Carnival Family Cruise

From the moment the last Christmas ornament is put away and the last chorus of Auld Lang Syne has faded, college students, high school seniors and families all over North America start planning that warmer-weather rite: spring break.

While plenty of young adults will end up in Cancun, and high-school seniors gravitate to party spots like Panama City, Florida, or to a Lake Havasu, Arizona, houseboat, more and more of these groups are looking at cruise vacations for the nonstop fun and value they provide. Parents traveling with their kids are doing the same thing, and apparently in droves; about 1.5 million children cruise with their families each year, many of those during spring break.

So if you're planning a spring break cruise, it's a good idea to look into the policies, pros and cons of cruising during this somewhat crazy time. There are age restrictions for certain activities, and let's face it -- certain cruise lines and certain ships are just better at handling the abundance of children and occasionally rowdy teens and young adults during this travel period.

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Cruise Line Policies

Most cruise lines have rigid rules governing the age eligibility for sailing without a chaperone, for drinking alcohol and for gambling onboard. And most ships' staffs are cracking down and making sure those policies are enforced.

Alcohol: Cruise Critic has a definitive breakdown, cruise line by cruise line, of alcohol consumption policies. Look through it carefully, and resolve to follow the rules.

Chaperones Required: Most cruise lines require that passengers be at least 21 years old to travel without a chaperone. But a few lines, including Disney Cruise Line and Oceania, allow those 18 and older to travel alone. What defines being chaperoned, however, differs among them. Carnival Cruise Lines requires that unmarried passengers younger than 21 each have another passenger at least 25 years old booked in the same cabin. Other lines -- including Norwegian, Princess, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Holland America -- lower the age of that in-cabin chaperone to 21 -- but specifics vary even then. Norwegian allows that chaperone to stay in an adjacent cabin, and Holland America only requires one chaperone for every five passengers under 21. Most lines make exceptions for married couples younger than 21. Cruise lines are more flexible when it comes to young adults under age 21 who are traveling with parents. Most allow them to be in separate cabins if a parent is in an adjoining or adjacent stateroom, and Carnival will even allow those 18 and older to bunk anywhere on the same deck.

These rules are often hard to find, usually listed under "FAQ's" on the line's website (in tiny print at the bottom) or in Royal Caribbean's case, under "Onboard Policies.” They aren't kidding about following the rules, either; staff will carefully check your documentation before they allow you to board, and if you don't follow the rules, you will be left behind.

Gambling: Most cruise lines -- including Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean -- allow gaming at the age of 18; Princess requires guests to be 21. There are no casinos onboard any of Disney's ships. Be aware that if you are traveling to Alaska, many ports there require you to be 21 to gamble -- even ships with an 18-and-older policy will enforce this. You need to carefully review your ship's policies; if you are underage and win a jackpot, you won't be paid.

The Pros and Cons of Family Cruising

Carnival Kids Cruise

The pleasures of cruising as a family are many, a fact which cruise lines have recognized and capitalized upon. The major big-ship lines have added more space and programs for kids of all ages, and have made great strides in addressing those hard-to-please tweens and teens. With the development of parent-free zones and clubs that serve "mocktails" (ie, places where teenagers can forget that they are actually traveling with their parents), the cruise lines have been able win over this most finicky age group.

Disney, of course, was the pioneer, revolutionizing family-oriented cruising in this contemporary era, but other lines including Carnival, Princess, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean also do an excellent job with kids. Holland America, long known for catering to the well-heeled senior crowd, actually designed its Vista- and Signature-class ships to attract multigenerational family groups.

But there's a downside.

While crewmembers generally do a great job of seeing that kids attending youth programs are safely and happily entertained, not all children opt to go to the kids' clubs. Even among those who do, many are allowed check-out privileges (at around age 10 on most ships, and at age 8 on Disney) with parental consent. The result is that you'll always find a number of unaccompanied children roaming the ship.

While there are policies about where children can be and when, crewmembers need to step up and enforce these rules, and parents need to take more responsibility to make sure that their children aren't running amok at sea. Having sailed on many spring break cruises on several different cruise lines, we can assure you that these issues have improved over time. Yet, as cruise lines' programs continue to evolve and expand, the chance of encountering unruly or unsupervised children is a real possibility, and should be a consideration when booking a spring break cruise.

Which, then, are the best bets for spring break cruising?

Top Cruise Lines

Royal Caribbean Kids Skating

For Younger Kids: The winners for kids ages 5 to 12 are the family-friendly ships of Royal Caribbean, especially the Oasis- and Quantum-class ships. They continue to add to what was already an impressive selection of sports activities for kids. Rock-climbing, ice-skating, FlowRider surf pools, zip lines and carousels will keep active kids happy, and on Quantum, families can try roller skating and bumper cars. Royal Caribbean also plans BBQs, dance competitions and theater camps for this age group; additionally, there's a DJ Academy where kids can try their hand at mixing records, as well as a Barbie Experience where kids can attend a fashion show and clothing-design workshop.

All of Disney's ships have great "lab" programs, where kids can do scientific experiments or create animations. Plus, there's lots of other fabulous entertainment to enchant the whole family. On Bahamas and Caribbean cruises, visits on to the line's "private island," Castaway Cay, are designed for family togetherness -- although Mom and Dad can escape for an hour or two of solitude on the adults-only beach while the kids hang out in the on-island extension of the kids' club. On Dream and Fantasy, tweens ages 10 to 12 even have their own fully supervised hang-out spot.

