Cruising is without a doubt a family-friendly vacation, with 42 percent of cruise parties traveling with children under the age 18, according to Cruise Lines International Association. To attract and keep so many children happily engaged, cruise lines offer tricked-out kids clubs, meet and greets with beloved cartoon characters, splash-happy water parks, ziplines, ropes courses and more.
Most of the mainstream cruise lines are extremely family-friendly, including lines such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. Celebrity and Holland America Line offer supervised activities and dedicated facilities for kids and teens on most ships, but do have a more adult-focused ethos and fewer family attractions outside the kids' clubs. Luxury lines like Crystal and Regent Seven Seas offer children's programs on selected sailings, but the more high-end cruises are generally geared toward grownups.
All of these lines offer great cruises. It's the differences -- each line's signature features, onboard partnerships and the details of the kids and teens programs -- that will determine which ship is the best fit for your family.
To get the most from your family cruise, consider the following tips when picking a ship.
1. Make sure the structure of the children's program works for your kids.
Family-friendly cruise lines work hard delivering creative children's programs that go beyond babysitting. Norwegian's Splash Academy engages kids with tumbling, juggling, spinning and other circus skill classes, culminating in a performance of circus acts for appreciative parents. Carnival's Camp Ocean has a marine theme, and Disney's utilizes its partnerships to offer attractions like a Millennium Falcon-themed Star Wars play area and Marvel Super Hero Academy.
All cruise line youth programs divide kids into age-appropriate groups, but different lines take different approaches toward age groupings. You'll want to think about the ages and personalities of your children to determine whether a cruise line's program is a good fit.
Royal Caribbean, for example, offers separate groups for ages 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14 and 15 to 17, a division that takes into account kids' natural tendencies: An outgoing 6-year-old might be bored and insulted by being with a 3-year-old, and a shy 8-year-old might feel overwhelmed being matched with a much taller and athletic 12-year-old. Carnival's Camp Ocean offers the same groupings, but starts the drop-off program at 2 instead of 3 and youth staff change diapers. Norwegian's Splash Academy separates kids into Turtles, ages 3 to 5; Seals, ages 6 to 9; and Dolphins, ages 10 to 12. It combines all teens, ages 13 to 17, into one Entourage group. If your 12-year-old is very mature and outgoing, she might be fine in a group with older kids and high schoolers on Royal Caribbean and Carnival; if she's a young 12, she might do better mixed with 10- and 11-year-olds on Norwegian.
Holland America and Princess offer fewer age groupings, meaning a wider age range in each group. Princess groups together ages 3 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 to 17; Holland America adjusts ages slightly in Club HAL with groupings for Kids (3 to 6), Tweens (7 to 12) and Teens (13 to 17). Will your 12-year-old be willing to hang out with a 7- or 8-year-old? Your success with the kids' club may depend on how many children of each age show up for activities.
Disney takes an unusual approach. Its Oceaneer Club and Lab are both open to all kids between ages 3 and 12. While Club activities target the younger kids and Lab programming is aimed at the older, any child can participate in any activity. This means that siblings or friends traveling together can stay with each other, despite age gaps. On the flip side, preschoolers might be overwhelmed by the activity choice if left in the kids club for several hours.
Another thing to note: During spring break, summer and other peak times, kids might be bumped from the dedicated play spaces into lounges and other public areas to reduce crowding. Conversely, during the fall or other cruises with low kid turnout, age groups might be combined for joint activities.
2. If you have young children, look for a line with cartoon characters onboard.
Little kids love cartoons, so consider which make-believe star your youngster wants to meet when choosing a cruise line. In this age of media ads, movie blockbusters and action figure toys, your kindergartner may long to take tea with a Disney princess, and your second-grader may count the days until he can team up with Marvel's Avengers on a Disney voyage.
Disney is an obvious choice if your kid has a character crush, given that you'll find princesses, pirates like Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse and friends, Star Wars and Marvel superheroes onboard. But it's not the only line to make storybooks spring to life. Carnival has rolled out Seuss at Sea, complete with Seuss-a-palooza Story Time and Green Eggs and Ham Breakfasts with cameos by the Cat in the Hat and Thing 1 and Thing 2. Shrek, Fiona, Puss N Boots and other DreamWorks stars parade on many Royal Caribbean ships, and DreamWorks' popular movie releases play onboard. Characters join kids club activities, and on Allure of the Seas, families can enjoy the Madagascar Aqua Show at the outdoor Aqua Theater and the How to Train Your Dragon Ice Show in the ship's ice rink.
