Case in point: My son, whose first cruise was over his first birthday, is not an easy traveler. He doesn't nap on the go, is constantly getting into everything and can't handle staying up late. He needs a family-friendly ship with a safe play space for babies, early dining options and possibly a dark corner of the cabin for sleeping. Other babies are more accommodating and can cheerfully adjust to a more adult-focused ship. These are the tykes whose gracious dinner manners and unobtrusive playing make them the darlings of their shipmates and the crew.
In addition to the basics of booking the best cruise for your family, you can do a number of things to be well prepared for a vacation with baby. If you plan to hit the open ocean with tyke in tow, here's our list of do's and don't's to make planning much easier. And if you want to find out which amenities different ships offer for the youngest cruisers, check out Cruise Critic's ship reviews, as well as our Family Cruises section, or talk to a knowledgeable travel agent.
Booking a Cruise
DO book in advance as far as possible. Booking early will help you secure your preferred dinner seating (early set dining or anytime dining are often the best choices for little ones with early bed times) and cabin configuration (family cabins, extra-berth cabins and quirky cabins with extra space can sell out quickly).
DON'T underestimate the usefulness of a balcony cabin. On warm-weather cruises, you can soak up the rays on your private verandah during baby's naptime and not feel as if you're stuck in the cabin for hours.
DO look for a cabin with a room-dividing curtain or wall. Some ships feature cabins with curtains that can be pulled to separate the sitting and sleeping portions of the living space. Designated family cabins might have sliding-door dividers or tiny second bedrooms within larger oceanview cabins. These are especially helpful when baby is asleep and you want to read with the lights on or watch TV.
DON'T expect your cabin to have a bathtub. Unless you're cruising on Disney or in a suite, your cabin is likely to be shower-only. If baby won't stand for a shower or a sponge bath, pack an inflatable bathtub.
DO look for a ship with a 24-hour buffet -- or at least one that doesn't close in the late afternoon. Having a casual dinner alternative for your little one is key if baby doesn't like to sit through formal meals. On some ships, though, the buffet isn't always amenable to an early dining schedule. Depending on your kid, room service can be messy. And don't underestimate your child's ability to handle sit-down dinners. Many babies love the social nature of eating with the grown-ups ... and the background buzz could lull them into a stroller nap.
DON'T overlook your laundry options. If baby tends to be messy and you don't want to bring three separate outfits per day, consider a ship with a self-service launderette. Otherwise, you can pay the high rates to have the ship's crew wash your onesies or do a lot of handwashing in your cabin's sink.
DO plan to fly in a day early. If your cruise port is some distance away, arriving early allows you to pick up diapers, baby food, dish or laundry detergent, and other baby survival items without having to waste precious luggage space. Or cruise close to home; your car won't charge you an extra-bag fee.
Planning Your Trip
DO research ports in advance for kid-friendly destinations that offer playgrounds and parks, beaches and children's museums. If you want to be super prepared, consider looking up pediatricians and grocery markets near the cruise port in case of emergencies.
DON'T bring the jogging stroller. It will take up half of your cabin. You can easily get by with an umbrella stroller, snap-n-go or baby carrier.
DO bring formalwear for your wee one. The photos are priceless. Who can resist a baby in a tux?
DON'T leave the carseat behind if you plan to travel by car or taxi. In many cases, it's neither legal nor safe. If you don't want to schlep your convertible seat in port, look for bus transportation, tour guides with carseats (yes, they exist), or rent one with your rental car.
DO find out if your ship carries whole or soy milk if that's what your baby drinks. Sometimes, the milk might be onboard but not in obvious one-cup cartons on the buffet. Also, research in-cabin refrigeration options, especially if you plan on storing breast milk. Mini-bars don't always run as cold as your fridge at home. If baby eats pureed food, inquire if dining staff will mash food for you.
DON'T expect cruise-line diaper and baby food delivery service to be cheap. You're going to pay a premium for the convenience. If you can, bring your own onboard.
DO bring an emergency kit. Items such as baby meds, thermometers and snot suckers aren't sold in cruise-line sundry shops. And trips to the ship's doctor can be pricey. It's best to bring your own stash of over-the-counter meds, just in case.
DON'T expect your cabin to be ready at naptime on embarkation day or that the crib will have been delivered. Either time your arrival to deal with this issue, or hope your kid will sleep on the go in a carrier or stroller.
DO use the nursery if one is available. Most family-friendly lines offer either play spaces for the under-3's or parent-baby playtimes in the kids club. It's a great way to let kids play freely in a baby-proof environment. Some will even let you borrow toys for in-cabin use.
DON'T have high expectations for nightlife. Someone's got to stay in the cabin with baby, whether that's you, your spouse, the grandparents or a baby sitter. Consider taking turns going out at night versus staying in, or ...
DO utilize baby-sitting options. Whether it's group playtime in a nursery or an in-cabin sitter, it's worth the splurge (and messing with bedtime a bit) to get a night out. It's your vacation, after all. If you're going with an in-cabin sitter, check the qualifications of the childcare provider (they're not always youth staff), and realize availability isn't guaranteed. And if your cruise is chockablock with children, book your group sitting times early. Some lines, like Disney, let you reserve baby-sitting times online in advance; others, such as Royal Caribbean and Cunard, have you sign up onboard with a first-come, first-served system.
DON'T assume your kid will sleep or eat normally onboard. My 1-year-old slept horribly -- waking up twice a night, up for good at 5:30 a.m. -- and ate mostly fruit on his first cruise. Maybe yours will be lulled by the ship's rocking and sleep better than usual. Either way, they'll likely revert to their normal habits once they're back home.
DO look for empty lounges or sun deck space where baby can explore. Cruise ships aren't necessarily baby-proof -- watch out for open railings and stairwells -- and junior will be safer where he's not tripping adults.
DON'T book long shore excursions unless you know your kid can handle it. Many tots need a break from organized activities for naps, free play or crawling/toddling some excess energy away. Long bus rides aren't conducive to diaper-changing, either.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor