I recently sailed with my wife and both of our kids (8 and 6 years old) onboard the Norwegian Bliss to the Mexican Riviera. While our whole family has sailed together before, this was the first time in over four years. Our hiatus was mainly due to the pandemic. Cruising with kids can certainly add some complexities to the planning process, and you are likely to encounter some different scenarios onboard than you’re used to. Here are five areas I think are key to evaluate, to ensure smooth sailing with your little ones. Or maybe not so little ones.
1. Picking a ship or cruise line.
Not all cruise lines and ships are created equal. Selecting the right one for you or your family should always be the first order of business. Most of the mass market lines cater to kids and families on some level, but Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Disney are the four that immediately come to mind for me. You’ll want to check your children’s age against each cruise line’s club policy. Some start younger than others, and some break the age groups up into smaller groups than others.
When I sail solo, or just with my wife, I have no issue sailing on older ships with few bells and whistles. If we are bringing the kids, that all changes. I need things to keep them busy. Water slides, splash pads, go carts, laser tag, ropes course, the ship needs to have it all! If you stick to ships that have been built in the last five years or so, you’re bound to have plenty of amenities to keep the little ones occupied.
One other thing I’ll mention, as we are still working our way through this pandemic. Keep your eye on restrictions or limitations specific to children. For example, NCL has not re-opened their kids club Splash Academy yet. We knew of this going into our Bliss sailing a couple weeks ago so it wasn’t a big deal, but I’d hate for it to be a surprise to someone. NCL is hoping to open it back up in the next month or so, but Carnival and Royal Caribbean have both already re-opened their respective kid’s clubs. I suspect something like that could sway families one way or another.
2. Picking an itinerary.
When it comes to an itinerary with kids, there are two things I like to think about. Are there enough sea days versus port days, and are there simple things we can do while in port? If you’re headed to the Caribbean, chances are it’ll be quite hot. Kids tend to get really tired and cranky when they are hot, so definitely keep that in mind.
The sea days are key to having some down time relaxing by the pool. If your kids are old enough, sea days are the time for them to run off to the water slides and splash pads, and make some new friends. You’ll find me in a lounger with a drink in my hand while I keep an eye on them from afar!
As for port days, you’ll certainly want to explore and see the new places your ship has brought you. Would I suggest an eight-hour excursion, that involves a lot of physical activity, and a one-hour bus ride each way? Absolutely not. What I would suggest will vary by age. If your little ones are under five, I’d absolutely try to find an itinerary that has ports with beaches within walking distance of the port. Even better would be a stop at a cruise line private island. As the kids get a bit older there is certainly a lot more options. Something with a mix of activity and relaxing is always good. Having an excursion with a meal included always helps too. Kids are always hungry, right? In Puerto Vallarta recently we did a five-hour excursion that involved a short hike, a tour of a local ranch, and a couple hours at a local day resort. It really was a perfect mix for our family.
As I mentioned before, cruise line private islands have a lot to offer families. I’ll include a couple YouTube videos below that show what they are all about.
3. Getting to and from the cruise port.
Just as I said not all cruise lines are created equal, well neither are cruise ports. Some are super close to airports, while others can be an hour away from the closest major airport. If your kids don’t require car seats, it makes this option a little less important. If they do require a full car seat be sure you research what that entails, from checking it at the airport, to using it or not for transportation to and from the cruise port, to needing it in ports of call. My advice would be to find a port and itinerary that makes it possible to not bring one. There’s no way I would want to be lugging a car seat around, plus you will have to find room for it in your cabin, where space is already at a premium.
While both of my kids are just old enough now to get away without using a car seat while traveling, there was one product that we have used numerous times that made traveling with little ones a lot easier. If your kids are in a booster seat stage and you plan on using Uber/taxi or renting a car a Bubble Bum might be a great investment. They are easy to travel with and relatively inexpensive. The link below is not an affiliate link, I just love the product enough to mention it.
4. Cabin Accommodations
I’ve always been in the mindset that I can get by with inside cabins, or four passengers to a cabin, if needed. However, on our recently Bliss sailing, we were feeling crowded in a standard balcony cabin with the four of us. I’m not sure what it was, as I’ve sailed with four adults in an inside cabin before and didn’t feel quite this crowded. The good news is there are some options to get some more space without upgrading to larger, usually more expensive, suites. Here are some ideas.
Adjoining Cabins – These are cabins next to each other which have a connecting door between them inside the cabin. You’ll generally find these in oceanview or balcony cabins. It obviously does require booking two cabins versus one, but in some cases it’s not that much more expensive to do so. It doesn’t hurt to price check it.
Family Specific Cabins – Some of the mass market lines offer family specific cabin set ups. Here are some examples.
Royal Caribbean – Oceanview Panoramic Suite can be found in the front section of several Royal ships. They boast floor to ceiling windows overlooking the bow. They have a separate sleeping area for the kids, but it does lack a proper balcony.
Photo Credit: Brian Carty
Disney Cruise Line – In many DCL cabins the bathrooms are split. Meaning the shower/bath are in one area and the toilet is an another. This can certainly alleviate some congestion when a family of four is trying to get ready for dinner.
Carnival Cruise Line – The Family Harbor is a ship within a ship concept just for families. While the cabins themselves may not add a lot of extra space, the dedicated area for Family Harbor guests is some extra space to take advantage of. You can send the teens off to play some video games in the lounge while the rest of the family gets ready for the day ahead.
Norwegian Cruise Line – While many of NCL’s haven suites would be great for a family, many of them are way over most passenger’s budgets. There is one hidden gem on the Norwegian Joy, it’s Concierge Family Suites. They are not part of the Haven experience, so the price tag is reflecting of that. They do have suite like space. Separate sleeping area for the kids and a living room area for congregating as a family. One feature it does lack is a balcony, but the size of the cabin outweighs that in my opinion.
With all the options out there for family accommodation there is bound to be something that fits both your needs and budget. As our family looks forward to making our next booking, we will be thinking about adding some more space to the cabin, even if that means compromising with another area.
Obviously, cruise ships are known for having endless food options. This is great for families as the commitment for dining can be custom fit to your needs. Want something quick? Hit up the buffet. Want a night out, without the kids? Send them to the kid’s club and make that reservation. One tip I always like to share is that kids can usually eat for free in specialty restaurants (off of the kids’ menu) when joining adults. There is no need to pay the up-charge for them. Unless of course they want to order of the proper specialty restaurant menu.
On our recent sailing on the Bliss, we did mostly the buffet for breakfast and lunch. We ate two of the nights for dinner in the buffet as well and dined in specialty restaurants the other five nights. Most of the nights the kids ate from the kid’s menu and were happy to do so. The only exception was at Teppanyaki the hibachi restaurant, my daughter wanted to order from the specialty menu.
Options are going to vary from one line to another and from one ship to another. Be sure to see what your ship offers and come up with a game plan from there. Cruising with kids can come with unexpected changes, be sure to cancel any reservations you won’t make, and do your best not to be a no show. The food and dining experience is one of the best parts of cruising. You will not go hungry, that’s for sure!
There is no way I could comment on all the touch points of cruising with kids, but I hope I at least got you thinking about some key areas. If you have some specific questions, I would love to share my thoughts with you. Feel free to email or DM me on social media with your questions.
I’ve also sailed with my kids a few times in the past. You may find those blog posts beneficial and they can be found below.
If you enjoyed this content, I please ask that you subscribe to my blog by submitting your email in the subscription box to the right (or below on mobile devices). If you are looking for more cruise chat and content be sure to check out Cruise Life Group. If photos are your thing, be sure to check out my Instagram, I post a lot there!