Babies as young as 6 months are allowed onboard cruise ships, but that doesn't mean you want to set sail with an infant. While many people travel successfully with young children, we would argue that a cruise is more fun, for kids and for parents, when they're a bit older.
Because all kids are different, the perfect cruising age for one might not be the same for another. If you want to determine if your kid is ready to cruise, answer the questions in our checklist. If you've got a majority of yes answers, book that sailing today. If no dominates, you might want to wait a few years and try again.
1. Can your kid sleep in a bed?
Cruise ships can certainly accommodate babies and toddlers who co-sleep or can snooze in a portable crib (provided onboard). However, taking up most of the usable floor space with a pack-n-play is not ideal in cramped standard cabins. We cruised with our son when he was 2.5 and newly out of his crib, and it still wasn't ideal. We had him on a small pullout sofa, yet I had to lie down every night with him to get him to sleep, and we were woken several nights when he fell out of bed. If your kids are so young they need cribs, they're likely not getting much from the cruise at all.
2. Can your kid eat real food?
Dealing with bottles, formula and baby food on a cruise is a hassle. It's likely the only time in your life you'll find yourself washing dishes on a cruise ship. Ships don't provide jarred baby food, and only a handful will mash food for you (and you have to order that in advance of each meal to avoid a wait). If you can't feed your child off the buffet, we recommend he stay home.
3. Can your kid sit still in a restaurant?
Just because your kid can eat food doesn't mean she can handle eating every meal in a restaurant for a week. On a summer Bermuda cruise, our 5-year-old had a hard time with having to get dressed to eat breakfast and not always getting the window-table he preferred. There were a lot of meal-related meltdowns. Our 2-year-old stopped eating for a few days (not uncommon when small children are away from home) and had trouble staying in one spot while we finished eating. If you can't stomach room service three meals a day, you might want to rethink that family cruise. If portable video games, books, coloring and toys can keep your kids occupied at dinner, however, we consider that a win -- bring 'em onboard. If your kids enjoy trying new food and laughing with the waiters, even better.
4. Is your kid toilet trained?
Take it from an experienced mom, it's a pain to cruise with diapers. They take up half your suitcase or you have to buy the cruise ship's completely over-priced diaper delivery service. Disney is the only line we've sailed that offers proper diaper disposal trash cans; we've never been so happy about twice-daily cabin service in our lives. And did we mention the lack of changing stations in cruise ship public bathrooms? Forgetting the logistics of changing diapers onboard, kids who aren't potty trained can't play in cruise ship pools or go to drop-off kids' club activities.
5. Does your kid get excited about group activities with other children?
One of the best things about cruising with children is the onboard kids' clubs. They have fun programming and tricked-out facilities, and allow your kids to have age-appropriate fun and meet other little travelers, while you do grown-up things like get a massage and sip daiquiris by the pool. However, some children are very resistant to leaving mom and dad to go with counselors they don't know, and others just aren't down with scavenger hunts and arts projects. If your kid isn't into the kids club, it's not a deal breaker, but make sure there is something he or she will enjoy onboard.
6. Does your kid like pools and the beach?
One of the main activities on cruises -- especially on popular Caribbean, Mexico, Bermuda and Bahamas itineraries -- is fun in the sun. Splashing at the onboard pool, racing down water slides and heading to the beach in the port are all major components of the cruise experience. If your kids can't take the heat (literally) or aren't beach bums, you might what to re-evaluate whether a cruise is the right choice for your family.
7. Can your kid reasonably stay up past his or her bedtime?
We've noticed that the most successful cruising families are the ones who can keep their kids up well past bedtime. The kids club typically offers free programming until 10 p.m. and paid group babysitting until 1 a.m. On a Norwegian cruise, the family-focused deck party started at 8 p.m. -- my kids eating cupcakes past bedtime is a recipe for disaster. (We've also been very impressed with tykes who can conk out in their strollers and snooze away at 10:30 while their parents see shows, eat meals and listen to live music.) You will get to experience more of the nightlife if you don't have to station an adult in your cabin to watch over sleeping little ones as early as 7:30.
8. Can your kid handle being away from home and a regular routine?
Many kids adore routine; it makes them feel safe. Take them away from their comforting habits, and they respond with tantrums, meltdowns and generally unpleasant behavior. My older kid, in particular, has trouble adjusting to the daily changing schedule on a cruise -- even when there are fun activities planned each day. If the "it's Tuesday, we must be in Cozumel" lifestyle doesn't sit well with your young one, you might want to postpone the cruise until next year.
9. Does your kid get excited about exploring new places and having new adventures?
Many people travel with their children because they want to travel, and to do that, they have to schlep their kids along. And that's OK. But to have the best possible cruise experience, you want your kids to love it and not just tolerate it. The perfect age for taking your kids on a cruise is when they are old enough to be excited about the experience -- when they want to check out the ship and get excited about exploring in ports of call. Maybe they are more attracted by daily ice cream, pool time and Ping-Pong than cultural immersion, but that's OK. If they look forward to, rather than protest, the next day's activities, a family cruise is a great way to make long-standing memories.