Today you see families cruise with kids in the Caribbean, Europe, Alaska and far-flung destinations like the Galapagos Islands. Given that the industry’s trade organization, CLIA, projects a whopping 32 million cruise passengers worldwide in 2020, you can count on kids being seen and heard everywhere.
Why take a Cruise Vacation Now?
Parents love cruising because they get a lot of bang for their vacation buck: activities, meals and lodging all for one price, including morning-till-night programming for kids, at considerably less than many resorts charge.
With more than one-third of itineraries already serving budget travelers and 19 new ships expected to debut this year, families should see a surge in value pricing throughout 2020, especially on longer cruises and newer routes.
What’s been called Skip-Gen Travel -– grandparents traveling with grandkids and leaving parents behind –- also flock to cruises because they’re an easy way to get the whole gang on vacation (especially in Alaska and Europe), get qualified assistance with the kids and reduce the stress of group travel.
Cruises make Family Vacations Easy
Cruise ships (a.k.a. floating hotels) are using more technology to make family vacations easy, with more activities families can enjoy together — including for those with special needs, digitally innovative teen hangouts, supervised kids’ camps that are often better equipped than preschools – even licensed nurseries at sea on some lines. Families also love the impact of the wellness trend, which is bringing more spa facilities and healthier dining options for all ages to the high seas.
Most families, however, say their favorite part of cruising is being able to visit new places without the hassles of packing, unpacking and getting lost. The family budget manager also likes knowing what they are paying up front, especially with all-inclusive programs on some lines and meal and/or drink plans on others. However, those new to cruising should be mindful of all the upcharges – today, several lines charge a premium for specialty restaurants, the coffee bars, ice cream shops and celebrity bakeries at sea and, increasingly, some activities on board. That’s in addition to shore excursions, which often carry an extra fee.
For the millions of travelers who cruise each year, the experience is far and away smooth sailing, but when something goes awry on a cruise ship, from norovirus outbreaks to missing bags, things can go south quickly, which is why travel insurance is as essential to pack as your favorite bathing suit and smartphone charger. Travel insurance from Allianz Global Assistance includes many benefits, such as trip cancelation coverage, emergency medical coverage, lost/delayed baggage coverage, trip delay coverage, trip interruption coverage, and more*. They offer affordable plans for every type of cruise, including annual plans for avid cruisers. Read your plan documents and if you’re not completely satisfied with your plan, you have 10 days (or more, depending on your state of residence) to request a refund. *terms and conditions apply
Exciting New Routes, Ports of Call
Another cruise plus: there are nearly two dozen U.S. home ports, from Boston to Seattle, eliminating the need for many families to fly to the port of embarkation. The 2020 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook from CLIA found that 65% of cruise passengers are spending at least a few days at their port of embarkation before or after a cruise to prolong their vacation time.
How to Pick the Right Family Cruise
Advances in always-connected technology for passengers at sea mean you won’t want to unplug on the major cruise lines. Fortunately, there are cruises for families who can’t wait to unplug; that’s why it’s so important to choose carefully.
So what are you waiting for? We’re featuring some of our favorite cruise lines plus great information from the 2020 Taking the Kids Cruise Guide to help you plan an adventure at sea, so set your sails.
Cruise Reviews Of Major Family-Friendly Cruises
Here are some great options to consider:
Adventures by Disney, the escorted tour operation run by the famed family brand, offers European river cruise sailings for families and adults. These luxury, all-inclusive itineraries escorted by expert guides are active, immersive and hassle free. The expanded 2020 season includes a record-breaking 27 river cruise departures along the Danube, Rhine, Seine and Rhone rivers.
What’s New: There’s a brand-new, eight-day, seven-night itinerary through southern France, including Provence, on the Rhone River onboard AmaCello. Adventures by Disney will embark on six Rhone River cruises, three for families and three for adults in this first year. Beginning in 2020, Adventures by Disney guests can enhance their European river cruise vacations with three-day, two-night Escapes to Paris, Amsterdam and Budapest. These guided group itineraries are designed to maximize vacation time, highlighting each city’s most well- known attractions while also uncovering unexpected hidden gems. Two dedicated Adventure Guides lead guests in enriching, exciting activities the whole family can enjoy. Adventures by Disney Escapes can be booked as standalone getaways.
For Kids and Teens: All Adventures by Disney river cruises feature the expert services of Disney-trained Adventure Guides, who specialize in creating unforgettable vacation experiences that parents, children and teens can enjoy. These range from active excursions, castle and museum tours and unique onboard activities to a special welcome party, teen and Junior Adventurer dinners and Disney movie nights that young guests can enjoy while adults enjoy wine-tasting and adult-only dinners.
Around the Ship: Sailing with AmaWaterways, a premier luxury river cruise line, these all-inclusive vacations allow guests to explore the heart of Europe with active, hands-on excursions.
The 27 ships in the Carnival Cruise Line’s fleet expect to carry more than 900,000 children in 2020, the most in the cruise industry.
What’s New: Carnival Panorama, Carnival’s newest ship that debuted in December operating year-round seven-day cruises to the Mexican Riviera from Long Beach – the line’s first new ship on the West Coast in 20 years. Carnival Panorama features family suites with access to a family lounge, Camp Ocean, Seuss at Sea (operated exclusively with Dr. Seuss Enterprises), the first Sky Zone trampoline park at sea and Smokehouse Brewhouse featuring barbeque favorites created by Guy Fieri and four brewed-on-board craft beers, among other cool features.
Also new for 2020 is Mardi Gras, scheduled to enter service from Port Canaveral, Florida, in November. The line’s largest and most innovative ship, Mardi Gras will offer a number of unique features including the first roller coaster at sea, the first seagoing restaurant from New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse and a wide variety of accommodations with 180 suites across 11 different categories.
For Kids: Carnival Cruise Line offers complimentary programming and facilities for kids in three age groups: Camp Ocean (ages 2-11) is designed for younger cruisers and features indoor play areas stocked with games and toys along with indoor climbing mazes, computer labs and video walls. Kids can also eat with their counselors so parents can enjoy a night to themselves, and enjoy a Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast with Dr. Seuss characters for a nominal fee.
For Tweens: Circle “C” provides 12- to 14-year olds with a place of their own to dance, watch movies outdoors, play games and get together with new friends.
For Teens: Club O2 (ages 15-17) includes a dance floor with a DJ, soda bar, movies, video games, and pool parties.
Around the Ship: Outdoor games and activities, along with children’s wading pools, and main Lido deck pools offering the line’s signature water slides. Outdoor play areas with mini basketball hoops, jungle gyms and other playground equipment, mini golf, as well as game rooms offering the latest video and arcade games, are available fleet-wide. Some ships offer suspended ropes courses as well as a bike-ride-in-the-sky attraction called SkyRide. The line also offers nightly babysitting and Carnival Night Owls featuring a full schedule of activities running as late as 1am (fees apply for babysitting and the Night Owls program).
These 13 ships, including the latest Celebrity Edge, are known for their sophisticated cuisine, upscale ambience, destination-focused itineraries and themed cruises focusing on art, food and wine. Families enjoy cruising Celebrity because it’s more low-key than its sister Royal Caribbean ships yet offers popular kids’ programming.
A cruise vacation with Europe’s leading cruise line will give your family a chance to get to know European families through a Teens Lounge plus the supervised Squok Club (activities grouped by ages 3-6 and 7-11) with Peppa Pig as the mascot. The Costa Crociere company, headquartered in Genoa, Italy and founded in 1948, has 27 ships (six more to come by 2021) which operate under the Costa, AIDA and Costa Asia brands.
This is one of the world’s largest river cruise companies operating more than 50 River and Small Ship cruises, including River Ships throughout Europe, Canal Barges in France, Mediterranean Cruises, and cruises around the world. International experience with a French Flair means service and food are excellent. There’s a friendly, multilingual staff, and shore excursions (included in rates) emphasize expert guided tours of local arts and history. CroisiEurope, while new to Americans, is very popular among European families because it’s the only river cruise where children under 2 travel free and children under 10 travel at a discount.
What’s New: Special Family Club Cruises with CroisiFamily itineraries in the summer months sail in Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Croatia, where children 16 and under travel free or half-priced. Multigenerational groups and groups of friends may prefer the privacy of one of their elegant, crewed barges which ply the canals through the gorgeous French countryside. Both options are very good value and you can see in our review of a CroisiEurope cruise.
For Kids: CroisiEurope features river cruises with cycling and hiking shore excursions for families who like to actively explore together and, with such superb cuisine, you won’t have to feel guilty about sampling everything.
