cruising! With a total of eight cruises across five different cruise lines under our belt, I found shopping for a family cruise a lot of fun – but the options were quite extensive, so I thought I’d share my tips for choosing a family cruise to make it easier for you to choose your next family getaway on the water!
Choosing the Cruise Line
Every cruise line will offer some sort of kids club (unless it’s an adults only cruise, at which point you can definitely discard it as a family cruise option!) In kids clubs the children will be separated into different age ranges. You’ll want to look up the details for each one, look at photographs or videos of the kids club areas and see what activities they do, as well as what qualifications the staff have and security options are.
Many kids clubs also offer a night nursery or evening babysitting. Some may offer in-cabin babysitting, whilst others will offer evening babysitting or night nursery in the kids club. You’ll want to check what the details are for this before deciding.
Even if you don’t plan on having your kids spend a lot of time in the kids clubs, it’s good to have all the details and make an informed decision!
Pools and Entertainment on Board
Most cruise ships will have some adults and some family pools. Double check which pools are available to the family and what their requirements are. Many cruise lines will not let any children in if they are still in swim nappies, or might only allow them in a splash pool and not a swimming pool, but others, such as P&O, will let children in swim nappies in designated pools. Kids will definitely want to use the pools so you want to be sure there’s something that suits your families age ranges.
Different ship will have different forms of entertainment. Cruises traditionally had a reputation for catering to older travelers, but cruises for families can offer a lot with some cruise lines now, with things like on board surfing, mini golf, climbing, slides, cinemas and more! You want to pick a cruise that will offer plenty for the whole family.
Check out what’s on offer in regards to food and make sure there’s something your children will be happy eating. The main dining rooms will always have a children’s menu, but it’s often very simple, with children being allowed to order from the adult menu. The buffet may be a better option for those with young children. Check the dining times as well, if your kids are used to eating dinner at 5pm and the main dining room doesn’t open until 6:30pm, you’ll need to work out what your dinner options are for everyone.
Some cruise lines will include room service whilst others have a charge. Some will even include full room service ordering from the main dining room to eat on your balcony or in your room, which can be a very nice perk indeed!
This one often catches people out – check if the cabin has a Pullman bed overhead or a double sofa bed. A sofa bed may be more suitable for youngsters. For example I didn’t want my two year old sleeping on an upper cabin bunk, even though there is a side rail, I felt like this was quite dangerous. Standard cruise cabins only have a shower too, but for me it’s important to book a bath tub when I cruise with a toddler. So you want to check where the children will sleep and whether you’re happy with the bathroom situation.
Two cabins in exactly the same category can vary so you want to check the exact cabin number. You can pay the same for different things, but if you want something specific it’s in your best interests to book in advance, and you won’t be able to book a guarantee cabin as you won’t be guaranteed configuration, only a category.
For larger families you will want connecting cabins – make sure the balconies can connect if you have them!
A good family cruise line will have a much reduced children’s fare. Whilst kids will use the kids club, a lot of what they use – and eat – on board will be greatly reduced to an adult, and they’ll be sleeping in your cabin. So you don’t want to pay full price for a child on a cruise. Some cruises will do special offers such as kids cruise for £99 or £199, or even kids cruise free on some cruise lines. It’s worth waiting for a special offer to come around and researching what people usually pay for children.
Choosing the Destination
No Fly Cruises – Cruising without flights
Cruising without flights can be a stress-free way to travel with the family. First, you don’t need to worry much about luggage restrictions. When you’re going on a family cruise there are going to be a lot of things to pack and this only increases when you’re cruising with a baby or a toddler as you have to consider things like bottles, baby monitors, perhaps milk formula or their favourite drinks and snacks.
My mother in law (who had her kids 35 and 50 years ago when she said this comment) once said that at least you don’t need to pack much with a baby because they’re so small. I spat out the tea I was drinking at the time. They may be small, but when you have to pack six outfits a day it definitely adds up! I have never seen anyone travel light with kids.
Secondly, cruising without flights can be easier because you simply don’t have to worry about the stress of the flight. No standing around in airports, no hustling your kids from A to B whilst they complain their legs are tired, no trying to entertain them for hours whilst trapped with hundreds of strangers who all seem to hate children… maybe I’m blessed, but my toddler will sleep on any car journey, so driving is certainly a lot less stressful!
Thirdly, no fly cruises can offer a significant price saving. Although you need to factor in the cost of getting to the port, this is almost always quite a bit cheaper than a flight, especially one with a large amount of luggage. When I priced up one of the cruises I was considering, I realized it would cost me £250 for my toddlers flight (he is too big to sit on my lap even at two) yet only £99 for the cruise itself!
Personally I prefer to cruise from Southampton where possible and it makes life much easier!
