students in graduation gowns holding diplomas on university campus

Graduation day is on the horizon. Whether your soon-to-be grad is approaching the end of his or her high school career or about to dive into the "real world" post-college, the milestone calls for celebration. If you want to go all-out, consider surprising them with a graduation cruise.

A cruise is a fun, carefree way (and a great excuse) for the family to celebrate before it's time to start moving into campus or hunting for apartments or jobs. Considering you get "all you can eat" food, entertainment and the chance to explore more than one destination in a single trip, it's also an excellent value. Besides, what could be more rewarding after a week of finals and commencement festivities than seven days on a floating resort?

Lavish your deserving grad with the gift of cruise, and follow these steps for smooth sailing.

Find a Cruise

Find your perfect cruise ship.

Would you prefer a mega-ship with nonstop fun or something smaller, with a more laidback atmosphere? Do your research before making any decisions.

Active families, for example, should look at lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian. The "big three," which also happen to be some of the most affordable, have lively top decks with a plethora of recreational features that might include a rock climbing wall, ropes course or water slide. Meanwhile, families who prefer quieter pool areas and enrichment activities -- such as cooking classes or wine blending (if your grad is at least 21) -- would fare better with a line like Celebrity, Princess or Holland America.

Confused by all the options? Learn more about how to pick a cruise line that suits your personality and travel style.

Jet Ski on the Beach

Choose an itinerary that fits your travel style.

Like finding the right ship, you should also choose an itinerary that fits your family's travel style. Adventure seekers, for example, might find a Western Caribbean itinerary where they can visit Mayan ruins and go cave tubing in Belize more intriguing than the Eastern Caribbean, where you get to lounge on some of the region's best beaches. Rest assured: Any itinerary where beaches prevail includes plenty of opportunities for popular activities like jet-skiing and snorkeling.

If you are leaning toward Alaska or even somewhere in Europe, just make sure your family isn't expecting a beach-bumming, booze-cruising week in the tropics. If going the sightseeing route, consider planning the cruise for mid-summer, rather than right after commencement, so your grad can rest a bit and gear up for on-the-go travel.

To help get you started, compare the 14 best cruise ships in the Caribbean -- or, if you've got room in your budget for a more bucket-list itinerary, 11 cruise ships in Alaska.

Book the right cabin.

Booking the right cabin ensures everyone is comfortable and saves you from awkward situations -- especially if you haven't been living under the same roof much in the past four years. Your best option is connecting cabins. On most cruise lines, you can snag two rooms with an interior door for easy access from one to the other. If they're balcony cabins, you can sometimes open the divider to expand the outdoor space.

Allowing the kids to have their own room will give them just enough space, while still keeping the family together. If the kids are under 18 when you book, just make sure to include an adult in each room. You can always shuffle the occupants once onboard.

If you're short on funds or simply want to explore your options, follow these tips on booking a cruise room for the whole family.

Consider independent tours.

When planning out your time in port, consider booking with an independent tour operator rather than the cruise line. When you're traveling in a group, you can often save quite a bit of money by booking one tour guide for your entire family versus each of you paying your own way through the cruise line. A private guide also means more personalized service and a day customized to your interests. The best part: You already know you like everyone in your group.

Not sure if you want to stray from the tours offered by your cruise line? Compare ship-sponsored and independent shore excursions to see which is right for you.

Tuscan Grille on Celebrity Reflection

Celebrate with a special dinner.

Eating every night in the ship's main dining room is free, but we suggest setting aside some money to splurge on dinner at a specialty restaurant. These optional dining venues validate their cover charges with higher-quality food, intimate ambiances and more attentive service -- and are ideal for special occasions.

Most cruise lines have multiple restaurants focused on different cuisines -- such as Asian, Italian or steak. Once you decide on one, let the cruise line know you're celebrating a graduation. (Chances are, they'll have a little surprise in store for your grad.)

Scroll through our list of the 15 best cruise ship alternative restaurants to see what's cookin'.

Bring a friend.

As much as families want to bond on a graduation cruise, you also want to make sure the grads have a chance to enjoy their newfound independence and have some fun. Allow them to bring a friend (or plan a group trip with a couple of families), so they have a like-minded companion for various activities such as a pickup basketball game in the top-deck sports court or dancing at the nightclub, where they can meet and mingle with other young adults their age.

Bear in mind: Most cruise ships are limited in terms of what's offered to 18- to 20-year olds. These young adults are too old for the teen club and, although they're allowed in bars and nightclubs, not old enough to drink (unless the cruise line allows it with a parent's consent).