More families than ever are choosing to spend their vacation dollars on cruises. Cruises give great value — if you choose the right cruise line and watch what you spend onboard.
Disney attracts families with children of all ages, including infants. The nurseries on the Disney Magic, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy ships have facilities for children as young as three months old. There are programs and entertainment for older kids, as well as adults-only pleasures like spas, upscale restaurants and adults-only pools, so Disney does provide something for everyone. This line doesn’t offer the cheapest cruises, but there are always special deals on their website — for example, deals for Florida residents and military personnel as well as specials on cruises departing from Port Miami.
There are good reasons why Carnival will carry more than 700,000 children aboard its 24-ship fleet this year; these include budget-friendly pricing and promotions and the constant addition of family-oriented programs and amenities.
The Carnival Breeze, for example, has more than 19,000 square feet of space for teens and younger children, including WaterWorks, which features a 312-foot-long spiral water slide and a 300-gallon tipping bucket. As part of Carnival’s, $500 million “Fun Ship 2.0” enhancement, the Breeze also offers Hasbro, The Game Show, as well as the interactive Thrill Theater and SportSquare, an open-air recreation complex.
Camp Carnival is designed for 2-11 year olds, but during Camp Carnival’s Night Owls (10 p.m. to 3 a.m.) limited services are available for children younger than 2. While almost all lines offer babysitting services, Carnival’s rates, at $6.75 per child, per hour, like Disney’s, are gentle. An added convenience: Carnival caretakers change diapers, most other lines do not (Norwegian and Royal Caribbean will page parents when a change is needed).
Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), which sometimes offers a “kids sale free” promotion, has Kids Crew programs for children from 2-12. The Late Night Fun Zone (10:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m.) costs $6 per child, per hour, $4 for additional siblings. Private babysitting is not available. Character breakfasts with SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer and Nickelodeon at Sea have young-kid appeal. The Norwegian Epic’s bowling alleys and two-story Wii gaming appeal to the older crowd.
Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Youth program has something for every age group, from babies to teens, with activities like theme parties, pajama nights, science programs and scavenger hunts. In-cabin babysitting is available for children 12 months and over, from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. While the size of RCL’s Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas (each carries over 5,000 passengers) might be daunting for very young kids, activities like Flow Rider, Zip line, ice skating and boxing have great appeal for teens.
Holland America Line attracts more than 25,000 kids and their families, including multi-generational groups, aboard its 15 ships every year. The Club HAL program covers ages 3-12 and offers age-specific activities for each group. All ships have a teen program (including dedicated teens-only “hangout” areas) for ages 13-17.
HAL also has a kids and teens Culinary Arts Center activity program, which incorporates dishes from breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in complimentary classes lasting 45 minutes each.
Babysitting services are available from 10 p.m.-midnight during Club HAL, after-hours for children ages 3 and up; the cost is only $5 per hour, per child. At other times and for younger children, limited babysitting may be available at higher cost.
Celebrity Cruises’ youth program includes six age groups, from under 3 years old to teens, ages 15-17, with appropriate activities for each. Private in-cabin babysitting costs $19 per hour for up to three children (minimum age, 12 months old).
MSC, which regularly offers “kids sail free” promotions, has four Children’s Club age groups, from 3 to 17 years old. Early this year, the line rolled out enhanced programs in sports activities, arts and crafts and theater and technology. Musica and Lirica class ships have a dedicated kids and teens dance floor.
While there are many options for family cruises, there is no one-size-fits-all cruise. To choose well, determine your budget. Where would you like your cruise to go? Do you want complete or partial freedom from the kids while you’re at sea? Is private babysitting important? Will the entire family take shore excursions, and if so, does the ship you’re considering offer age-appropriate choices? The more details you can provide about your needs and wishes, the easier it will be to find the perfect match.
If you are a first-timer, my recommendation would be to do some basic research at the websites of the various cruise lines; check out any special offers they have – and then visit a travel agent who is a cruise specialist. Using the services of a cruise specialist will not cost anything (agents get their commissions from the cruise lines), will help you make the best choice – and may get you upgrades and onboard credits not published online.
General tips for saving money:
1. If you’re within driving distance of such cities as Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Galveston, Baltimore and Miami, look for cruises that “homeport” there; you’ll bypass the cost and tedium of air travel and enjoy a “no fly” vacation at sea.
2. When you’re comparing prices between one ship and another, carefully consider what is included and what is not. For example, when you buy a cruise on Carnival, that price generally includes your stateroom, meals (but not at the alternative dining venues) and basic beverages: coffee (but not the “fancy” coffees sold at standalone coffee bars), tea, iced tea and water (not in bottles). Everything else — shore excursions, Internet, soft drinks, cocktails and wine, photos taken by the ship’s photographers – is extra. Sometimes a higher base price that is more inclusive can be a better buy.
3. Finally, once you’ve made your choice, decide before your cruise how you will budget your onboard “spend.” For example, if you’ve bought a basic cruise and your kids can’t live without soft drinks – or you and your husband can’t live without a glass of wine with meals – look into the beverage packages the cruise line sells. That can be a cheaper alternative to buying one soda or one glass of wine at a time. If your ship doesn’t offer free Internet, limit your use to Internet cafes on shore. And if your cruise does not include any shore excursions, consider using the hop-on, hop-off bus tours offered at many ports.
I like to use a site called cruisecompete.com . You select the cruise you want, then different travel agents bid to see who can give you the best price.
My other advice is to not book the excursions through the cruise lines. Do some research before you leave and you can find the same activities for 1/2 the price.