From the moment the last Christmas ornament is put away and the last chorus of Auld Lang Syne has faded, college students, high school seniors and families all over North America start planning that warmer-weather rite: spring break.
While plenty of young adults will end up in Cancun, and high school seniors gravitate to party spots like Panama City, Florida, or to a Lake Havasu, Arizona, houseboat, more and more of these groups are looking at cruise vacations for the nonstop fun and value they provide. Parents traveling with their kids are doing the same thing, but it's made easier and more enjoyable now that most major cruise lines have ramped up and expanded their children's and teen's facilities.
When we thought about it, we realized that it might be a good idea to look into the policies, pleasures and pitfalls of cruising during spring break. There are age restrictions for certain activities, and let's face it, certain cruise lines and certain ships are just better at handling the abundance of children and occasionally rowdy teens and young adults during this travel period.
Starting with policies, we learned that most cruise lines have rigid rules governing the age eligibility for sailing without a chaperone, for drinking alcohol and for gambling onboard. And, most ships' staffs are cracking down and making sure those policies are enforced.
Alcohol: Cruise Critic has a definitive breakdown, cruise line by cruise line, of alcohol consumption policies. Look through it carefully, and resolve to follow the rules.
Chaperones Required: Most cruise lines require that passengers be at least 21 years old to travel without a chaperone. But a couple, including Disney Cruise Line and Oceania, allow those 18 and older to travel alone. What defines being chaperoned, however, differs among them. Carnival Cruise Lines requires that unmarried passengers younger than 21 each have another passenger at least 25 years old booked in the same cabin. Other lines, including NCL, Princess, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Holland America, lower the age of that in-cabin chaperone to 21 -- but specifics vary even then. NCL allows that chaperone to stay in an adjacent cabin, and Holland America only requires one chaperone for every five passengers under 21. Some, but not all, make exceptions for married couples younger than 21. Cruise lines are more flexible when it comes to young adults younger than 21 who are traveling with parents. Most allow them to be in separate cabins if a parent is in an adjoining or adjacent stateroom, and Carnival will even allow those 18 and older to bunk anywhere on the same deck.
These rules are often hard to find, usually listed under "FAQ's" on the line's Web site (in tiny print at the bottom) or, in Royal Caribbean's case, under "Life Onboard.' They aren't kidding about following the rules, either. Carnival's Web site, for example, states that they will carefully check your documentation before they allow you to board, and if you don't follow the rules, you will be left behind with "a 100 percent cancellation penalty. NO exceptions will be made at embarkation."
Gambling: Most cruise lines, including Carnival, Holland America, NCL, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean, allow gaming at the age of 18; Princess requires guests to be 21. Be aware that if you are traveling to Alaska, many ports there require you to be 21 to gamble -- even ships with an 18-and-older policy will enforce this. You need to carefully review your ship's policies; if you are under age and win a jackpot, you won't be paid.
The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Family Cruising
The pleasures of cruising as a family are many, and cruise lines have come to recognize that, as well. Most of the major big-ship lines have been working hard at adding more space and programs for kids of all ages, but the big push for the past several years has been to accommodate teens. Whereas most ships have always had some programs for children through age 12 or so, the teen group had been, until then, largely overlooked. With the development of parent-free zones and clubs that serve "mocktails" -- places where teenagers can forget that they are actually traveling with (eww) their parents -- the cruise lines have been able win over this most finicky age group.
Disney, of course, was the pioneer, revolutionizing family-oriented cruising in this contemporary era, but other lines (like Princess Cruises, NCL and Royal Caribbean) also do an excellent job with kids. Holland America, long known for catering to the well-heeled senior crowd, actually designed its Vista-class ships (the first one, Zuiderdam, launched in 2002) to attract multigenerational family groups.
But there's a pitfall.
It's one thing to develop and hype the programs, but administering them takes time and experience. If ship personnel don't follow their own rules, if they are afraid of offending parents by asking for (or even demanding) that their children be monitored, they risk alienating the other guests onboard. It's a tricky balance, as witnessed by Cruise Critic editor Carolyn Spencer Brown during a spring break cruise on Holland America's Westerdam.
