Though you may need to do a little legwork to determine which ship is right for your family, mainstream lines (and some luxury ships as well) have one common denominator: onboard programs that allow your kids to hang out with others their age. It's a massive benefit on sea days, but did you know that this perk is also available when the ship is in port -- sometimes for no extra cost? Or that some lines plan targeted excursions meant to entertain even the peskiest of age groups (teens)?
Whether you've already booked a cruise with the gang this summer or are contemplating one (there's still time to snag last minute deals!), here are three secrets for planning your time ashore -- with or without the little ones.
You don't have to take your kids ashore (unless you want to). Yes, that's right -- kids' clubs are open for business on port days. Lines like Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Holland America, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, P&O Cruises, Princess and Royal Caribbean all offer onboard programming (think camp with more high-tech toys) for kids and teens ages 3 and up when the ship is in port. This gives parents the choice of taking the kids out to explore the various destinations -- or leaving them in competent hands while the adults do more grown-up excursions, like museum or winery visits. Or, you can split your day and do both!
Onboard kids' programs are usually -- but not always -- free on port days. All lines with kids' activities offer them for free on sea days, but not all are fee-free when the ship is docked or anchored in port. Most notably, NCL charges $6 per hour, per child, and $4 per sibling, per hour, for Port Play, the line's in-port kids' program. Celebrity offers free activities, but does charge $6 per hour if the line's youth counselors need to take your child to a meal because the line's kids' clubs are normally closed at lunch and dinner. Parents can also arrange for in-room babysitting ($8 per hour, per child) for kids age 1 and older. Similarly, Disney's clubs are free to kids ages 3 and up, but do charge a per-hour fee for under-3's spending the day in the onboard nursery.
Lines with free port-day programming include Carnival, Costa, Holland America, MSC Cruises, P&O, Princess and Royal Caribbean. If you plan to use this option, check with the youth staff as you may need to sign up kids a day in advance for port-day activities.
Some lines offer family-friendly or teen-only excursions. If you do want to venture ashore, you should always vet tour offerings to make sure they'll suit your children's interests and needs. However, a few lines make it easy with excursions aimed at families. Disney Cruise Line is a leader here with a variety of excursions for all ages; look especially for tours tagged as "Family Adventures" for kid-friendly options. On Carnival, teens can go on teen-only shore excursions, supervised by the line's youth staff, for discounted rates; the kids vote on which tour to take. Also, on many lines, kids pay reduced rates on ship-sponsored shore excursions.
For more information on taking your family on a cruise, visit our Cruise Basics and Family Cruises sections.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor