Teenagers, those hard-to-please opinion leaders, are in hot demand by the cruise industry. Both surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that parents in search of a pleasant vacation would do well to not only consult but also seriously consider the input of teen members of the family. This age group -- bearing that heady mixture of youth and adulthood -- is one of the travel industry's most demanding. And it's no secret that a dissatisfied teen can create a messy imbalance even among an otherwise happy family.
Cruise lines are interested in drawing teens, too, knowing that they have special impact on family vacation choices. And there's another reason: Today's teens are tomorrow's twenty-something adult passengers. As such, a handful of cruise lines are creating special programs, facilities and amenities for the teenage cruise traveler. Highlights of these include:
Teens-only discos, lounges and sun decks.
Shore excursions geared (and limited) to teens.
Youth spa programs on several lines that now offer treatments such as mother/daughter facials, father/son massages, spray tans and pedicures.
From outward appearances -- iPods, baggy jeans and general ennui -- teens appear to be a homogeneous group. But, like the cruise lines themselves, teens come with distinct personalities -- from party animals and sports jocks to nature lovers and computer junkies. Some teens enjoy organized activities, while others prefer roaming independently on a ship the size of a small town. And some are drawn to adventure and enrichment without the big-ship distractions. As such, matching your teen's personality with that of the cruise ship is crucial.
Consider these other points, too: Cruise length can be an important factor for busy teens, with short itineraries often working best. Families with both teens and younger siblings will want to select a ship with a solid children's program, so the entire clan will be happy.
Speaking from experience, here are our editor's picks of best cruise options for families with teenagers.
For the teen who is an uber-social party animal...
Why: These ships offer a teen favorite: the drive-in-movie-like Seaside Theater cinema screen that sits above the pool area. We also like the fact that the teen discos are located not upstairs with the kiddie facilities but in the heart of the otherwise adult-oriented promenade.
Best features: For older teens, 15 to 17 years old, there's a mixer on the first evening, late-night parties in the disco every night, and afternoon Ping-Pong tournaments and sport challenges. Younger teens, 12 to 14 years old, have their own parties earlier in the evening, with later-evening activities such as pizza hangouts, T-shirt decorating and game nights. There are also teen spa services and a discounted teen shore excursion program where the kids vote on which tour to take.
Beware of: You may never see your kids (which can be a plus or a minus). Also, dining is set-seating, set-tablemates in the ship's main venue, though there are plenty of casual options. (Carnival is in the process of rolling out a more flexible dining plan by summer 2010.)
For the teen who is energetic and looking for all the comforts of home (and beyond)...
Why: These ships are literally floating playgrounds with features that include an ice skating rink, rock-climbing wall, miniature golf course, full-sized basketball court and dedicated teen facilities. If the kids are looking for fuel, we heartily recommend a pit stop at either Ben & Jerry's or Johnny Rockets.
Best features: One big plus is that Royal Caribbean's youth program divides teens into two groups. Navigators (tweens, 12- to 14-year-olds) are wisely separated from the Teens (15- to 17-year-olds) for activities like Karaoke, toga parties and sports tournaments. Parents are banned from The Living Room, Back Deck and Fuel -- the teens-only facilities where teens can drink mocktails and dance the night away (until 2 a.m.).
Beware of: It can be easy to lose track of your teen on such big ships (and unsupervised teens are one of the cruise industry's biggest hassles). We'll also warn you about this plus-and-minus factor: With fifteen Internet stations in The Living Room and Fuel -- plus unlimited Internet access via laptop in all cabins -- parents may need to exercise supervision.
For the teen who is an urban (or suburban) sophisticate...
Why: These ships offer the ultimate in dining choice: 10 restaurants (all open seating), ranging from Tex-Mex to steakhouse and sushi to French. Not only does that mean terrific flexibility (particularly at dinner time) it also means teens can eat with -- or without -- their families. The ships are also strong on entertainment for young folks, and future American Idols can participate in a Junior Star Seeker competition, with winners receiving a free cruise and a chance to perform for fellow passengers.
Best features: Teens will gravitate to the teen-only club/disco as well as the ships' video arcades, basketball courts, paddle tennis and giant chessboards. Norwegian's newest ships (Gem and Pearl) also have onboard bowling. A special Teen Passport Program is available -- for $34.50, your teen can order 20 smoothies and other nonalcoholic drinks, and attend an afternoon dance party with a DJ, pizza and unlimited non-alcoholic drinks, as well as a farewell party on the last evening.
Beware of: Some of the ships' smaller dining venues are very popular (Le Bistro, for example) and reservations are a must. A handful have surcharges (not to mention one that actually has an all a la carte menu).
Why: Disney often sets the standard for youth programming and amenities -- such as cabins designed with families in mind and production shows geared toward the young and young at heart. While younger siblings will be thrilled to meet Disney characters onboard and to see Disney classic movies on the big screen, teens will enjoy having their own hangout space in one of the non-functioning ship funnels.
Best features: Called Aloft on Disney Wonder and The Stack on Disney Magic, the no-parents-allowed teen center is a terrific hangout, with overstuffed couches and chairs, big-screen TVs and a bar serving soft drinks and smoothies. Teens can entertain themselves with MP3 players, Internet access, board games and events (such as karaoke, dance classes and trivia games) led by hip crew members. Outside their private haunt, teens will enjoy watching movies (like "Pirates of the Caribbean") out on the pool deck and Disney's over-the-top evening deck parties.
Beware of: Some teens might be too cool for the constant Disney hype, and get frustrated with all the mouseketeering, while others may get into the Disney spirit. Know your teen's personality before you book a cruise.
For the teen who is already an exotic eco-adventure traveler...
Why: This is a great choice for a bonding trip between mom and teen (or dad and teen). Two hundred years after Charles Darwin's famous voyage of the Beagle, the Galapagos archipelago remains amazingly pristine, a place where animals are still unafraid of people. This 48-passenger ship offers an unforgettable nine-night adventure, where passengers meet marine iguanas and giant tortoises, penguins and sea lions, boobies and albatrosses.
Best features: Survival of the fittest isn't an issue aboard the Islander. After a day exploring the wild and rugged islands, teens (who incidentally are treated as adults rather than a subset of a cruise line's youth program) will return to a comfortable ship and cabin. Naturalists lead daily excursions via four Zodiacs which make it possible to access landfalls and cruise alongside reefs. The ship carries wetsuits and snorkeling gear, key for playing in the water with curious sea lions. We were surprised -- and pleased -- to find that even on this small ship there are two Internet stations for remote emailing.
Beware of: Reaching the Galapagos takes time and money, with flights to Quito, Ecuador, and then Baltra Island in the Galapagos.
For the teen who is traveling on a multi-generational family trip...
Why: These ships offer something for every conceivable age group. For teens in particular, there's a dedicated teen facility, a video game arcade, four pools, a huge gym and a nine-hole putting course complete with golf simulator. We also love the choice of itineraries ranging from Europe to the Caribbean.
Best features: The teen center on these ships really are fine. They've got a private whirlpool and sun deck, big-screen television, Nintendo, Karaoke and juke boxes. Princess' fabulous outdoor theater, "Movies Under the Stars," is fun for the whole family. We also love the flexibility of dining options offered by Princess' Personal Choice so that families can dine together some nights ... and kids can eat with other like-aged passengers on others.
Beware of: With so much to do on the ship, there's a risk that teens may not experience the destinations -- such as the history-, archeology- and marine-rich Mayan Riviera and the history-, archeology- and culture-rich Europe.
Why: Star Clipper's 227-passenger, five-masted flagship sails from historic port to port in the Western Mediterranean on 7-, 10- and 11-night summer and fall itineraries. From the Coliseum in Rome to the famous Greek Theatre of Sicily, this voyage is ideal for teens who like history and sailing.
Best features: A platform lowers from the ship's stern for water sports. Teens can climb the mast to the crow's nest and watch the dramatic hoisting of 42 sails each morning.
Beware of: This ship attracts primarily European passengers, so teens need to be open to other languages and cultures. In general, teens will need to entertain themselves. There are no children's programs or menus for younger siblings.
--by Susan Jaques, a Los Angeles based writer whose favorite travel adventures are with her husband and teenage son and daughter. In addition to Cruise Critic, Jaques' articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine.