5 family-friendly cruises

Looking for a getaway idea that will wow even the hardest to please members of the family? Cruise lines have gotten wise to the trend of multi-generational travel and are now offering more options than ever before. With more choices for accommodations, a wider variety of activities for all ages and special themed programs, cruises are becoming an increasingly attractive option for family together time.

If you’re thinking of sailing the high seas on your next getaway, here are some tips and ideas to get you started.

What to look for

In addition to the usual things you look for in a cruise — like destination, duration, price, amenities, accommodations and safety — watch for these family-friendly features:

Smaller age groups. As anyone who is around kids knows, there’s a big difference between a four year old and an eight year old. Many family-friendly cruises now tailor their activities more closely to children’s development and interests rather than large groups — and the tighter the age range, the better. For example, look for activities for 3-5 or 6-8 years of age instead of 3-8 years.

Activities for youths and teens. They’re not old enough for adults-only, but they don’t want to be treated like children either. Special activities and areas like youth clubs, teen dance parties and spa treatments give this age group some freedom and independence — and, more importantly, a chance to meet new friends. Some lines even offer teens-only shore excursions as well.

Services for toddlers. Planning to travel with tots? Find out what activities, services and guidelines are in place before you commit. Some cruises have restrictions — like children must be three years of age and potty trained before they can join activities or use the pool — while others offer special programs and daycare for little ones. Be forewarned: many places require parents be on call to change diapers.

Adults-only spaces and activities. Sometimes parents and grandparents enjoy time away from rambunctious youngsters and some fun after “bedtime”. Look for adults-only amenities like pools, spas, restaurants, nightclubs and evening entertainment.

Activities for the whole family. Time apart is nice, but family vacations are all about the together time.

Watch for interesting onboard activities that go beyond the usual offerings. Don’t leave anyone behind when you make port — look for shore excursions that meet the whole family’s interests and abilities.

Family suites. Cruise lines are offering more variety in accommodations, including family staterooms, interconnecting rooms and suites that can sleep as many as 16 people. Extra space is a boon not just for privacy, but so adults and older children can spend time together while youngsters sleep supervised but undisturbed.

Dining options. Is there something to please everyone, including sit down dinners and places to grab a quick bite? Check out the choices ahead of time — especially if your family has food allergies or dietary restrictions.

Qualified instructors and care providers. Will the kids be spending time away from parents and grandparents? If so, it’s a good idea to check up on who will be providing care and leading activities. Ask about the leaders’ qualifications, training and safety certification — and how they can get in touch with you if there’s a problem.

(Need a little more help? Try our tips for choosing a cruise and planning a group getaway.)

5 family friendly cruise lines

Need some inspiration? These cruise companies get top marks and awards for their family friendly offerings:

Carnival: Carnival offers supervised programs for kids from 3-11 with its Camp Carnival program, while Circle “C” (for ages 12-14) and Club 02 (for teens 14-17) offer a more laid back atmosphere geared to hanging out with new friends. For the grown-ups, the ship offers an ideal “night on the town” with a mix of shows (including comedy, live music and stage shows), dining options, bars and nightclubs and casinos. During the day, do some shopping, take in an art gallery and indulge in a little pampering at the spa.

Cruise idea: Want to give family cruising a try before you go all-in? Try a 2-day “Cruise to Nowhere”. These voyages depart from New York City and Norfolk and loop out into the ocean for a full day (and two nights) at sea. ( More information.)

Disney Cruise Lines: The “magic of Disney” is a huge draw for kids of all ages with activities, excursions and entertainment focusing on the company’s classic films and iconic characters. Watch live shows featuring your favourite characters, meet Mickey Mouse and friends at autograph sessions and attend themed events, like the “Pirates in the Caribbean” deck party.

Cruise idea: Can’t get enough Disney? Pair a visit to the Walt Disney World theme park in Florida with a weekend or short cruise package to the Bahamas. Itineraries include port calls in Nassau and the company’s private island retreat, Castaway Cay. ( More information.)

Royal Caribbean International:. This line gets the nod for age-appropriate children’s programming with it’s Adventure Ocean® program and activities for youth and teens. The Explorer Academy offers a variety of lessons ranging from learning to ice skate or rock climb to wine tastings and cooking demonstrations. Just because it’s family-friendly, doesn’t mean the line scrimps on adult entertainment — nightclubs and casinos are also part of the package.

Cruise idea: Disney isn’t the only line to bring in some characters. Starting December 2010, various ships starting with the Allure of the Seas will feature DreamWorks’ favourites like Shrek , Madagascar and How to Train Your Dragon . Escape winter with a 7-day cruise through the Mexican Riviera or Caribbean. ( More information.)

Costa: With four clubs for various age groups and plenty of activities from face painting and jewelry to wellness spas and fine dining, this line has a little something for everyone. Many of the line’s ships, like the nostalgic Costa Fortuna and the new Costa Mediterranea, provide a sense of culture and a unique atmosphere, not to mention added bonuses like Italian lessons. Another bonus: adults are guaranteed two nights off during special themed dinners and parties just for kids.

Cruise idea: While Costa sails to destinations around the world, including the Far East and Asia, the ships’ atmosphere is ideal for an Italian or Mediterranean cruise adventure. ( More information.)

Norwegian Cruise Line: Not only does NCL offer a variety of activities for the whole family, it also promises to have the widest variety of family-friendly accommodations — including multi-room suites, interconnecting staterooms and villas. (It’s also CruiseCritic.com’s choice for “Best suites”.) The Nickelodeon™ at Sea programs offers activities for families to enjoy together — and get a little messy with the popular game show, Slime Time LIVE!

Cruise idea: Perfect your swing and show the youngster the ropes. As the official cruise line of the PGA TOUR and Champions Tour, NCL offers access to some top-notch courses in Bermuda and Hawaii — perfect for their “freestyle cruising” style. ( More information.)

Naturally, this is just a small selection of the many choices out there. There’s no limit to the destinations, but make sure family-friendly ships are available when and where you want to travel.

How can you tell if a particular package or cruise is right for you? Don’t guess — get everyone involved in the planning. Find out what activities interest your travel companions and be ready to make some compromises. Also, if this is your first time, you may want to seek the advice of a travel agent who specializes in cruises or family vacations too.

The choice can be overwhelming, but there are many good sources online to help you dig through the details. Here are three sources to help you start:

About.com: Cruises covers general planning information and specific cruise programs for kids and youth.

Cruisecritic.com has advice on all aspects of cruise planning and news.

Wejustgotback.com specializes in family vacations, and their cruise section offers advice from families who have been there. The website also offers and age-by-age guide of best cruises and activities.

Additional sources: TravelandLeisure.com, National Geographic Blogs, cruise line websites

A cruise of a lifetime
Five fabulous family destinations
The ultimate un-cruise