FTF examines cruise kids' programs and offers tips on how to avoid a psychic and financial bruising when planning a floating holiday.
Having been a guest on a Royal Caribbean cruise to the Caribbean, I’m the first to say it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Cruising, as in my stereotyped image of endless buffets, shuffleboard playoffs, and drunken gamblers, has changed. Families can now choose among many excellent kids’ programs, nature-oriented shore excursions, nightlife options, and round-the-clock dining (all included in one price) for a cruise vacation.
Even adults who’ve forsworn cruising will enjoy setting sail with their kids because kids love cruising. My 5-year-old (very experienced in kids’ programs) reviewed the ship’s facilities succinctly: “The whole boat is 10 stories, with a six-story lobby, and a glass elevator. I thought it was really great because there was a ballroom and a space ship and a slide and stuff for the kids to play on.”
Kids I interviewed in the ship’s supervised kids program, Adventure Ocean Youth Program (ages 3-17), broken into five age groups, all agreed. Sasha, age 12 from Vancouver, B.C. was thrilled to win 1st place in the Elvis Presley Look-Alike Contest, even though he didn’t know who Elvis was. Madeline, a 10-year-old Californian, was caught roaming with a partner for a ship-wide scavenger hunt: “Yeah, it’s really neat. Gotta’ go.” Chloe (4) of Massachusetts loved her Dolphin Encounter shore excursion and “I wasn’t scared.” Russell (17), caught in a tuxedo on his way to the Captain’s Dinner, pronounced the teen’s program, “Um, pretty cool.”
Kids who take part in this program have the chance to participate in hands-on science experiments, art classes, talents contests, sports events, scavenger hunts, and pool parties. Royal Caribbean also invites teens to go to the nightclub especially designed for them, or to go to coffee nights and karaoke where they can meet people their own age and have fun. Prices for this program vary, ranging in price from $8-$10/hour.
On our sailing, about 15% of the passengers were under 17 and it seemed like most were checked into the age-appropriate camp. These activity camps operated only when the ship was at sea, and relied on 10 cheerful counselors with CPR training, early childhood education degrees, teaching certificates, and 11 languages between them to keep order…and then some. My son, like other kids, insisted on staying the better part of the 9:30am-10pm day and was totally exhausted by the time we disembarked. Adults had plenty of time for themselves, and no one cared what destinations we covered.
I had the chance to read a good book and have afternoon tea; my son felt very independent and engaged; we both thought it was lots of fun. If you’re not sure this is what you want from a cruise, read on.
How to Avoid a Psychic Bruising
To avoid a bruised psyche and a bruised wallet, ask yourself what you expect from a cruise vacation. Do you want:
Worry-free time with your children?
Investigate the shore excursions because that’s the only time you’ll see your kids.
Some R’n’R so you can read a novel and not feel guilty?
Ask about the ship’s children’s programs so you know the kids will be occupied productively. This is especially important with infants and toddlers, as many ships do not have supervised programs for kids under 3.
Want to explore destinations better served by boat?
Ask about the ship’s size (smaller is better) and the qualifications of guides, on-board naturalists, or lecturers who will lead excursions.
A romantic dinner with your spouse?
Ask if private babysitting, for a fee, is guaranteed. Some of the cruise lines are also offering a children’s seating in the dining room attended by counselors so that parents can dine alone.
A chance to lounge in the sun, swim a bit, and be pampered?
Find out if the ship is large enough to have several pools, a fitness center, spa and any other facilities you and your kids may want.
Make sure to include older children in this discussion. Once you’ve narrowed down the family’s needs in terms of facilities and itineraries, it’s time to call a travel agent and request brochures. If you are overwhelmed by the choices, visit the helpful site, www.cruisecritic.com.
How to Avoid a Financial Bruising
Cruise fares have become extremely competitive, particularly on Caribbean and Bahamas sailings. Cruise expert Tim Rubacky of www.cruisemates.com warns that “lead-in pricing” is meant to catch your eye, and bargain rates less than $100/day may not get you the cabin you dream of. “Whereas a 7 night cruise in an inside cabin may cost you $699 per person, upgrading to an outside or ‘ocean view cabin can be as little as $150-$200 additional cost per person. Or you may wish to upgrade to a stateroom with a verandah. This will usually cost you about $750 per person more for the week.” Remember that cruise rates are based upon double occupancy, and putting two little ones to sleep on pull-down overhead bunks (known as the third and fourth berth) usually costs very little extra.
- Most cruise agents will package airfare and airport/port transfers for the price that cruise companies quote.
- If you book several months in advance, you’ll have the advantage of selecting a ship, itinerary, and cabin (larger cabins and suites sleeping four or five go fast), and will usually score up to 50% off the brochure price. However, many companies offer last-minute discounts to those booking within 60 days of departure.
- Regardless of how far in advance you plan, a good travel agent will often be able to match any lower rates advertised before you sail.
- A few consolidators purchase blocks of cabins for resale at discount: two of the best known are Cruises Only (800/CRUISES) and World Wide Cruises (800/882-9000).
How to Make the Most of your Cruise
Pack lightly. You won’t need a lot, but bring changes for the kids because laundry service can be quite expensive.
Carry-on luggage. Keep bathing suits and some pass-the-time essentials in a carry-on bag for boarding the ship, so the family can swim while waiting for luggage to be delivered to cabins.
Forget the toys. You don’t want to be stuck in your cabin, and the ship’s kids’ camp will have plenty. Do bring a journal, books, markers or some quiet-time projects for low-key play during the heat of the afternoon.
Forget seasickness. It is rarely a problem on cruise ships, whose state-of-the-art stabilizers keep rocking motion to a minimum. However, the Purser will have anti-nausea medications on board, if needed.
Acknowledge children’s anxiety. Warn the family that before sailing, the requisite lifeboat drill, accompanied by shrill whistles, will occur. Review the location of life vests and how to wear them with young children. Kids who have seen the movie Titanic, may need to be reminded just how safe cruise ships are.
Toot. Toot. Still undecided if cruising is for you? All ashore that’s going ashore.
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