Cruising with young children can cause quite the dilemma. Kids require paraphernalia, and space is at a premium on cruise ships. When I first researched the best family-friendly staterooms five years ago, I discovered many cruise lines had created innovative children's programs, facilities and even shore activities, but some missed the boat on designing staterooms for families.
The exception, Disney Cruise Line, pioneered the concept of family accommodations when it launched Deluxe Family Staterooms aboard Disney Magic and Disney Wonder in the late 1990's. The layout remains superb to this day, in part because of something this simple: there's a curtain that sections off the main bedroom area from the living room area. Not so simple but still ingenious is Disney's unique bath-and-a-half design -- one bathroom with a sink and small tub and another with a sink and toilet.
In the years since, new classes of ships have allowed many lines to catch up, with spacious cabin layouts and clever perks. Think comfortable and imaginative space-saving beds, toddlers watching a dive show from the stateroom window before hopping into bed, and staterooms and suites with privacy partitions or even mini-bedrooms within suites that allow parents to have time to hang out after youngsters go to bed. The best part: In many instances, these new staterooms and suites come at prices you can afford.
The following are a few tips to consider when booking a cabin for your brood:
Balconies are an excellent option, especially for those with nappers (including parents who like to slumber in the afternoon), as they offer quiet, pleasant places where parents can relax without waking kids up. This is especially beneficial if your stateroom does not have some form of privacy partition or curtain.
At the same time, folks with toddlers and beyond should make sure that balconies are kid-safe and don't have spaces wide enough for little ones to slip through. Also ask about locks on the balcony door -- they should be too high for young children to reach.
Since many lines offer connecting cabins, compare the price of two connecting cabins versus the price of a family stateroom or suite. Be sure to factor in the price of your third, fourth and fifth passengers, etc. While you'll most likely have to pay the higher first- and second-passenger rates on each of the connecting cabins, it's possible that you could save money (and have a better bed configuration for your family) when you're comparing connecting staterooms to a family suite option that has high third- and fourth-passenger rates. However, consider your kids' ages: Remember that they'll have their own exit to the hallway without having to go by you.
For better sleep, consider downloading a white noise app for your smartphone. Waves, burbling streams or spring rain sounds might help little ones stay asleep in close quarters.
In most cases (with the exception of Disney and some of Royal Caribbean's middle-aged vessels), the best family accommodations can be found on the newest ships in cruise lines' fleets.
The number of family-friendly staterooms and suites is quite limited on some ships, and they sell out early, so book as far in advance as possible, particularly if you'll be traveling during school vacation times.
Here are our best picks for cruise lines and ships that fit families well:
Consider a balcony cabin if you have young children. While you lose some interior square footage, the balcony offers relaxation space while the kids sleep.
The Ocean View with Standard Balcony cabins on Carnival's Dream-class ships have 185 square feet of interior space and 35 for the balcony. Book the Ocean View with Cove Balcony for 10 square feet extra, or the even more spacious Ocean View with Aft-View Extended Balcony for 60 square feet of balcony space. Roomier insides can be had with Junior or Ocean Suites; both offer 275 square feet of interior space, plus balconies.
Other Positives: Carnival boasts some of the largest standard cabins in the industry, with interior staterooms as big as 185 square feet and outside up to 230. Some of these staterooms can accommodate up to five people with two lower beds that convert to a king (on most other lines' ships, the smaller-than-normal twins only double to queen size), two upper beds that fold out from the wall and a rollaway. On Dream, Magic and Breeze, the fifth berth is a converted single sofa bed.
Nice Touches: Carnival's nightly turndown service includes towel animals. Outside cabins come with bathrobes.
Caveat Emptor: Bed configurations vary considerably. For example, on Carnival Dream, a stateroom that sleeps four could include two twin beds that convert to a king, plus two upper beds that fold out from the wall (accessed by ladders); two twins that convert to a king plus a double sofa bed (for kids that sleep well together); or two twin beds that convert to a king with a single sofa bed and one upper bed. Request a stateroom with a sofa bed for younger children uncomfortable with upper bunks. Also note: Some staterooms for five include two upper bunks and a single sofa bed, but when the upper bunks are in use, the two lower twins do not convert to a king.
Why? We love the 575-square-foot Family Veranda Staterooms on Celebrity's Solstice-class ships: Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity Reflection. These staterooms are as big as other lines' suites, each with a master bedroom, a single bedroom, a sofa with trundle bed and balconies that range in size from 53 to 105 square feet. The layout is ideal for families with a decent age spread between kids because an older child can sleep on the convertible sofa and watch TV without waking a younger sibling in the second bedroom (with twin bed) or parents in their own master bedroom.