3. If you're traveling with babies, choose a ship with an onboard nursery.
Although little ones aren't likely to remember their first sea voyages, you'll remember if traveling with a baby made your vacation less enjoyable or if you were able to successfully cruise with a toddler. Minimum ages to sail tend to be 6 months for most mainstream cruises, and 1 year for longer or more exotic voyages. Some luxury and expedition cruise lines discourage children, so check before booking.
Several cruise lines offer drop-off nurseries for under-3s at an hourly rate and/or play areas for the littlest cruisers, which they can enjoy with a parent or guardian. Disney Cruise Line is one of the top lines for babies, offering full-service themed nurseries at sea for ages 6 months to 3 years, complete with toys and nap areas. Parents can use special onboard mobile phones to keep in touch with nursery staff, and take little ones to explore the Oceaneer Club and Lab's play spaces during open houses.
Royal Caribbean also offers an equally enticing Royal Babies and Tots Nursery for ages 6 to 36 months on most ships. Little ones can enjoy soft play areas and age-appropriate toys, as well as cribs and cots for snoozing. The nursery also holds interactive play groups for 6 to 18 month olds and 18 to 36 month olds and their parents, with arts and crafts, music and other games.
Norwegian offers a drop-off nursery only on Norwegian Escape. On all ships, the Splash Academy features either a dedicated play space for under-3s with their parents or staff-led parent-tot activities in the Splash Academy or other space (music, sensory play, etc.) -- or both.
4. Don't be naive when traveling with teens.
Teen programs are tricky, and the best ones, like the best children's programs, separate teens into age-appropriate groups. Carnival, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean offer separate programs for ages 12 to 14 and 15 to 17; Carnival and Royal also have exclusive spaces for the two teen groups. On Disney Cruise Line, teens also divide into two separate groups with different hangout spaces, but the age groupings are different: 11 to 13 and 14 to 17. Each has its own places to hang out.
On the flip side, Norwegian, Holland America and Princess group ages 13 to 17 together, with teens having their own spaces on each line. On some Holland America ships, teens congregate at the Loft, an indoor teen lounge, as well as at the Oasis, an outdoor sun deck.
While teens meet each other at supervised events and do fun things together with the dedicated youth staff, there's plenty of time for them to form cliques and couples and to roam the ship sans adults. Your 13-year-old middle-schooler could well be hanging out with high school seniors. Be realistic. Everything you worry about at school and at teen parties on land -- bullying, drugs, alcohol and sex -- can be issues at sea. Talk to your teens ahead of time, set rules about where they can and can't go without you onboard (such as into other friends' cabins or onboard bars) and be aware of their activities on the ship.
5. If you want grown-up time, look for youth programs that operate in port and ships with evening babysitting.
Just because you vacation to spend time with your family does not mean that you don't want some grown-up time to hit the spa or visit a winery in port. To maximize your options, consider lines that offer drop-off activities onboard when the ship is in port. This enables your child to play happily with pals while you scuba dive, golf, visit museums or browse boutiques. Double-check that you can leave the ship while your children are in the youth club (some insist that one parent or guardian remains onboard) and whether there are any port-day fees. For example, Norwegian charges a fee to supervise kids during meals while their parents are off the ship.
Similarly, most lines offer evening group babysitting in the kids clubs for a fee. Norwegian's Late Night Fun Zone, for example, operates from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. for a per-child hourly fee. Carnival, Disney, Holland America, Celebrity, Princess and Royal Caribbean also offer late-night programs. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity even allow you to book in-cabin babysitting for children aged 1 year and older. One per-hour fee covers up to three children in the same family. If interested, you'll need to request a sitter at least 24 hours in advance, and know that your request will only be honored if there's crew availability.
6. Choose a cruise with plentiful pools and water play areas.
A favorite activity with families on cruises is swimming and splashing. All family-friendly ships feature pools, but some dedicate more space to water fun than others. If you've got water babies, look for ships with multiple pools and/or water parks. Newer ships tend to have more water-based wow features than their older fleetmates.
Carnival, known for its signature slides, ups the energy on its newer and refurbished ships with longer, windier slides that snake, twirl and even "flush" passengers. Its WaterWorks play areas also feature splash areas and kiddie slides for young cruisers not quite up to the big slides.