"It was a nightmare," she says, and goes on to describe belly-flopping, statue-climbing, screeching youngsters that no one would discipline. Click here for similar tales from Cruise Critic members.
Of course, parents and guardians have to take responsibility to make sure that their children aren't running amok at sea. But, these issues are improving with time, as cruise lines' programs evolve and as the cruise lines and shipboard personnel learn how to occupy and entertain nearly a million children a year.
There is no question that certain lines have experience to back them up: Disney, built for family cruising, leads the pack. But they didn't just stop when they thought they had it right; Disney's two newest ships, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, have taken children's programming to an even higher level with new spaces dedicated entirely to 'tweens, while their new and innovative use of technology (including super-cool new interactive floors in the Oceaneer's Clubs) brings the Disney experience to life.
Royal Caribbean didn't stop when it created hits with its rock-climbing walls and ice-skating rinks; it brought in the FlowRider surf pool and mini-golf and partnered with Fisher-Price and Crayola to develop programs for the youngest kids. The line also created teen lounges that are off-limits to parents, a DJ Academy and a teen casino. The teens-only outdoor decks on some Holland America ships -- complete with waterfalls, hammocks and Adirondack-style chairs -- have been enormously successful.
Themed experiences for families are a hot trend lately. Royal Caribbean offers a DreamWorks Experience that features 3D movies and ice shows starring Shrek and pals, while NCL has a Nickelodeon at Sea program with character greetings and live shows that star SpongeBob SquarePants and other popular Nick characters.
In other words, all of the major cruise lines are working at developing family programs that will keep the parents -- who pay for these trips -- happy, while encouraging the loyalty of the young people who will, soon enough, be paying for their own cruise vacations. New programs, new kid's spaces and newer ships built with family cruising in mind all help to keep everyone coming back for more.
Which, then, are the best bets for spring break cruising?
For the Youngest Kids (5 and Younger)
Disney Cruise Line's three ships (and the fourth arriving in 2012) have always been ideal for families with younger children, not only because of the Disney-centric themes, but also because the suite-like accommodations are comfy and elegant, with the line's popular bath-and-a-half concept. Water play is usually pretty limited for toddlers still in swim diapers, but the new and shaded Nemo's Reef water play area (on Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy) is a welcome exception. Young kids will love the character greetings, and Disney throws the best deck parties at sea, complete with fireworks and pirates rappelling off the funnel.
Royal Caribbean has partnered with Fisher-Price and Crayola to create imaginative, compelling programs for young children. There are playgroups for parents of little ones, as well as a toy-lending program and interactive science experiments for children as young as 3. The unbeatable array of outdoor activities includes a water park and four pools on the new Oasis-class ships -- outdoor activities includes a water park and four pools on the new Oasis-class ships -- Oasis of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas all sure to please the youngest travelers. The Oasis-class ships also have fully-staffed nurseries with programs for babies, ages 6 to 17 months, and toddlers from 18 to 36 months.
Norwegian Cruise Line has always been family-oriented with its Freestyle Dining program and large number of onboard dining options -- there are some 20 on the new Norwegian Epic. There is no need to wait for a set dining time, and it's easy to appease cranky, hungry children. Epic's Aqua Park has a wading pool and kid's pool with whimsical sculptures, water sprayers and a slide. There are five hot tubs, three multistory waterslides and the 200-foot Epic Plunge. Also appealing to the younger set is NCL's "Nickelodeon at Sea" program, which delivers character greetings and live shows that feature SpongeBob and other Nick characters.
For Ages 6 to 12
The hands-down winners here are the family-friendly ships of Royal Caribbean, especially the Freedom-class and Oasis-class ships. They continue to add to what was already an impressive selection of sports activities for kids. Rock-climbing, ice-skating, two FlowRider surf pools, a zip line and a carousel will keep active kids happy on Oasis and Allure of the Seas. On Allure, a new DreamWorks experience includes a "How to Train Your Dragon" ice show and "Madagascar" aqua show. Royal Caribbean also runs a theater camp and hands-on science experiments for this age group, through which kids can learn about fossils, volcanoes, oceanography and meteorology.