If you do decide to take a flight, the advantage is that they open up a much wider range of destinations. If you are traveling from a home port in your country, there’s a limit to what you can see in a 7 – 14 day cruise. So sometimes flights are simply necessary to get the best destination for you. Flights also open you up to a much wider range of cruise lines.
When booking flights think about the logistics. Can you pay extra for a closer airport? How much extra will the luggage allowance be? Will your child need their own seat or can they sit on your lap (babies and some toddlers?) and then finally, check the timing of the flights and any transfers. I find night flights are best if it’s over 6 hours in duration, but if you’ve only got a short hop then arriving just before you can board means no waiting around on the other side.
Whilst all fly-cruises will offer a package, it’s worth noting you don’t always have to book the flight with the cruise company. You can select a no-fly cruise and book your own independent flights. This is ideal if you have a preference for an airport or time not offered with the cruise, or if you want to add an extra day or two in the country to sightsee before or after the cruise. Personally when flying I prefer to have the freedom to arrange everything myself – but you need to have good travel insurance in case of delays or problems. If you’re taking a package, you’re usually guaranteed in case of problems with that flight.
Picking the right itinerary
There are hundreds of different cruise itineraries and finding the perfect one for you can be daunting. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is there a specific port that you’d like to visit?
- Are you looking for a port intensive holiday, or would you rather chill on board?
- Are you looking for beaches and slow days, or culture packed museum and monument visits, or a mix?
- How hot or cold do you like it?
I don’t think there is an itinerary that is specifically best for families, because every family is different and every trip is different. We’ve had some very different cruises, from intensive 14 day trips where every single day is a 10 hour port day including places like Rome and Pisa, we’ve had trips where most days were beach days around the Mediterranean, we’ve had sea-day intensive ports where half the trip was spent on the ocean heading to a destination and we’ve had chill out scenic cruises like our 10 day Norwegian Fjords cruise where you could see something amazing from your balcony every minute of every day.
So to narrow it down, think about what you want to get out of the cruise and what type of holiday you’re looking for, because a family cruise can really be anything that you want it to be.
I’ve found that most cruise excursions aren’t massively geared towards families. I would recommend researching the port well in advance and seeing if you can DIY (do it yourself) any of the ports. For example, when visiting Gibraltar, we arranged a private excursion with a couple of other people who we connected with on the Cruise Critic boards (an invaluable resource for cruise researchers) and this meant we got out ahead of all the coaches and had a much better day, without actually spending any more money. Because bottom line is, cruise excursions are expensive and you are in a very large group who can only move as quickly as the slowest person.
If you can get off the boat and explore yourself, or if you can arrange a private tour with a small group or just for your family, you will have a much more flexible day which I think is very important when you’ve got kids.
Picking the Time of Year
Check the weather for the time of year you want to travel and the destination in mind. We find that Italy and Greece in July and August is simply too hot for us. Conversely, we went on a Norwegian Fjords cruise in November that would have been quite chilly for a baby or toddler. Children have more sensitive skin and can easily become overcome by heat exhaustion and they also need more layers in colder weather too. So I find with very young children it’s best to look for milder weather – but you’ll find the best fit for you. Just keep it in mind.
You can google “weather <month> <destination>” to get average weather forecasts.
If you have children older than pre-schoolers then you’ll of course have the term time vs school holidays debate. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Going on Holiday in the School Holidays:
- Prices are more expensive.
- Everywhere is busier.
- There are more families on board and more children to make friends / play with.
- There may be more activities in kids clubs.
- You don’t need to worry about interrupting any school work.
Going on Holiday in Term Term:
- Prices will be cheaper.
- Places will be quieter.
- It could interrupt school work.
- You’ll have to get approval from the school or pay a school fine.
If you have pre-schoolers or under and don’t need to worry about interrupting school work and getting approval for time off from school or paying fines, then I’d definitely recommend taking advantage of the cheaper prices during term time whilst you still can!
I hope that this has helped you if you’re thinking about a family cruise. It is definitely a lot of research, but having an amazing family cruise will be well worth it, so I think it’s important to consider all of the above and look at the options before you make the decision that’s right for you. If you have a travel agent then no doubt they can take much of the legwork out of it, but researching and exploring what’s available is a big part of what’s fun for me!
Our first cruise with a toddler is booked for June 2020 and I can’t wait. We chose P&O this time and it will be our first trip with them, having traveled multiple times with Princess, Celebrity and RCI in the past. We chose them because we felt that the budget price fit our needs at this point, because they’re one of the few cruise lines that do allow children in swim nappies in the children’s pool and because we watched a few videos of the toddler kids club and read many positive reviews and felt comfortable with it. Itinerary wasn’t important for us on this journey, but traveling from Southampton was, so although we’d never chosen them in the past for our couples cruises, they ticked our boxes for our family cruise needs.
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