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Recording artist John Forte enjoys family time on Celebrity Apex. (Photo: Annie Leibovitz/AIPP)

Family Cruising: 11 Tips for Booking the Best Family Cruise

Recording artist John Forte enjoys family time on Celebrity Apex. (Photo: Annie Leibovitz/AIPP)
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Marilyn Borth

Last updated
Jan 11, 2023

Read time
9 min read

Cruise lines offer countless activities and other extras to make for the best family cruises imaginable. From kids clubs, meet-and-greets with beloved cartoon characters and water parks to ziplines and ropes courses, a cruise with family can be a load of fun for everyone.

Most mainstream cruise lines are some of the best options for cruising with kids, such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line. You can read more about these and others in our list of best cruises for kids.

To get the most out of your family cruising experience, consider the following booking tips when picking your next family cruise.

1. Family Cruise Programs: Choose the Ideal Cruise Youth Program for Your Kids

Kids in Andy's Room on Disney Fantasy (Photo: Disney Cruise Line)

Family-friendly cruise lines work hard delivering creative children's programs that go beyond babysitting. For example, Norwegian's Splash Academy engages kids with tumbling, juggling, spinning and other circus skill classes, culminating in a performance of circus acts for parents.

Carnival's Camp Ocean has a marine theme while Disney offers attractions like a Millennium Falcon-themed Star Wars play area and Marvel Super Hero Academy.

All cruise line youth programs divide kids into age-appropriate groups, while some lines take different approaches toward age groupings like creating age groups that are more personality-driven. Children have the option to join the age group with which they'd feel most comfortable, even if it's with older or younger peers.

Be sure to choose a cruise that has a youth program that closely aligns with your child's needs and desires. Sift through the options carefully and find something that they'd love.

Many cruise ships also offer teen programs for families traveling with teenagers. Teen programs separate teens into age-appropriate groups, such as 12 to 14 and 15 to 17.

While teens meet each other at supervised events and do fun things together with the dedicated youth staff, there's plenty of time for them to make friends and roam the ship sans adults.

Prior to cruising, talk with your teens about the rules of the ship and your expectations of them while onboard. That way, they are aware of what they can and cannot do-- and your family cruise will be far more likely to go off without a hitch.

2. Family Cruise Fun: Cartoon Characters Onboard Can Make Your Kids' Vacation

Seuss-A-Palooza Story Time on Carnival Sunshine

What child doesn't love and admire cartoons? Whether your child enjoys Disney princesses or Marvel Avengers, there are cruises galore with these familiar faces onboard.

Disney cruises, of course, take the cake when it comes to character breakfasts and more, with Mickey, Minnie and Jack Sparrow all appearing as well as Star Wars and Marvel superheroes and princesses.

But it's not the only line to make storybooks and films spring to life.

Carnival has rolled out Seuss at Sea, complete with Seuss-a-palooza Story Time and Green Eggs and Ham Breakfasts with cameos by the Cat in the Hat and Thing 1 and Thing 2. MSC Cruises has its own mascot family with Doremi, Mila, Dorebro and Dorebaby -- plus a connection with Lego.

Check your desired cruises for such lovable characters and find one that has their favorite friendly faces for an even better and more memorable onboard experience.

3. Family Cruise with an Infant: Check for an Onboard Nursery

Grandeur of the Seas Nursery (Photo: Royal Caribbean)

Minimum ages to sail tend to be 6 months for most mainstream cruises, and 1 year for longer or more exotic voyages. Some luxury and expedition cruise lines don't allow children, so be sure to check for this before booking.

Several cruise lines offer drop-off nurseries for children under 3 years old at an hourly rate and/or play areas for young children, which they can enjoy with a parent or guardian.

On certain ships, little ones can enjoy soft play areas and age-appropriate toys, as well as cribs and cots for snoozing. Some nurseries also hold interactive play groups for 6 to 18-month-olds along with 18 to 36-month-olds and their parents.

Drop-off nurseries are a popular option as well along with parents or staff-led parent-tot activities in designated areas. Therefore, if you are interested in a nursery for your child, closely look at all the available options to find the best choice for you and your family.

4. Family Cruise with Alone Time for Parents: Look for In-Port Youth Programs and Onboard Babysitting

It’s a Small World Nursery on the Disney Dream (Photo: Disney)

Just because you're on a family cruise doesn't mean that you can't hit the spa or visit a winery in port. Consider lines that offer drop-off activities onboard when the ship is in port. This enables your child to play happily with friends while you scuba dive, golf, visit museums or browse boutiques.

Double-check that you can leave the ship while your children are in the youth club (some insist that one parent or guardian remains onboard) and whether there are any port-day fees. For example, Norwegian charges a fee to supervise kids during meals while their parents are off the ship.

Keep in mind during your selection process that most lines offer evening group babysitting in the kids clubs for a fee. Norwegian's Late Night Fun Zone, for example, operates from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. for a per-child hourly fee. Carnival, Disney, Holland America, Celebrity, MSC, Princess and Royal Caribbean also offer late-night programs.

5. Family Cruise Excitement: Enjoy Ample Swimming Pools and Water Play Areas

The Aqua Park on Norwegian Escape (Photo: Cruise Critic)

A favorite activity for family cruising is swimming and splashing. All family-friendly cruises feature pools, but some dedicate more space to water fun than others. Look for ships with multiple pools and/or water parks. Newer ships tend to have more water-based "wow" features than their older fleetmates.

Carnival ups the energy on its newer and refurbished ships with longer slides that snake, twirl and even "flush" passengers. Its WaterWorks play areas also feature splash areas and kiddie slides.