The 271-square-foot Family Ocean View Staterooms on Millennium-class ships (Celebrity Constellation, Celebrity Millennium, Celebrity Summit and Celebrity Infinity) have smaller interiors than their Solstice-class counterparts, but they feature whopping 242-square-foot verandahs for your own little backyard at sea. These staterooms include two lower beds that convert to a queen, floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors, a sitting area with two sofa beds that convert to full-size beds and a privacy partition between the two sleeping areas.
Other Positives: Millennium-class ships have received Solstice-class-inspired features that include new bedding and flat-screen TV's, gelato stands and crepes restaurants.
Nice Touches: Family-friendly amenities include cribs, refrigerators, children's menus and freshly mashed baby food (must be requested pre-cruise). In addition, Celebrity is one of the few lines that offers in-cabin baby-sitting.
Caveat Emptor:Celebrity Century also offers a Family Veranda Stateroom, but both inside and outside spaces are smaller than on the other ships in the fleet.
Disney Cruise Line
Why? It's hard to beat Disney Cruise Line when it comes to the sheer number of well-designed stateroom offerings. Disney Magic and Disney Wonder set the bar high. Each have 304-square-foot Deluxe Family Staterooms with Verandahs that sleep four to five people with a queen that can convert to two twin beds, a single convertible sofa, a pull-down bed above the sofa (for a bunk-bed style set-up) and a Murphy bed. Slightly smaller 268-square-foot Deluxe Ocean View Staterooms with Verandah have no Murphy beds, but they're ideal for families of three to four people. Verandahs have plexiglass-covered railings and balcony doors with child locks.
Disney has found a way to turn inside cabins out, so to speak. Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy offer inside staterooms (169 and 200 square feet) with views of the outdoors via "Magical Portholes"; these flat-screen TV's, designed to look like portholes, offer a real-time view outside the ship via high-definition cameras placed around the exterior. Most entertaining for kids are the characters that pop up on the screen, like Peach the Starfish from "Finding Nemo" or the balloon-suspended house from "Up."
Inside staterooms are limited, however, because 88 percent of Dream's and Fantasy's staterooms offer the real view; of those, 90 percent have verandahs. In addition, larger families (and family groups) can stay close together thanks to 500 connecting doors that adjoin staterooms.
Disney Dream's outside staterooms start at 202 square feet (verandah cabins at a spacious 246). Stateroom layouts are similar to those on Magic and Wonder. The key difference is that the queen bed cannot be converted to two twins, though the bed's elevation makes it possible to store suitcases beneath it and free up closet space.
New stateroom categories on Dream include the Concierge One-Bedroom Suite with Verandah (622 square feet), which sleeps up to five with a queen-size bed, a living area with a double convertible sofa and a Murphy bed. It also has a walk-in closet, a whirlpool bathtub, a rain shower and a balcony. The Concierge Family Ocean View Stateroom with Verandah (306 square feet) sleeps five with a queen-size bed, a double convertible sofa and a pull-down bed. It has a privacy divider, a split bath with a round tub and a balcony. Guests of both can take advantage of Concierge Lounge perks that include cocktails, Internet access, food and beverages located close to the cabins, a private sun deck, assistance making reservations for spa treatments, and dining and nursery care for kids.
The majority of Disney's cabins include a split bathroom design (double-check your particular cabin when booking) -- one side with a toilet and sink, the other with a sink and shower/tub combination. While space is limited in each, the tub is a big plus for bathing little ones. Disney Dream took this brilliant concept and made it even better, offering round tubs with built-in seats, a rain-shower head and a hand-held shower, available in Deluxe Family Ocean View Stateroom with Verandah cabins.
Other Positives: Most of Disney's staterooms include the much-ballyhooed privacy curtain, which can divide the stateroom in two, with bathrooms on the grownups' side. Also, unlike a full-size sofa bed that hogs up floor space, the convertible twin sofa with pull-down bed above can stay set up all day (like bunk beds) so each child has his or her own space. Beware: Children on Disney Dream may fight over who gets the pull-down bed. A celestial scene spans the ceiling above the bed, complete with Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and Wendy flying through the night sky.
Nice Touches: Disney provides plush pillows, feather duvets, portable cribs, Diaper Genies, bottle warmers and bumper rails, plus room service menus that include several children's specialties, from macaroni and cheese to fresh-cut fruits and veggies and Mickey-shaped ice cream bars. The Disney Channel is available on 22-inch stateroom TV's. Disney Dream has the added benefits of iPod docking stations and elevated bed frames for extra storage. Each night's towel creation brings smiles, especially when things like sunglasses or a child's hat are incorporated in the creation. Suites include children's robes in pink or blue.
Portable Wave Phones -- now available on all Disney ships -- make it super easy to call one another while out and about on the ship.