For Teens: Tweens and teens with a cultural bent or an interest in practicing their French will love this river cruise. Look for itineraries offering hiking, biking and other off-beat shore tours for more adventurous travelers.
Around the Ship: CroisiEurope is the global leader in river cruiser ship building, so their vessels are extremely comfortable and able to navigate in unusual waters. There’s always a main restaurant, bar, lounges, library and roof deck space for sightseeing. Each ship is unique and designed for the smallest harbors at the destination, with easy access that’s ideal for family elders. Don’t expect constant activities or kids’ clubs because the focus is on the destinations and local culture.
The all-inclusive luxury cruise line, Crystal, reports that growing numbers of families and multigenerational groups are opting for the line’s six-star service and designated spaces for kids and teens — rare at this price point. The ships carry between 900 and 1,100 passengers with all of the amenities you’d expect on a cruise line touting luxury, service, space and enrichment programs. This year, Crystal is offering discounted Getaway Fares to popular Europe and Asia destinations with shorter itineraries.
Cunard continues the tradition of luxury cruising that began in 1840, complete with fencing and dance classes (on all three Queens), and is the only line offering regularly scheduled transatlantic service between New York and Southampton, England on flagship Queen Mary 2, including a kennel at sea.
What’s New: In 2020, Cunard doubles its program in Alaska when Queen Elizabeth sails 10 roundtrip voyages out of Vancouver, each ranging from 9-12 nights. Itineraries feature scenic cruising through the Inside Passage including the awe-inspiring Glacier Bay National Park. Cunard offers full days in several of the region’s ports including Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway, Victoria and Icy Straight Point. The famous Rocky Mountaineer Train will be offered pre- and post-Alaska cruise including three- or five-nights’ accommodation and two full days aboard the train. Queen Elizabeth will sail a three-night getaway cruise, July 3-5, 2020, down the West Coast to San Francisco where she will dock for a rare overnight stay to celebrate the Fourth of July.
For Babies: The Night Nursery is available for children ages 6-23 months from 6pm-11pm. It is free-of-charge on a first come, first served basis.
For Kids: Kids ages 2-7 are invited to the Play Zone, an area stocked with books, toys, puzzles, computer games, and more. Tots ages 6 months to 2 years are welcome with a parent in the Play Zone. The Kids Zone is for ages 8-12 and features gaming consoles, sports competitions, arts ‘n’crafts and karaoke.
For Teens: Teen Zone offers team games and deck sports by day, while evenings bring pizza and dance parties. Game consoles are available. All kids and teen programs are free-of-charge.
Disney leads in creative kids’ programming and activities, from character experiences, larger-than-life youth clubs, pools, aqua play areas and waterslides to themed deck parties that culminate with dance parties and fireworks at sea. Cruise Critic, the world’s leading cruise reviews site and online cruise community, has named Disney Cruise Line the Best for Families—for the fourth year in a row.
What’s New: In 2020, Disney Wonder will be the line’s first ship to sail from New Orleans, serving a variety of Caribbean and Bahamian ports. Travelers will delight in the Southern charm of this new Louisiana home port, and Disney fans will recognize the iconic sights and sounds that inspired the beloved animated film “The Princess and the Frog.” While onboard, the wonderful world of Princess Tiana comes to life in new ways with Tiana’s Place restaurant and the French Quarter Lounge, a space that transports guests into the heart of the city’s iconic French Quarter. Disney Magic will return to Greece after a five-year hiatus as part of three special Mediterranean voyages departing from Rome. During one 12-night and two nine-night cruises, travelers will call on the top Greek ports of Piraeus, ancient Olympia, Santorini, Mykonos and Crete, plus new ports in Italy or Croatia.
For Babies: Children ages 6 months to 3 years (or from 1 to 3 years old on Transatlantic and Panama Canal itineraries) are welcome at “it’s a small world” nursery, where they’ll be cared for by trained counselors. Nursery space is limited, and reservations are required.
For Kids: Open to kids ages 3-12, Disney’s Oceaneer Club is the ultimate destination for creativity and fun. Step into worlds inhabited by some of your favorite characters on each of the Disney ships, such as Andy’s Room, Star Wars: Millennium Falcon, Star Wars: Command Post, Marvel Super Hero Academy and Pixie Hollow.
For Tweens: The 11 to 14-year-olds have their own Edge club with comedy improv classes, trivia contests, pirate challenges and a lounge with flat-screen TVs, the latest video games, computers and more.