Young kids will also relish Royal Caribbean's tame H2O Zone, which brings out the giggles with geysers, water guns and small pools. Tweens, teens and adults can test their skills on the FlowRider, which is a surf simulator.

6. Family Cruises Activities: Don't Miss Out on the Best Onboard Activities for Families

Girlfriends on Harmony of the Seas (Photo: Royal Caribbean)

Beyond kids' clubs and pools, the most family-friendly cruise lines offer attractions and programs that kids and even parents can enjoy.

Many lines offer athletic activities, but Royal Caribbean sports are on another level, including ice skating, rock climbing, ziplines and surfing. Anthem of the Seas offers a deckside version of skydiving known as RipCord by iFLY, as well as the SeaPlex, an indoor fun space with bumper cars and roller skating.

MSC Grandiosa features a plethora of family-friendly activities, including a drone relay race, dance competition and shipwide spy experience. F1 race car simulators and 4D cinemas on several ships are fun for everyone.

Browse the available activities during your booking phase and opt for the ones that you will enjoy of course, but especially what your child or children will be excited about.

7. Family Cruise Entertainment: Ice Shows, Acrobats and More

Dreamworks characters performing at the AquaTheater on Allure of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Cruise lines are known for their evening entertainment, including family-friendly shows at night. Entertainment options tend to be surprisingly robust from cruise line to cruise line but also ship to ship.

Princess Cruises introduced Movies Under the Stars, films shown on deck while you relax in a lounge chair, tucked under a blanket. Carnival and other lines also offer outdoor movies. Disney astounds kids and adults with first-run movies in its indoor theater and its Disney-themed stage shows.

Older kids like the Broadway hits playing aboard Royal Caribbean, such as "Grease," "Mamma Mia" and "Saturday Night Fever." Ice skating, acrobatic and diving shows on select ships are great family fun as well.

There is a plethora of entertainment choices to select from regardless of your family's unique interests and the ages of your children. Be sure to choose the shows or other entertaining performances that will idyllically cater to you and your family.

8. Family Cruise Dining: Research Family-Friendly Dining Options Onboard

Best Cruise Lines for Milestone Birthdays (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)

No one goes hungry on a cruise ship. The family-friendly cruise lines satisfy kids of all ages (and their stomachs) with extended-hour pizza, lavish dinner buffets, specialty casual restaurants and room service. Opt for onboard dining that will pique your cruise family's interests -- and specifically adjust to your dietary needs.

Is your child lactose intolerant or do they have a food allergy? Alert the cruise line ahead of your embarkation day and talk to the head waiter once onboard. The cruise line will be happy to work out meals that your child can eat.

Most lines offer kids' menus at lunch and dinner. In Carnival's dining rooms, for example, young cruisers can order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, hot dogs or mac and cheese.

Along with signature restaurants geared towards teens and adults, Carnival's kid-friendly eateries include Guy's Burger Joint, Pizza Pirate, Cucina del Capitano and SeaDogs on Carnival Breeze and Magic.

9. Family Cruise Accommodations: Choose Family-Friendly Cabins on Cruise Ships

The Ultimate Family Suite on Symphony of the Seas (Photo: Royal Caribbean)

When picking a cruise ship and cabin category, consider options for connecting cabins, multiple berths in one cabin and family-focused staterooms. Choose the right cabin configuration that is best for you and your family.

Carnival Vista's Family Harbor cabins, for one example, range from inside staterooms to suites. All offer free access to the Family Harbor Lounge, which offers a buffet breakfast, daytime snacks, soft serve ice cream, TVs, computer stations and board games. If that piques your kids' and your interest, then this might be an ideal option for you.

If you've got a big group and are prepared to splurge, opt for special cabins and suites that can sleep more than four. On several of their ships, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a 500-plus-square-foot villa with two bedrooms that sleeps six in The Haven. Residents get access to Haven perks like an exclusive pool and sun decks, restaurants and lounges.

10. Family Cruise Ships: Find the Cruise Ship Size that Works for You and Your Family

Nassau Port

What size ship works best for you depends on the ages of your kids and your family's dynamic. The bigger ships tend to offer the most elaborate kids and teens facilities, lots of restaurant choice and over-the-top attractions.

On the other hand, big cruise ships can be confusing for younger children to navigate and can feel more crowded during peak seasons. That can mean waiting in lines at elevators and eateries, moving through packed hallways and needing to reserve specialty restaurants and shows in advance.

The smaller ships also tend to be the older ones, often with fewer balcony cabins or family-focused staterooms, restaurant options and glamorous top-deck attractions. However, most lines have upgraded their older ships.

Another factor to consider: The big, glitzy new ships book at top dollar, while older, smaller ships tend to cost less.

Unsure of which cruise size to choose? Then check out our article What's the Best Cruise Ship Size for You?.

11. Family Cruise Itinerary: Pick Destinations and Activities That You'll All Love

Family stargazing on Princess Cruises (Photo: Princess Cruises)

Everybody loves a beach, so the Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico cruise itineraries work for all ages. Alaska with its kayaking, rafting, fly fishing and dogsledding tends to appeal more to grade schoolers and teens than to young kids.

European cruises are somewhere in the middle, depending on how you structure your days. If a mix of parks and palaces are on your schedule, then little kids might be fine -- if you can hack the overseas flight and jet lag.

A heavy load of museums and historical sites can sometimes bore preschoolers -- and even teens. With active teens, look for itineraries with plenty of options for bike tours, hiking and water sports.

Also consider departing from a nearby port. If you drive to your ship, then you automatically save the cost of airfare and the hassles associated with flying. Plus, you can pack as much stuff as you can carry (that's especially helpful when traveling with diapers and strollers).

Publish date January 11, 2023
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