Even with accommodations, meals and entertainment wrapped up in its fares, cruising can still be pricy if you're taking 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 -- and it's also affordable. 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. MSC is a big draw for families, with children under 18 traveling in the same cabin as their parents cruising for free. (Taxes and port fees must still be paid on all free and reduced fare cruises.)
2. Norwegian Cruise Line
Every so often Norwegian Cruise Line offers "friends and family sail free" deals as part of its Free at Sea pick-your-perk promotion; this means that third and fourth passengers in a cabin (e.g., your kids) don't have to pay the cruise fare. The line's newer ships 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. Newer ships boast youth clubs with onboard science labs, art studios and stages for kids, as well as nurseries and play areas for babies and toddlers. Beyond specific programs, ships throughout the fleet offer kid-friendly features, like surf simulators, water slides, rock climbing walls and multi-story dry slides. Royal Caribbean frequently releases seasonal "third and fourth passenger" or "kids sail free" deals (check out Black Friday & Cyber Monday promotions), allowing parents to bring their kids for free or for a lower cost.
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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, including BBC Earth's Planet Earth II in Concert that will appeal to cruisers of all ages. 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.) Look out for these seasonal deals; in 2020, for example, Holland America offered a Kids Sail Free promotion on all Alaska, New England and European sailings on bookings made between select dates.
The passenger base for this French-owned river line skews slightly older, and its ships -- most with less than 200 passengers -- don't have all the flashy bells and whistles found on much 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 16 and younger sail free in Portugal, Spain, Italy and on the Rhine or at a discounted rate of 30 percent off the adult fare on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia and Montenegro on select Family Club 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, some specialty dining, Wi-Fi and gratuities are included in cruise fares, which can be expensive. However, children younger than 11 sail at a 50 percent discount when they share a cabin with two paying adults; the occasional "kids sail free" promotions allow cruisers younger than 18 to book a third berth in a cabin free of charge. Although you won't find as many children onboard as you would on more mainstream ships, Crystal's two ocean cruise ships offer programs for kids and teens in dedicated facilities that include video and arcade games. It's one of the most kid-friendly of all the luxury lines.
7. Paul Gauguin Cruises
Luxury line Paul Gauguin Cruises whose ships sail exotic itineraries in French Polynesia, always allows third passengers ages 17 and under to sail free when sharing a cabin with two paying cruisers. (The offer is for the cruise only, and airfare and taxes are additional.) The ships in this fleet don't have dedicated facilities for kids, but they do offer the complimentary Moana Explorer program on summer and December holiday sailings (although it's free, places on the program must be reserved at the time of booking.). Children ages seven to 15 can participate in nature-themed activities, such as naturalist-led island excursions, star-gazing through an onboard telescope and learning about marine life through ocean-themed games. 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.
Formal cruise line Cunard is well known for its program of transatlantic voyages on Queen Mary 2, but did you know it's also a great choice for families with kids? While Cunard doesn't offer the adrenaline-packed fun of some of the other mainstream ships, there are dedicated kids' zones and a children's program filled with age-appropriate activities, plus group babysitting sessions available to families. What's more, children under two sail free of charge and children aged two - 17 sail at half the adult fare when travelling as a third or fourth passenger in a cabin (taxes, fees and port expenses will still apply).
9. Costa Cruises
This popular Italian cruise line offers one of the best deals for families with kids, with children up to the age of 18 sharing a cabin with two adults going free (port fees, service fees, insurance, flights and transfers). With age-appropriate children's clubs and programing (think pizza parties and fun Venetian masquerade events), dedicated kids pools, water parks with multi-deck slides, Peppa Pig-themed events, mini-golf and the Rope Garden ropes courses on newer ships, there's no shortage of fun on board.