For Teens: Teens 14-17 have their own coffee bar and space in Vibe, a space to chill out, listen to music, watch TV and play group games. On the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, teens even have their own sundeck. There are even special teen shore excursions like The Wild Side at Castaway Cay, where teens explore on bikes, snorkel, and ride a high-speed boat around the island.
Around the Ship: There’s everything from character meals and meet-and-greets, first-run movies and Broadway-style entertainment to adult-only restaurants and deck areas. Families love Disney’s private island Castaway Cay with its snorkeling lagoon, bike trails, stingray encounter and beaches for everyone from adults to the entire family. 2020 brings don’t-miss limited engagements of two popular experiences – Star Wars Day at Sea and Marvel Day at Sea. Star Wars sets sail on the Disney Fantasy (seven-night cruises between January and March 2020) and Marvel superheroes rule the Disney Magic (five-night cruises from January to March 2020) on splendid voyages to the Caribbean and Bahamas featuring a special day at sea filled with unique character encounters, live shows and action-packed entertainment.
This line now carries more than 25,000 kids and their families aboard its 14 mid-size ships every year, including so many multi-generational groups that they have designed a special Family Reunion Program (for groups booking eight or more rooms) featuring complimentary room upgrades and more.
What’s New: Holland America’s ms Koningsdam is adding a series of northern Europe and Baltic cruises to HAL’s itineraries. With a $300-million investment, HAL is planning exciting enhancements to its top staterooms with new furnishings, decor, amenities and upgrades for all suites on the line’s Signature, Vista and R-Class Ships. There is also an emphasis on programs and activities that bring aboard the culture and cuisine of the region where the ship is sailing with cooking demonstrations, port-to-table dishes in the dining room and cultural ambassadors. Holland America recently was recognized by Cruise Critic for having the best dining program at sea.
For Babies: Holland America welcomes infants 6 months and older (12 months on Transocean sailings). By advance request through the Service Department, guests may arrange commercial baby food, diapers and refrigerators for a nominal fee. A limited number of high chairs, booster seats and cribs are available at no charge.
For Kids: The Club HAL program provides supervised activities for kids ages 3-12. All children participating in the youth program must be completely toilet trained and pull-up free. Younger cruisers (ages 3-7) enjoy their own space where they can play, create and make new friends. Club HAL activities include PJ parties, arts and crafts, pirate treasure hunts. kids Olympics, video game tournaments, and more. Children with special needs are invited to attend Club HAL activities under the supervision a trained staff. The ms Oosterdam, sailing this winter from San Diego, is piloting a new-style kids’ and teen Hi-Score program with self-starting activities for kids and ones they can share with their families.
For Tweens: The 8-12s have their Club Hal area featuring air hockey, foosball, Kinect for Xbox 360, and large LED screens for video games and movies. Teens also enjoy dance parties, deck sports, trivia nights, karaoke and Xbox tournaments.
For Teens: The Loft is an adult-free lounge where teens ages 13-17 can hang out and enjoy movies, games, and music. The teen-only space, supervised by HAL staff, is where teens enjoy music, games and more. Other activities include volleyball, a steel drum class, jewelry making and mocktail mixologies. Guests age 16 and older are invited to use the onboard Fitness Center.
Around the Ship: Look for swimming pools, basketball, volleyball and tennis. Families love the private island Half Moon Cay with its array of activities like snorkeling, bicycle tours, water sports, and adventure areas. In addition to Club HAL and teen activities, kids’ programming and cartoons are on the in-cabin television on the HAL entertainment channels.
MSC Cruises offers innovative itineraries, family-friendly deals, single parent specials and a few unexpected luxury perks such as an Aqua Park, water slides and supervised clubs for ages 3-17 to guests from around the world. Premium experiences include a new nursery for ages 1-3 years plus VR thrills and a gaming arcade. Kids 11 and under sail free on select sailings on MSC Cruises too. Guests of the all-inclusive MSC Yacht Club also enjoy special suites, a luxury lounge with a special 24-hour concierge and butler service, private dining and more on select ships.
Norwegian Cruise Line invites you to cruise with your kids on 17 ships departing from several U.S. and European homeports plus more than a dozen additional departure ports worldwide in Asia, Australia/Pacific, Africa and South America. The line is distinctive for “Freestyle” Dining meaning you can eat when you want and where you want, although many of the a la carte options carry a premium fee. The newer ships have space dedicated to craft brews and fine wines, Broadway shows, a nursery accepting passengers ages 6 months and up, plus innovative use of outdoor spaces. Norwegian Encore is NCL’s newest, glitiziest ship.
