Different cruise lines offer everything from water slides and pool parties to talent shows and culinary classes. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Cruising with the family might be the best vacation value short of pitching a tent in your backyard. A family cruise includes all meals, most onboard activities and stops at different ports for the family to enjoy as they see fit.
According to Cruise Line International Association, the fastest-growing segment of the market is the 25 to 40 age group. Young families in this demographic — as well as families with older kids — have the opportunity to spend less and get more on a cruise, if they know how.
For starters, families on a budget should decide which cruise line best fits their family, budget and style of vacation. Disney Cruise Lines, for instance, offers the most kid-friendly activities, but at a steeper price. On a Disney cruise, however, there is always something going on, including parties, character autograph sessions, musicals, movies, games, princess parties, animation lessons and more.
Carnival Cruise Lines, on the other hand, often offers an affordable cruise for families on a budget. And most of the Carnival ships now offer waterslides, rope courses, miniature golf and Camp Carnival, where kids ages 2 to 11 years old can spend most of the day with other kids in an activity-based program. Kids 12 to 14 can join Club C and play video games, participate in talent shows, have pool parties and more. Teens 15 to 17 go to Club O2 and enjoy their own nightclub-like room where activity leaders keep them entertained. Club O2 sometimes offers special excursions as well.
Royal Caribbean Cruises contracted with DreamWorks to offer Hollywood-style cruises that kids love. Children and adults alike enjoy 3-D movies, parades and character meals. Barbie also joined Royal Caribbean last year — at a cost of $199 per child, the kids can participate in the Barbie Premium Experience aimed at cruisers 4 to 11 years old. Royal Caribbean Cruises also offers special dining for children ages 3 to 11. After young ones finish eating, staff members escort them to the kids club while parents enjoy a romantic dinner at a more relaxed pace.
Holland America Line (HAL) offers Club HAL for kids ages 3 to 17, providing karaoke, pajama parties, swim parties, scavenger hunts, video game tournaments, pizza making and talent shows. Club HAL activities are supervised by full-time staff, all of whom hold degrees in education, childhood development, recreation, leisure studies or other related fields. Families with teenagers might want to consider HAL for its great teen program. The Loft — or The Oasis, depending on the ship — is an entire deck accessible via a secret passageway that is devoted to teens. It features a nightclub venue, a juice bar and a swimming pool. Some teens can choose to participate in digital workshops, culinary classes or other educational programs too.
Norwegian Cruise Line partnered with Nickelodeon and offers a wide variety of activities for kids of all ages. Younger ones will enjoy Dora’s Dance Party, meet and greets with Nickelodeon characters or a themed arts and crafts party. Kids as young as 6 months to 12 years old can sign up for Splash Academy, but at least one parent or adult must accompany kids ages 6 months to 3 years. Teens up to 17 enjoy Entourage, where they play sports, take part in theater and fashion workshops or have pool parties. With “Free Style” cruising, families can do what they want, when they want, including dining. This freedom makes for a more relaxed schedule without the hassles of strict timelines.
MSC Cruise Line’s Divina offers a robust complimentary childrens program. Kids ages 3 to 12 years old can experience Kids Club all day long, with MSC staff supervising. It also offers High-Seas Hangouts for teens 13 to 17 years old. The Teen Club offers dance classes, a virtual world arcade, sports, games and tournaments. At night, teens can play trivia, enjoy live music and dance. Teens can also get a pre-paid “Teen Card” for small onboard purchases.
Some of the cruise lines offer a “kids sail free” program and charge only for room taxes and gratuities. Others offer specialized cabins with drop-down bunks or sofa-beds to accommodate up to five family members. These rooms book fast because they provide the best value for a family and should be booked as far in advance as possible. Booking these rooms works best with younger kids — families with older kids capable of being on their own should consider two rooms. Some cabins also have connecting doors, and balcony rooms also have the ability to open the outside partition between cabins to create a single bigger balcony shared by the family.
“I suggest one outside room and one inside room across the hall,” said West Coast Travel’s Jim Manning.
Most cruise lines now offer family-style suites, with one or two bedrooms and a central living area that can be used as an additional sleeping space with fold-out couches. These rooms cost more but can provide the ideal space for families who want to stay together but have some privacy as well.
When to book the family cruise also plays an important role in saving big dollars for the family. Deals during wave season might include shipboard credits, discounted airfares, free shore excursions and room upgrades.
Other ways to stretch a family vacation budget include cruising during shoulder seasons. For instance, in the Caribbean, peak season begins in late November and runs through June. Booking before or after peak season will help families save. Shoulder season in Alaska would be the first one or two cruises of the season and the last one or two at the end of the season.
“You should also consider ‘repositioning cruises’ for your best price,” said Manning.
Repositioning cruises are often priced lower because they occur during the shoulder season and they don’t start and end at the same port. These cruises may increase the airfare costs for a family, but could also work in a family’s favor, depending on where a cruise begins or ends. Repositioning cruises sometimes work well for reunions because family members come from different cities.
Planning a family reunion onboard a cruise ship can solve many problems, including where to go, who does the cooking, who cleans up the mess and how much it will cost. Since cruise ships offer so many room categories with different price points, everyone who comes to the family reunion can choose the room and shore excursions for his or her budget, while enjoying the same high-quality experience.