Cruising with Kids: Tips for an Awesome Vacation
It all started almost a year ago: "You know," my father remarked one day while we were on the phone, "I'm going to be turning 70 next year. We've been thinking maybe we should try to get everyone together." Inwardly, I groaned. Dad's birthday is mid-January, just when everyone is finally settling back into school and work routines after the craziness of the holidays. Could we really work in a 1,000-mile trip home at that point without major disruption? Still, turning 70 is kind of a big deal.
But it turned out that when he said "everyone," he meant all the kids and grandkids, and when he said "together," he meant that, after multiple consultations with me, my brother, and stepbrother, my father and stepmother, a plan was hatched to take all twelve of us on a Caribbean cruise. In June, because January (it turns out) was no more convenient for anyone else than it was for us.
To explain the enormity of this gesture would be an entire 'nother post; such a trip is, quite simply, an extravagance. We are blessed by my parents' generosity and their ability and willingness to finance such an adventure. And while my father said it was for him, so he could see his far-flung family all together for once, it was such a gift to all of us, both to have a vacation and to be able to do so together.
But that's not really what I want to talk about today; today I want to talk about the nuts and bolts of this kind of travel with kids. None of us had ever been on a cruise before, and we weren't sure what to expect.
There was the preparation beforehand; my husband and I had to renew our passports, and we had to get passports for the kids. (Oh, that was a fun day: I blogged about it here.) Because I'm divorced, I also needed paperwork from my ex in order to get the kids' passports. I was told to get additional paperwork to bring with us to certify that the kids' father knew we were taking them out of the country, too, and after jumping through ninety-seven hoops to get aaaaaaall of that in order ... our passports were glanced at exactly twice (while boarding and leaving the ship), and the "my children's mother has my permission to travel with them" letter never even got unfolded. Though surely if we hadn't bothered, it would've been a problem.
Packing was a bit challenging, both because 1) There are some dress code requirements for dinner on the ship and 2) I can't remember the last time we went somewhere for a whole week without doing laundry. We managed, though. My kids are tweens, which meant that -- aside from packing clothes -- they each easily packed books and hand-held video games and the like in their backpacks. My stepbrother's family had a preschooler and a toddler in tow, so I can only assume they brought one suitcase entirely full of diapers and another filled with toys. This made me immensely grateful for the fact that bigger kids seem to require less extra "stuff."
The ship itself is glitzy and huge and loud, which was a bit of a challenge when it came to my son (who has sensory sensitivities). I actually did a detailed review of our experience with Carnival if you want the breakdown of the entire cruise experience, but here are what I think are the pertinent items when it comes specifically to cruising with children:
1) Inter-generational cruising is a fabulous way to have your family all get together and have "away" time, too. Having family there meant we could do things with the kids or pass off one kid or even pass off both, if we wanted. That was a really nice side benefit, even beyond getting to spend time with relatives we don't get to see often enough.
2) Although many cruise lines, like Carnival, offer kids' programs, you can't assume they'll be right for your family. In our case (as detailed in my review), we ended up not utilizing the kids' programs for a variety of reasons. As we had plenty of hands around, it wasn't a big deal, but had it just been the four of us with us assuming the kids would have "camp," that would've been potentially schedule-ruining.
3) Down-time is just as important on a cruise as any other time. Cruises really thrive on the "always something to do!" mentality, which is fine, but I know very few families with kids who can go-go-go without the kids eventually falling to pieces. We fell into a routine of starting the day off pretty slowly, and having a bit of "quiet time" (typically, hanging out in the room, reading) before dinner every night.
4) Don't assume you'll be dealing with motion sickness. We were very lucky to have calm waters, and as a result, three of the four of us never had a moment of motion sickness. My daughter asked for some Dramamine one night, but even then (marginal choppiness) it wasn't a big deal. And I, of course, had the Dramamine with us.
5) Do take advantage of shore excursions, but choose wisely. You can easily take a cruise and go on a big adventure every single day the ship is in port. Of our four days in port, we ended up opting for one all-day excursion and one half-day excursion to do as a family of four. That was more than enough activity for my son; on one of the other days we stayed on the ship with him and on the other we walked ashore and strolled around. My daughter -- thanks to extended family -- got to spend part of the day at the beach with her cousins one of those days and went zip-lining with her aunt and uncle on the other. (See item number 1: Having extended family there meant we were easily able to meet different needs/tolerances.)
6) There's food everywhere on the ship, but not on excursions. We learned the hard way that you have to remember to take some food with you when you leave the ship, as there's not generally any drive-thrus for cranky, low-blood-sugar kids while you're snorkeling. Whoops. We only made that mistake once; after that, each excursion was preceding by a quick trip to the buffet to snag little boxes of cereal, muffins, and bananas to take with us.
7) If it's a once-in-a-lifetime trip, treat it that way. My kids will be the first to tell you that I'm the strict, follow-the-rules parent. Before we left on the cruise I sat them down and told them that I had something serious to discuss; I then proceeded to tell them that as long as their behavior was appropriate, I was more than willing to bend most of the rules for this cruise week. They had ice cream every afternoon, dessert after every dinner, and a much later bedtime than I allow at home. That said ...
... 8) Do find ways to institute a bit of schedule. Cruises offer you the option to have a set dinnertime or not. We opted for 6:00 dinner, which served a dual purpose: First, it allowed all twelve of us to reconvene when we'd maybe gone separate ways during the day, and second, it gave the kids one same, concrete expectation for every day. Every day at 6:00 they would sit in these chairs at this table and have that waiter. It amazed me what an "anchor" this provided, particularly for my son, who can find any variation from the norm quite stressful.
All in all, we had an absolute blast. And as vacations go, I think this cruise was one of the least stressful things we've done in terms of traveling with the kids. (It helps to have someone else doing all the cooking and cleaning!)
Resources for Family Cruises
- Kidz To Go has some tips for you.
- CajunMama of Traveling Mamas shares what her kids loved about their Carnival Cruise.
- Colleen Lanin of Travel Mamas dishes on her family's Disney cruise.
- Shannon of A Little Dose of Reality just blogged her way through her family's Royal Caribbean cruise!