Princess Cruises’ new ship Sky Princess introduced the line’s first Sky Suites, which feature the largest balconies at sea and can accommodate up to five guests making them ideal for families. Sky Princess’ sister ship, Enchanted Princess, which debuts in June, will also feature the Sky Suites. Families love Princess’ private island in the Caribbean and family-friendly shore excursions. Be forewarned that the line’s smaller vessel, Pacific Princess, doesn’t have dedicated youth spaces, but children’s programs operate when 20 or more children ages 3-17 are on board.
What’s New: Sky Princess introduces the first escape room at sea, Phantom Bridge. Other highlights include the breathtaking Atrium & Piazza, over 50% larger than on other Princess ships, their largest Movies Under the Stars screen, two deep tank swimming pools, a brick-oven pizzeria, and signature features like The SeaWalk, a dramatic glass-bottom walkway which USA TODAY calls one of the “Top Gee-Whiz Features at Sea.” A refit to Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess in 2019 added The Reef, their first spray park, which is ideal for younger cruisers.
In collaboration with Discovery Inc., Princess has expanded its Discover at Sea partnership with re-imagined youth centers called Camp Discovery. Experiences are focused on Play, Discover, Huddle (interact with peers) and Create, with lots of activities for each. Additionally, cultural activities related to the Caribbean, Alaska and Europe will help young cruisers learn about the customs and nature of where they cruise, and MythBusters science activities will challenge their minds.
For Kids: Princess Youth Programs start at age 3 with The Treehouse, a bright, whimsical forest and animal-themed center including hands-on activities for kids. In-room babysitting is not available, but there is late night group sitting for $5 per child. On shore days, youth programs are offered.
For Tweens: The Lodge for 8-to 12-year-olds is inspired by the great outdoors and is filled with sports activities and places for kids to explore and hang out.
For Teens: The Beach House will offer ages 13-17 a contemporary surf-themed lounge where teens can hang out and socialize. There will be parties, movies, teen makeovers, dance classes and game competitions.
Around the Ship: Families love the Movies Under the Stars, swimming pools, the line’s private island Princess Cay, video games, basketball courts and more. Afternoon tea is a time-honored tradition on Princess ships. The Voice of the Ocean is a popular game show guests can participate in and Princess Cruises’ partnership with award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz brings Broadway-caliber musicals on board. Guests can get moving with Zumba Fitness at sea, the exhilarating dance-fitness program. Discovery at Sea brings some favorite TV shows and hosts on board with programs like Shark Week, Discovery and Animal Planet Shore Excursions and Stargazing with Discovery at Sea.
Regent Seven Seas is known for their small ships, attentive service, food and amenities. Everything is included—even shore excursions. That’s why the upscale line is a favorite of grandparents who are treating their families to a trip, particularly a bucket list trip in Alaska.
Think family vacation — on steroids. Think of every kind of food and entertainment you could want aboard some of the world’s biggest and most innovative ships. And that’s only the beginning — this is not the cruise line for couch potato relaxation.
And Some Parting Thoughts
The environment and safety continue to be hot topics in cruising. With nine of 10 families surveyed using the environmental record of cruise lines to make their choices, we are closely watching these companies’ self-reported responsible tourism practices. These might include the use of cleaner fuels, energy conservation, waste management, ocean conservation and transparency in reporting. Things are getting better, true, but there’s a long way to go. We also hope to see more innovative programming and guest education around environmental issues.
There were several high-profile safety failures during 2019, including fender-benders between ships, collisions with sightseeing vessels and several tragic shore excursion incidents. According to CLIA, the industry’s trade organization, cruising is safer than any other leisure transportation alternative. Their studies indicate that between 2009-2018, cruise ship capacity grew by more than 55% while the number of operational incidents fell by 37%.
Pool safety continues to be another real concern aboard cruise ships. Fortunately, since 2013 when Disney was the first cruise line to establish lifeguards at cruise ship pools, more cruise lines are providing trained lifeguards on duty during the hours when their ship’s pools are open.
Nonetheless, families have to be responsible for their children. Please study these pool safety tips and be constantly vigilant aboard ship — and on land — when you’re around water.
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