A handy online service allows passengers to pre-order baby supplies and have the supplies delivered to their staterooms. (See the link for Babies Travel Lite on Disney's Web site.) There is a plethora of brand-name baby products from which to choose, including diapers, baby food, infant formula and specialty travel items.
Caveat Emptor: The TV is on the bunk bed side of the privacy curtain, so watching it without keeping the kids awake is difficult. Even though it might mean more walking, consider a cabin forward or aft for less chance of hallway noise. On the flip side, consider booking not too far from elevators, especially on Dream, for quicker forays around the ship.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Why? On Norwegian Epic, spacious 506-square-foot, two-bedroom Family Villas sleep up to six passengers, and they each include a separate children's bedroom, two bathrooms, living and dining areas and a private balcony, plus access to the concierge lounge and private courtyard area. Bonus: Family Villas are close to NCL's Kid's Crew. The more affordable 216-square-foot Family Balcony staterooms and 245-square-foot Family Deluxe Balcony staterooms each feature two lower beds that convert to queens, plus one upper bed and a sofa bed. These staterooms have Epic's unusual bath design with separate enclosures for the shower and toilet, with the bathroom sink located in the room. Our advice: Splurge for the larger Family Deluxe Balcony category for more storage space, a larger shower and much-needed room to move about.
On Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Pearl and Pride of America, ship designers created 30 to 33 stateroom categories, including several suites and junior suites that can connect with other staterooms to create two-, three-, four- or five-bedroom configurations suitable for families small and large. We love the 360-square-foot Family Suites (only found on Pride of America). Here you get a roomy private balcony, a living room with a double sofa bed and an entertainment center, a separate (and cozy) den with a single sofa bed, and a private bedroom with two twin beds that convert to a queen. The suite's two televisions are a nice plus.
Other Positives: Gem-class ships also offer four 460-square-foot suites, which are actually two connecting cabins that can sleep eight people and include two separate bathrooms. The larger cabin has two single beds that convert to a queen and a sitting room with a full-size sofa bed. The connected cabin features two lower single beds and two pull-down upper single beds.
Nice Touches: Every stateroom has plush beds with high-end linens, pillows and memory foam mattresses or toppers. Amenities include cribs, Pack 'n' Plays, in-room refrigerators and towel animals at turndown, plus the Cartoon Channel on stateroom TV's. Fun Nickelodeon Bedtime Kits are available on Norwegian Epic, Gem and Jewel (book online pre-cruise for a lower price). Each kit includes a cinch bag with a SpongeBob- and Nickelodeon-themed bed throw, pillowcase, flameless candle nightlight, storybook, toothbrush and cup.
Caveat Emptor: Norwegian's cabin categories can be difficult to decipher given the numerous possible combinations. Be sure to check floor plans on Norwegian's Web site to determine the best configuration for your family. Epic's bathroom design offers pluses and minuses for families: While separating the commode and shower on opposite sides of the entryway makes it easy for one family member to shower while another uses the toilet, the semitransparent doors offer limited privacy, and the sink's location -- across from the main bed -- makes for noisy night hand-washing.
Why?P&O's family-friendly ships -- Aurora, Oceana, Ventura and Azura -- have plenty of cabins to accommodate families, albeit some are on the small side. Standard staterooms vary in size from a snug 160 square feet to 230 square feet, and third and fourth beds fold down from the ceiling or out of the wall. For roomier accommodations, book either a Mini Suite (approximately 325 square feet) or a Suite (around 535 square feet), each with two lower beds that convert to a king, a bathroom with a shower above a whirlpool bath, a DVD player and a balcony with a table and reclining chairs. In the larger suite, there's a separate bedroom with two lower beds.
Larger families (up to six) fit nicely in Azura's and Ventura's two 700-square-foot Family Suites. Each has a twin/double bedroom area, an adjoining inside cabin with an additional four beds, a lounge and a large balcony, plus the added benefit of personal butler service.
Other positives: Ask about "Family Savers" rates for your preferred dates. These rates offer substantial savings for children ages 16 and younger, including some sailings in which children sail for free; they're available on Aurora, Oceana, Ventura and Azura.
Nice Touches: Mineral water, a fruit basket and chocolates await passengers on arrival. Use the room's atlas and binoculars to talk geography and spot islands with kids. Bathrobes and slippers are available for adults, and children are offered balloons and beds covered in pink or blue duvet covers.
Caveat Emptor: Unlike those on Princess, most P&O cabins include an additional third and fourth bed -- however, stateroom sizes are a bit cozy in the lower cabin categories, so be sure to check floor plans before booking. Note: P&O's Adonia, Arcadia and Oriana are the fleet's adult-orientated ships.
