These stories, like many kids-run-amok incidents at sea, can't be blamed on the cruise line. While cruise lines can set and should enforce policies, it's a parent's responsibility to ensure his or her children are aware of -- and abide by -- the rules. We're not saying that all kids misbehave onboard; many will be well-behaved without additional parental intervention. But now that more than 1.5 million kids (ages 18 and younger) are sailing each year, the potential exists for a great many happy or unhappy children and adults.
How can you control your brood for smooth sailing? Here's some advice based on what we've learned -- sometimes the hard way -- during our years of family sailing.
Pick the right ship and itinerary for your family.
Most mainstream cruise lines have nonstop activities for children, morning 'til night, yet all programs are not created equal. They run the gamut from small, personalized programs to those with rowdy teen discos. Some vessels offer evening entertainment you can attend as a family, and others sequester kids in late-night events while parents party about the ship. To help you find the ship that best matches your family's interests and kids' ages -- and, therefore, increase your chances for a fun time for all -- read our stories on Family Cruising Basics and Best Cruises for Teens.
Keep in mind that luxury lines may only operate youth programs on select sailings. In addition, off-peak sailings on lines like Princess, Holland America and Celebrity may not have a large enough number of children onboard to entice your young cruisers to hang out in the youth lounges (although some kids love the attention a small group brings). A lack of kids' programming or activities can lead to boredom and bad behavior, as can an itinerary with too many sea days, when teens prowl around looking for action. Consider itineraries packed with family-friendly ports of call, as well as those that offer teens-only shore excursions. Also, have your kids help pick the tours so they're invested in the choices and, hopefully, more well-behaved on them.
Lay down the law.
Tell your kids what is expected of them. Yes, it's a family vacation, and there will be fun: curfews stretched, unlimited slices of pizza daily and other we-never-do-this-at-home occurrences. But insist that basic good behavior still applies. No running, pushing, shoving or cursing in public areas. Say please and thank you. No cutting in lines, shouting in the halls or throwing food in the dining rooms.
Then, create consequences. If you or anyone else catches your progeny misbehaving, let them know what will happen. After family travel expert Candyce Stapen's teenage son missed a midnight curfew by two hours, she "grounded" him the following evening, insisting he stay in the cabin after dinner with no friends visiting. For the rest of the voyage, she reports, he came in on time (though not one minute too soon). Personally, I've found locking a beloved D.S. or other electronic gadget in the safe can also go a long way in making a point about expected behavior, especially with younger children.
Talk about sex, drugs and alcohol.
Think of a cruise ship as a weeklong party for teens. Now think of what you warn your kids about before going to a land-based bash: sex, drugs and alcohol. On a Caribbean sailing when we asked a mother of two lively 13- and 16-year-old daughters why her girls weren't participating much in the teen program, she told me the boys only want one thing "and my girls aren't interested." On another Caribbean cruise, an outgoing and popular teen was busted mid-voyage for selling marijuana. He and his family were not forced off the ship, but he was booted from the teen program and shunned by his peers -- for getting caught, we think, not necessarily for selling. So don't be naive.
Read the cruise rules to the gang.
Before you go, make sure you and your family have read your cruise line's code of conduct. Princess posts a short and clear statement asking that parents or guardians supervise children and teens not participating in the youth programs, restrain children in public areas from running or engaging in loud or disruptive behavior, and accompany children in elevators at all times. Norwegian Cruise Line adds a teen discipline policy, noting that an unruly adolescent will be warned, then given a time-out with his parents notified. If the problem persists, the unrepentant faces suspension from the activities program for 24 hours. After he is allowed back in, the first instance of bad behavior gets him expelled from the teen scene's organized activities.
According to a Disney Cruise Line spokesperson, youth club counselors review expected behavior and safety rules with participants during orientation. The cruise line's code of conduct specifies that "responsible adults" will be charged for failure to "adequately supervise, control or care for minor children" if there are damages to shipboard property.
Royal Caribbean offers the most comprehensive code of conduct, spelling out rules for all passengers, adults as well as children. The code appears on the Safety and Security section of their Web site, as well as in all staterooms. In addition, Royal Caribbean's Code of Conduct even lists the consequences, which can include: removal of certain onboard privileges like admission to Adventure Ocean, removal from the pool area while parents are contacted, confinement to stateroom and even removal from the ship at the next port of call.