Norwegian Cruise Line has always been kid-oriented, and pioneered the idea of flexible dining for families with its Freestyle Dining program; when there's no need to wait for a set dining time, it's easy to appease cranky, hungry kids. Norwegian's Epic, Breakaway and Getaway ships have large aqua parks, mini golf, sports courts with a cool ropes course, and rock-climbing walls. Kids can also take part in workshops on juggling, plate spinning and stilt walking as part of an onboard circus school. Also appealing to younger school-aged kids is the "Nickelodeon at Sea" program, with meet-and-greets and live shows that feature SpongeBob and other Nick characters.

Princess Cruises has always done an excellent job with this age group, too, and deserves props for its educational offerings in particular. The line now has a partnership with Discovery, and beginning in 2015 will offer a Discovery at Sea program, through which kids can take part in many onboard activities inspired by the Network's most popular shows. They can experiment with Mythbusters-inspired science projects, get up close with local animals when in port on Animal Planet tours, and test their knowledge of the ocean during Shark Week at Sea.

For more on our favorite kid-friendly lines, read our story on Best Cruise Ships for Families. And while parents with babies and toddlers are not yet beholden to the school vacation calendar, families with under-5's looking to cruise in spring might be interested in the Best Cruises for Babies.

Carnival teen sports

For Teens, Young Adults and College Students: Editor's Note: If you (or your children) intend to travel without parents, remember to check and thoroughly understand the age-eligibility requirements for each person in the group. The cruise lines aren't kidding about enforcing the policies and will leave fully paid-but-underage passengers on the pier with no hesitation whatsoever.

Carnival Cruise Line excels when it comes to pleasing teens and 20-somethings. Many people associate Carnival with loud, wacky pool games and late-night entertainment options. While Carnival has earned its reputation as a line that likes to party, they have also proven they are not afraid to enforce the rules when it comes to minors. All of Carnival's ships attract young adults and college kids. Carnival's Dream-class ships have even more lounges, bars and nightspots than their predecessors, including a dance club with indoor/outdoor access, and bigger, better fitness centers. College students will enjoy cruises that stop in Cancun or Montego Bay, which are land-based, spring-break hot spots.

Royal Caribbean's ships offer the best options for active-lifestyle cruising, so teens and young adults who enjoy lots of physical activity will feel right at home climbing rock walls perched 100 feet over the ocean or ice-skating around indoor rinks. Always looking to outdo itself, the line has added bumper cars and a skydiving simulator to its newest ship, Quantum of the Seas. The teens-only areas are safe havens for "separate but equal" vacations. Royal Caribbean's YSpa menu features services just for teens, including an Acne Attack facial and Beach Babe Deep Conditioning hair treatment. Royal Caribbean also offers the PADI Scuba Diver Program to passengers 12 and older.

Disney Dream and Fantasy each have an indoor/outdoor area called Vibe that's just for teens. One highlight is a section of private deck space where teens can lounge in the sun with privacy, away from adults and younger children.

For more of our favorites, read about the Best Cruises for Teens and Best Cruises for 20- and 30-Somethings.

For Multigenerational Groups: Kids, parents and grandparents can all travel in comfort on Holland America's Signature-class ships, which are at once familiar and new; many of the Holland America traditions remain intact, but the ships have a definite 21st-century ambience, with basketball instead of tennis courts, engaging children's centers, private tween and teens-only retreats, and shore excursions that appeal to all ages and interests. Families can visit the Culinary Arts Center to learn to prepare all types of snacks and dishes; class dishes often coincide with local cruise ports, such jerk chicken in the Caribbean or pasta with chorizo in the Mediterranean. The line's Dancing with the Stars At Sea program, which combines dance classes with a ballroom-dance competition for passengers, is the perfect entertainment for all ages.

Royal Caribbean Multigenerational Cruise

Princess Cruises' large ships are also standouts in this category, with age-appropriate kids groups, parent-free teen centers and family-centric activities, such as Movies Under the Stars and Island Night deck parties. The layout of the ships and quiet, adults-only areas like The Sanctuary ensure that there will always be tranquil spaces for the grands if they so desire.

Cruising with the extended family? Learn more about planning a group cruise.

No Kids? No Problem!

If March and April are the best times for you to travel, but you'd rather share your vacation with as few children as possible, take heart. There are options for cruising during spring break that will get you away from the family and student scene. Here are some tips:

Go exotic. The Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera and Hawaii are out if you want to avoid kids. Europe is becoming more popular for families, but you'll still find comparatively fewer kids. You're even less likely to find many family groups on cruises to Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the South Pacific or South America, so choose an itinerary that's off the beaten path.

Take a longer cruise. Most child-filled spring break cruises are of the three- to seven-night variety. Choosing a 10-night (or longer) sailing will lessen your chances of being surrounded by young 'uns.

Choose a luxury or boutique line. While most of the luxury lines welcome children, they do not have the extensive facilities that the mainstream cruise lines offer. As a result, the ships of Silversea, Windstar, Oceania Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are likely to have relatively few children onboard. Many river cruise lines tend to have a couple of late-March itineraries, sure to be virtually kid-free. But remember: Northern Europe will be cold at that time of year.

For more on escaping the little ones, check out Tips: How to Score a Peaceful Holiday Cruise.