Princess' 233-to 307-square-foot Ocean View with Balcony cabins fit a family nicely with a layout that separates the bathroom area from the sleeping area via a closet that runs perpendicular to the stateroom walls. This design allows other family members to sleep through early-morning or late-night bathroom use. In most cases, two twin beds can be pushed together to create a queen-size bed. The bathrooms have stand-up shower stalls with curtains (sorry, no glass doors here) and adequate space to store belongings, both inside the bathroom and out.
Other Positives: Families of three or four can book a roomy 323- to 354-square-foot Mini Suite with Balcony. These semiprivate suites each include twin beds that convert to a queen-size bed, a separate sitting area with sofa bed, two televisions, a refrigerator, a walk-in closet and a bathroom with tub and shower.
Nice Touches: Children love the chocolates included with turndown service. Cribs and baby food are available for free upon request. (Baby food must be requested at least three weeks prior to departure.) In addition to Cartoon Network and Boomerang, current kid-friendly movies, as well as TV programs for kids, are all shown on in-stateroom televisions, based on satellite availability. Families with children old enough to wander on their own can rent walkie-talkies from the Passenger Services Desk.
Caveat Emptor: Book early. Staterooms that can accommodate four passengers are scattered throughout Princess' various inside, outside and suite categories, and are limited in number. For example, only about 17 percent of Diamond Princess' cabins can accommodate quads. Also note, in some four-passenger staterooms, your children sleep above you in beds that fold out from the ceiling.
Why?Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas offer 37 (yes, 37!) categories of accommodation options, many with views unique to these sister ships. The following are a few of our favorites.
Six AquaTheater Suites feature private wraparound balconies overlooking the Boardwalk, the AquaTheater and the ocean. There, parents can "stay in" and still see a show, with kids dressed in pajamas. These new suites accommodate up to eight passengers with two bedrooms and two full baths.
The more affordable 182-square-foot Boardwalk View staterooms have smaller balconies, but they overlook the same festive area. Eight Boardwalk View Ocean staterooms have no balconies and, instead, feature cushioned window seats in which we're sure more than a few toddlers have asked to sleep. Special soundproofing used for the Boardwalk View staterooms means you can have spectacular views of the Boardwalk, AquaShow and the ocean from the aft end of the ship, all without hearing too much noise.
Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas offer innovative family staterooms in six different categories, including the 600-square-foot Royal Family Suite and 330-square-foot Inside Family Stateroom. With the exception of the suite, all family staterooms feature a curtained-off sleeping alcove and a sleeper sofa. We also love that families of six can choose from four 335-square-foot Promenade Family Staterooms. Each feature a curtained-off sleeping alcove with bunk beds, a sleeper sofa, a bathtub and window seats overlooking the Royal Promenade. Oasis' and Allure's version of the Royal Family Suite with Balcony features a master bedroom and bath, a guest room with private bath, plus an outdoor dining and lounge area that seats four. Guests booked in Grand Suite or higher categories (on Oasis and Allure) can partake in the Concierge Club suite of amenities, which include access to an extensive library of DVD's and CD's, continental breakfasts and pre-dinner cocktail receptions. A concierge assists with specialty restaurant reservations, shore excursions and spa appointments. Other perks include a private cocktail reception hosted by the captain, behind-the-scenes tours and V.I.P. seating poolside and in the main theater.
Other Positives: Speaking of high-end suites, splurge on the four-bedroom, four-bath Presidential Family Suite that can accommodate up to 14 passengers (available on Oasis- and Freedom-class ships). These posh digs have floor-to-ceiling windows, balconies big enough for the group to dine outdoors, large LCD screens and jetted tubs. All staterooms aboard Oasis and Allure feature additional under-the-bed storage, closets with retractable clothing, and shoe shelves and flip-up bedside tables.
Royal Caribbean's Voyager- and Radiance-class ships (as well as Vision of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas and Enchantment of the Seas) offer 265- to 328-square-foot Family Ocean View Staterooms. These can each accommodate up to six passengers and typically include two twin beds that can convert into queens, bunk beds in a separate enclosed area, and a sitting area with a sofa bed and a mini-bar.
Nice Touches: Borrow one of several children's books available in the library to take back for bedtime reading in your cabin, or borrow a bag of Fisher-Price toys from the onboard nursery for in-room toddler play. Other stateroom features include refrigerators, cribs and child-friendly fare available through room service (including freshly mashed baby food). Each ship also offers Cartoon Network, Boomerang, ESPN International, Fisher-Price Channel and Adventure Ocean TV. In addition, iPod docking stations are in staterooms on new and refurbished ships, and will soon be included fleetwide.
Caveat Emptor: Family staterooms and suites on Royal Caribbean's non-Oasis-class ships vary in size and layout (some are quite small), so check online or with your travel agent for information on bed configurations.