Young kids will also relish Royal Caribbean's tame H20 Zone, which brings out the giggles with geysers, water guns and small pools. Tweens, teens and adults test their skills on the FlowRider, a surf simulator. Harmony of the Seas offers the line's only water slides, and all three Oasis-class ships offer multiple pools for family fun.
Disney ships offer multiple pools, including two family-friendly pools (one with a little kid water slide), an adults-only pool and a splash area for diapered tots on each ship. Disney Dream and Fantasy tout the AquaDuck, a fairly tame water coaster ride that circles the pool deck, while Disney Magic features the AquaDunk, a more adrenaline-pumping slide, and Disney Wonder a more typical water slide. Magic, Wonder and Fantasy also have the AquaLab, a water play area with jets, geysers and dump buckets.
7. Look for cruise ships with additional family activities.
Beyond kids' clubs and pools, the most family-friendly lines offer attractions and programs that kids will enjoy, with or without their parents. Many lines offer athletic activities, but Royal Caribbean sports are at another level, including ice skating, rock climbing, ziplines and surfing. The line's ships, especially its newer ones, appeal to active teens and adults. Anthem of the Seas even offers a deckside version of skydiving known as RipCord by iFLY, as well as the SeaPlex, an indoor fun space with bumper cars and roller skating.
On Norwegian's ships, you can challenge your gang on the ropes course on Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway, or see who gets the highest score at bowling, available on Norwegian Pearl, Epic, Breakaway and Getaway. Norwegian also scored big by being the first line to offer Nintendo Wii sports games, now also available on other lines. Select ships have rock climbing walls and mini-golf.
Carnival Vista has an IMAX theater and a 4D Thrill Theater, plus a Clubhouse for mini-bowling, Ping-Pong, sports video gaming and arcade basketball. Vista and other Carnival ships run Hasbro, the Game Show, an audience-participation competition for kids and grownups alike.
8. Seek out family-friendly evening entertainment.
Cruise lines are known for R-rated comedians and adults-only games, but they offer plenty of family-friendly shows at night, so look for a line with after-dark options for your brood. Princess Cruises introduced Movies Under the Stars, films shown on deck while you relax in a lounge chair, tucked up in a blanket. Carnival and other lines also offer outdoor movies. Disney wows kids and adults with first-run movies in its indoor theater and its Disney-themed stage shows.
Older kids like the Broadway hits playing aboard Royal Caribbean, such as "Grease," "Mamma Mia" and "Saturday Night Fever." Ice skating, acrobatic and diving shows on select ships are great family fun, as well.
9. Research family-friendly dining options onboard.
No one goes hungry on a cruise ship, and the family-friendly lines satisfy young kids and always-hungry teens with extended-hour pizza, lavish dinner buffets, specialty casual restaurants and room service, in addition to seated dinners. Just be aware that lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean now charge for room service, so consider if that will be a problem because your little kids can't handle long restaurant meals or your teen is always starving at 11 p.m. Have a fussy kid or one who's vegan or lactose intolerant? Alert the cruise line ahead of your cruise and talk to the head waiter once onboard; the cruise line will be happy to work out meals that your child will eat.
Most lines offer kids' menus at lunch and dinner. In Carnival's dining rooms, for example, young cruisers can order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, hot dogs or mac and cheese. Along with signature restaurants geared to teens and adults, Carnival kid-friendly eateries include Guy's Burger Joint, Pizza Pirate, Cucina del Capitano for lotsa pasta and SeaDogs for hot dogs on Carnival Breeze and Magic.
When Norwegian introduced Freestyle Dining -- the ability to arrive at the dining room between certain times for dinner and sit wherever you want -- the line literally started a sea of change for those who like flexibility. The line features up to 29 dining options per ship; some are complimentary, and some aren't. You can try your luck just walking in, or make reservations if your kids must eat early or won't do well waiting for a table. Kids can order off the standard kids' menu for free in any specialty restaurant, or order off that venue's menu at list price.
Traditional dining with the same waiter every night has its fans. Your server knows your preferences and will bring the fruit cup for your 7-year-old and the crackers for your 10-year-old even before you ask. A new waiter every night won't know these little details. Lines like Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival let you choose between traditional dining (set time, set table, same waiters and tablemates) and a flexible option (arrive any time within dining hours and hope your preferred table size is available or share with others) in the main dining room. Disney does things a bit differently; everyone has the same tablemates and waiters, but you rotate among three restaurants, for a different option each night.
If you're worried that your kids can't make it through a two-hour dinner, look for lines that offer expedited kids' dining. With Royal Caribbean's My Family Time Dining program, kids finish their meals within 40 minutes and kids club staff pick them up from the dining room and bring them to the youth activities, while parents finish their meal at a more leisurely pace. Disney has a similar program. If your family eats during the later, second seating for dinner, you can opt for the Dine and Play option and have waiters serve children ages 3 to 12 first; after about 45 minutes, youth counselors pick your child up from the dining room and escort them to the children's program. Just tell your waiter when you arrive for dinner that you'd like this option.
10. Choose a ship with family-focused cabins and suites.
It's surprising how supposedly family-friendly cruise lines don't always have the most family-friendly cabins -- that is, unless you're willing to upgrade to a more expensive family suite. When picking a cruise ship and cabin category, consider options for connecting cabins, multiple berths in one cabin (and whether that means lights out for everyone once the little ones go to bed) and family-focused staterooms.
Disney Cruise Line's cabins are family-friendly across the board. Most cabins feature a welcome bath-and-a-half set-up. In addition to one full bathroom with a toilet, sink and tub/shower, the second bathroom has a vanity, sink and toilet. This goes a long way to getting everyone in the family ready for outings and meals with the minimum number of hassles, and you don't have to pay extra for a suite. Plus, many rooms can accommodate extra passengers in pullout sofas and pulldown bunk beds, often with dividing curtains between the kid sleeping area and the grown-up one.
Carnival Vista's Family Harbor cabins range from inside staterooms to suites but all are clustered around and offer free access to the Family Harbor Lounge, which offers a buffet breakfast, daytime snacks and soft serve ice cream; TVs and computer stations; and board games. Plus, residents get a free night of Night Owls babysitting and free specialty dining for kids under 12.
If you've got a big group and are prepared to splurge, look for special cabins and suites that can sleep more than four. On several ships, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a 500-plus-square-foot villa with two bedrooms that sleeps six in The Haven; residents get access to Haven perks like an exclusive pool and sun decks, restaurants and lounges. Royal Caribbean's family suites can accommodate five to eight; the Family Connected Junior Suites with Balconies on Anthem of the Seas sleep 10 in a warren of rooms, which is actually three cabins combined: a Junior Suite, a Studio cabin and an ocean-view with balcony. The Presidential Family Suite on Freedom-class ships and Harmony of the Seas can sleep up to 14 in a four-bedroom configuration.
11. Find the cruise ship size that works for you and your kids.
What size ship works best for you depends on the ages of your kids and your family's temperament. On the one hand, the bigger ships tend to offer the most elaborate kids and teens facilities, lots of restaurant choice and over-the-top attractions like ropes course, simulated skydiving and Broadway shows. That said, big ships can be confusing for younger children to navigate and can feel more crowded during peak seasons. That can mean waiting in lines at elevators and eateries, moving through packed hallways and needing to reserve specialty restaurants and shows in advance, limiting some of the spontaneity of a cruise.
The smaller ships also tend to be the older ones, often with fewer balcony cabins or family-focused staterooms, restaurant options and glamorous top-deck attractions. That said, most lines have upgraded their older ships. Carnival has been adding popular restaurants, like Guy's Burger Joint or Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que and the BlueIguana Tequila, and bars, like the Alchemy Bar and RedFrog Rum Bar, to many of its older ships. Disney, for example, upgraded Disney Magic with a water slide and splash park, new Tiana's Place restaurant, an English pub and upgraded spa and kids club (now with Marvel Super Hero Academy). Royal Caribbean has enhanced many of its older vessels by adding aqua parks, new restaurants and Royal Babies and Tots nurseries.
Another factor to consider: The big, glitzy new ships book at top dollar, while older, smaller ships tend to cost less.
12. Pick a family-friendly itinerary.
Everybody loves a beach, so Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico itineraries play to all ages. Alaska, with its kayaking, rafting, fly fishing and dogsledding, tends to appeal more to grade schoolers and teens than to young kids. Europe is somewhere in the middle, depending on how you structure your days. If a mix of parks and palaces are on your schedule, then little kids might be fine -- if you can hack the overseas flight and resultant jet lag. A heavy load of museums and historical sites can make preschoolers -- and even teens -- cranky. With active teens, look for itineraries with plenty of options for bike tours, hiking and water sports.
Also consider departing from a port near your home. If you drive to your ship, then you automatically save the cost of airfare and the hassles associated with flying, plus you can pack as much stuff as you can carry (especially helpful when traveling with diapers and strollers).