Check the Minimum Age
Minimum ages for fitness centers, solarium use, casinos, nightclubs and alcohol consumption vary by cruise line so don't assume what was true on one cruise line will apply to another.
On Carnival the minimum drinking age is 21. Princess also has a drinking age of 21, yet permits young adults (18+) in the nightclubs. Royal Caribbean's minimum drinking age is 21 from U.S. homeports and 18 pretty much everywhere else; passengers ages 18 and older are permitted in nightclubs. Norwegian Cruise Line has exceptions to its alcohol consumption policy, allowing passengers 18 and older to consume alcohol while onboard (except for Alaska and Hawaii itineraries) with the consent of an accompanying parent and a completed Young Adult Alcoholic Beverage Waiver form, which can be obtained at the Guest Services Desk. The form is not needed, however, on roundtrip European voyages.
On Carnival and Royal Caribbean, the minimum age to gamble in the casino is 18 (except in Alaska). Carnival passengers younger than 12 years of age are not permitted in Spa Carnival or the fitness center; passengers between the ages of 12 and 16 must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Royal Caribbean passengers 16 and older can use the fitness centers and whirlpools and attend the theater without parental supervision; those between the ages of 13 and 15 are allowed in the fitness centers with a parent or guardian at certain times. Norwegian Cruise Line's policy does not permit anyone younger than 18 to use the spa facilities (even if the facilities are complimentary for the category booked).
On mainstream cruise lines (except Disney), many passengers book the later seating thinking there will be fewer kids, so behavior expectations are high. If your children are still unpredictable in restaurants, book the earlier seating, where there are at least more children in attendance, or hit the buffet instead. Another option is to ask if children's program staff pick up children from dinner and escort them to the various kids' club activities. Disney and Royal Caribbean both offer this service, which allows parents to have dessert and cappuccino in peace and kids an opportunity to scoot out of a long meal. Whatever the length of dinner, my family of preteen boys has found that a paper and pen go a long way in wait-for-your-meal entertainment. We've played everything from hangman to name every NFL (or NBA or NHL) team (we give geographic clues). I've even allowed an extra Shirley Temple for the kid who can name at least fifteen former "Dancing with the Stars" contestants. Have fun with it.
Monitor Your Kids
Now that my oldest son is 14, we allow him to come and go from the teen program, basketball court and pool, as long as he checks in with us and lets us know where he'll be. We tell him to leave a note in our cabin or find us at the gym or cafe at a certain time, and we do the same. This enables us to touch base and make plans for things like family mini-golf or dinner later that night. Better still are Disney's new wave phones, which look like cordless phones and function like walkie-talkies, eliminating the need for cabin notes. There are typically two per stateroom, making it easy for kids to call you on the other most anywhere on the ship or in the stateroom. Phone or not, go to where your child is hanging out, and observe from time to time.
Kids need reminders. They're excited, like an adult might be when let loose in a Vegas hotel. So, remind them while you're sitting poolside not to do that cannonball and splash people sunbathing nearby, to use indoor voices on balconies even though, yes, they are technically outside, and to look over their shoulders when going through a door in case they can hold it open for the next person.
Adults need reminders, too. It can be tempting to allow your kids in an adults-only area you want to enjoy, as I discovered on a recent cruise when I left a note saying: "Bring your brother up to the cafe when you're awake and ready for breakfast." My husband and I slipped out to the adults-only cafe to indulge in quiet time with coffee and books. About an hour later, our 14-year-old slinked in. "We're near the Ping-Pong tables," he said. "Where's your brother?" I asked. "He's on the other side. Mom, it says no kids in here." He was right, and I'm sure the other adults in the cafe appreciated that the two of them hadn't come barreling in.
Nobody's kids are perfect, and neither are some adult passengers. But clearly stated rules and expectations, as well as frank talks, go a long way toward creating the type of family vacation you want to remember for the right reasons.
Finally, it's okay to want time without children -- yours or anyone else's -- especially if you came aboard for a romantic interlude or a girlfriends' getaway. Here are our tips for planning a kid-free vacation.
--Updated by Christine Koubek, Cruise Critic Contributor