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With accommodations, meals and entertainment wrapped up in its fares, cruising is one of the most inclusive, affordable vacations around. Even so, it can still be pricey to take the entire family on an oceangoing getaway. Just when you thought that bringing the brood would break the bank, we've come up with a list of lines that let kids sail free.
If the idea of free cruises for kids gets your heart racing with excitement, be aware of a few caveats: With most lines, free kids fares are only available as limited-time promotions, require applicable taxes and fees to be paid for each passenger and necessitate sharing a cabin with the junior travelers as the third and/or fourth passengers in the room. (Contact a travel agent or your cruise line for specific information before booking any cruise.)
1. MSC Cruises
This Mediterranean line is splashy and elegant, but it's also affordable. Kids younger than 12 always cruise gratis when they share a cabin with their parents. With colorful, fun children's facilities, onboard arcade games, and partnerships with LEGO and European brand Chicco, MSC ships are decidedly kid-friendly. Bonus: MSC vessels cater to an international passenger base, so they're ideal for children who are curious about other languages and cultures.
2. Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line sometimes offers "third and fourth passenger" discounts, which allow the third and fourth passengers booked in each cabin to cruise at a reduced cost as part of limited-time sales. The line's newer ships -- particularly Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Breakaway -- have a dizzying array of options that include arcade games, onboard bowling, top-deck ropes courses, circus school and dinner theater with acrobats and magicians. Additionally, all ships provide programming especially for the kiddos via Splash Academy, the line's kids club.
3. Royal Caribbean
Royal Caribbean achieves consistently high marks for its children's offerings, which include partnerships with Crayola, Fisher-Price and DreamWorks. Newer ships boast onboard science labs and stages for kids, where they conduct experiments and put on productions, respectively. Beyond specific programs, ships throughout the fleet offer kid-friendly pastimes like cupcake making, character parades, rock climbing and surfing/boogie boarding. RCI frequently releases "third and fourth passenger" BOGO deals, allowing parents to bring their kids for free or for a lower cost.
4. Holland America Line
Although HAL is known for drawing a somewhat older crowd, its shorter cruises and holiday sailings are excellent options for multigenerational family travel groups. All ships in the fleet offer dedicated kids clubs and family-friendly theater shows that will appeal to younger cruisers. The line also occasionally runs "third and fourth passenger" sales, with free or discounted fares. (These sales apply to any passenger, regardless of age, but they can be used for children sharing a cabin with their parents.)
The passenger base for this French-owned river line skews slightly older, and its ships don't have all the flashy bells and whistles found on larger ocean ships. However, river cruises are a solid option for well-behaved older kids and teens who enjoy cultural immersion and history. River itineraries often include more than one port call per day, complete with in-depth (and complimentary) shore excursions that dive deep into the local customs and cuisine. Plus, kids 15 and younger sail free on select voyages.
6. Crystal Cruises
All-inclusive luxury line Crystal provides the highest end of everything, from service and dining to accommodations. Alcohol and soft drinks, specialty dining, shore excursions and gratuities are included in cruise fares, which can be expensive. However, children younger than 12 always sail at a 50 percent discount, except when the line is offering its occasional "kids sail free" fares (which allow them to sail at no charge when they share a cabin with two paying adults). Although you won't find as many children onboard as you would on more mainstream ships, all of Crystal's vessels offer programs for kids and teens in dedicated facilities that include video games, scavenger hunts and a children's library. It's one of the most kid-friendly of all the luxury lines.
7. Paul Gauguin
Luxury line Paul Gauguin, whose ships sail exotic itineraries in French Polynesia, always allows third and fourth passengers to sail free when sharing a cabin with two paying cruisers. That said, the ships in this fleet don't have dedicated facilities for kids, but they do offer an Ambassadors of the Environment program on select sailings. For a per-person fee, children ages 9 to 17 are able to choose from a variety of activities and shore excursions designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society. If your child is mature, well-behaved, curious about the environment and a fan of water sports, there's no reason why a cruise with this line wouldn't be enjoyable.