All of Disney's ships have great "lab" programs, where kids can do scientific experiments and create animations. Plus, there's lots of other fabulous entertainment to enchant the whole family. Visits on every Bahamas and Caribbean cruise to the line's "private island," Castaway Cay, are designed for family togetherness, although Mom and Dad can escape for an hour or two of solitude. On Dream and Fantasy, 'tweens, ages 10 to 12 even, have their own fully supervised hang-out.
Princess Cruises does an excellent job with this age group, too, and it deserves props for its educational offerings in particular. The line's association with the California Science Center is key to helping kids learn about the destinations they're visiting, whether it involves whale-watching, sailboat-racing or -- for the really adventurous -- dissecting a squid. They also offer a program called Pete's Pals, which teaches kids about threatened and endangered species in the areas to which Princess sails.
For Teens, Young Adults and College Students
Editor's Note: If you intend to travel without parents, remember to check and thoroughly understand the age-eligibility requirements for each person in your group. The cruise lines aren't kidding about enforcing the policies and will leave fully paid but underage passengers on the pier with no hesitation whatsoever.
Carnival Cruise Lines excels in this arena. Many people associate Carnival with loud, wacky pool games and late-night entertainment options. While Carnival has earned its reputation as a line that likes to party, they have also proven they are not afraid to enforce the rules when it comes to minors. All of Carnival's ships attract young adults and college kids. The new Carnival Dream has even more lounges, bars and nightspots than its predecessors, including a new dance club with indoor/outdoor access, and a bigger, better fitness center. Also appealing to this age group are the concert cruises regularly held on Carnival vessels. Ships are chartered by Atlanta-based Sixthman, and the company brings bands like 311, Lifehouse and Train onboard for floating festivals at sea. College students will enjoy cruises that stop in Cancun or Montego Bay, which are land-based spring break hot spots.
Nothing can beat Royal Caribbean's ships for active-lifestyle cruising, so teens and young adults who enjoy lots of physical activity will feel right at home climbing rock walls perched 100 feet over the ocean or ice-skating around indoor rinks. The teens-only areas, Fuel and The Living Room, are safe havens for "separate but equal" vacations. Parents along for the ride can take advantage of the well-appointed staterooms and the chance to learn salsa dancing in the signature Boleros Lounge. Royal Caribbean also offers the PADI Scuba Diver Program to passengers 12 and older.
For Multigenerational Groups
Kids, parents and grandparents can all travel in comfort on Holland America's Vista-class ships, which are at once familiar and new; most of the Holland America traditions remain intact, but the ships have a definite 21st-century ambience, offering engaging children's centers, private teens-only retreats and shore excursions that appeal to all ages and interests. Holland America's liberal chaperone policy (one adult older than 25 for every five young adults younger than 21) allows for more family groups traveling together, and the line's "friends and family" promotions are designed to encourage togetherness.
Princess Cruises' large ships are also standouts in this category, with age-appropriate kid's groups, parent-free teen centers and family-centric activities, such as "Movies Under the Stars" and Island Night deck parties. The layout of the ships and quiet, adults-only areas like The Sanctuary ensure that there will always be tranquil spaces for the grands if they so desire. Plus, having the option to choose between traditional or "anytime" dining means even more flexibility for young and old.
No Kids? No Problem!
If March and April are the best times for you to travel, but you'd rather share your vacation with as few children as possible, take heart. There are options for cruising during spring break that will get you away from the family and student scene. Here are some tips:
Take a longer cruise: Most child-filled spring break cruises are of the three- to seven-night variety. Choosing a 10-night or longer sailing will lessen your chances of being surrounded by young 'uns.
Go exotic: The Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera and Hawaii are out if you want to avoid kids. You're less likely to find many family groups on cruises to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, or South America, so choose an itinerary that's off the beaten path.
Choose a luxury or boutique line: While most of the luxury lines welcome children, they also do not have the extensive facilities that the mainstream cruise lines offer. The ships of Silversea, Windstar, Oceania Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are likely to have few children onboard, while the Statendam class of Holland America ships and Celebrity Century are also good bets for minimal children. Many river cruise lines tend to have a couple of late-March itineraries, sure to be virtually kid-free. But remember: Northern Europe will be cold at that time of year.