If you are planning a cruise vacation for your family, there are many things to consider, such as which cruise lines are most family-friendly, what port to sail from, and what to do on board and while in port.
The Gandel family of Clarksville chose to sail from the port at Baltimore last December when they took a family cruise.
“We could just drive to the Inner Harbor and get on the boat,” says Kevin Gandel, a father of two.
Gandel and his wife, Catherine, took their kids Emily, 5, and Brenden, 7, on a weeklong cruise to the Bahamas on the Carnival Pride.
The family had plenty of time to enjoy the onboard fun, including the pools and shows, as well as near-limitless food options.
“You can do as much as you want or as little as you want,” Gandel says.
The Gandels found that Carnival met all of their family’s needs. Like many cruise lines, Carnival offers clubs where children are entertained while parents enjoy time to themselves, at shows and pools just for adults.
“[The] kids could go enjoy themselves. We could go enjoy ourselves. We could meet up a few hours later,” Gandel explains.
At ports of call, they visited beaches and even snorkeled off Grand Turk Island.
“Being on the beach, watching the kids play in the waves, it was really nice,” says Catherine Gandel.
If a cruise vacation is in your family’s future, here is some key information to ensure smooth sailing.
Choose the cruise line
Four of the main options best for families include Disney Cruise Line, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, travel agents agree. Each offers a wide array of destinations, but the on-ship experience can be quite different.
Disney Cruise Line
Although the Gandels loved Carnival, the next time they are planning to go on a Disney cruise from Florida.
“From what we’ve heard, it’s basically like being on a floating Disney World resort,” Kevin Gandel says.
Of the many cruise options, Disney remains a favorite for families, evidenced by its often sold-out cruises, says Allison Restauro, a Catonsville-based Dream Vacation Planner for Pirate and Pixie Destinations. “They do it so well, but there’s a price tag that goes with that.”
Disney is by far the most expensive of the four cruise lines, agrees Rosie Cavin, a travel associate with Best Connections Travel in Annapolis.
Disney offers several kids clubs for ages 3 to 12, a tween club for ages 11 to 14, and a private area for teens with big screens and their own music, Cavin says.
While other cruise lines have more thrill experiences, Disney has more “immersive storytelling” and plenty of Disney characters.
For example, one of Restauro’s favorite memories from a Disney cruise with her kids was walking into the children’s club and seeing her 5-year-old playing a memory game with Belle.
Royal Caribbean is one of the best for kids, according to Cavin.
The older ships have ice skating rinks, flow riders (wave pools with surfing) and climbing walls, while the newer ships have sky diving simulators, bumper cars, roller rinks, Circus School, zip lines and carousels, she says.
“If you are a lot more adventure-geared, Royal Caribbean might be a little more exciting, at least on ship,” Restauro agrees.
A nursery is offered for babies 6 months and older, and kids programs are offered for age groups from preschoolers (with pajama nights and story times) to tweens (with arcades, moonlit movies and parties at night). Teens have places to hang out with soda fountains, computers, dance floors, games and more.
“They have huge ships that are like a city,” says Christie Bianco of Swagger Suitcase, a travel company in Catonsville.
The cruise line also has characters from DreamWorks, like Shrek and the penguins from “Madagascar.”
“I think they are a very good value for what they offer,” Cavin says.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian also has waters parks with slides, bowling, mini golf and a sports deck with ropes courses. Kids programs run from ages 6 months to age 12 with activities ranging from treasure hunts to Circus School. Teen activities include video games, sports, team-building challenges, music and dance clubs.
“They have great ships,” Bianco says. “Lots of new, huge ships, and they have a more laid-back air than Royal Caribbean.”
While most cruises have a mandatory formal dress night, Norwegian does not, she says.
Carnival is great for families because it offers shorter cruises and is less formal — thereby welcoming kids running around, Cavin says.
Camps are offered for ages 2 to 11 with activities and crafts. A club is open to tweens with dance parties, games and outdoor movies. Teens 15 to 17 can participate in karaoke, sports, movies and parties. As an added bonus, parents have the option to leave kids under 11 for supervised activities until 1 a.m.
On-board activities include water slides, ropes courses and an outdoor movie screen. Some ships feature an IMAX movie theater and a “Sky Ride” — a chance to pedal high over the deck and ocean in a cart. Seuss-themed characters and activities are also fun for kids.
Carnival offers three- and four-night options, which are not offered by the other cruise lines, Cavin says.
Pick a port
The best choices for points of departure for Marylanders include Baltimore, New York City, and Fort Lauderdale and Cape Canaveral in Florida, according to Cavin.
Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean leave from the Port of Baltimore, which is convenient because it doesn’t require airfare and has plenty of parking. The ships that sail from Baltimore, however, are smaller and usually older because they must fit under the Key Bridge, Cavin says. And since it takes two days to get out of the Chesapeake Bay, the cruises are a minimum of seven nights, Bianco adds.
From Baltimore, Southwest flies nonstop to both Fort Lauderdale and Orlando (45 minutes from Cape Canaveral), making them both easy ports to sail from, Cavin says.
New York is a good departure point if sailing to Bermuda, New England or Canada, she says.
Decide on a destination
All four cruise lines offer many different cruises to the Caribbean as well as to Alaska, the Canadian coast and even Europe.
“Most families go south,” Cavin says, explaining that cruises to New England and Canada are more historical and mainly for adults.
The Caribbean is best for those looking to relax with their kids, especially with the option of a private island. Disney, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian all have their own islands — some with water parks, zip lines, roller coasters and horseback riding. Restauro said the private island experience is easier because everything is set up for cruise line guests.
Alaska, however, can also be a good cruise destination for kids who appreciate glaciers and want to do some gold digging in the last frontier, Cavin says.
Explore ports of call
Going onto islands or other ports of call is optional. Families can take advantage of ship amenities or disembark and see what various ports have to offer.
Excursions such as zip lining, snorkeling, horseback riding and other activities can be booked through cruise lines, but these come at an additional cost.
“Excursions can tack a lot of money onto the cost of your cruise,” Restauro says. “Unless there is something you are dying to do, you can have as much fun wandering around.”
Some of the newer ships, such as Royal Caribbean, don’t have great ports of call because the ship has everything you would want, Cavin says.
“People don’t go on those for the destination,” she says. “The ship is the destination.”
Figure out food and entertainment options
Most cruises have all-inclusive meal plans. Disney, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian all have many restaurants options where guests can order whatever they like.
The Gandels enjoyed letting their kids try new things like escargot, and if they didn’t like it, they hadn’t lost any money on the dish.
Keep in mind that some restaurants on board carry additional costs, and guests also have the opportunity to upgrade to an unlimited drink plan for either sodas or alcohol.
Performances with singing, dancing, games and more are part of the nightly (and even daily) fun of a cruise. Disney offers shows in the style and quality of Broadway based on Disney movies, Restauro says. Royal Caribbean offers traditional musicals like “Cats” and “Grease” as well as ice skating shows and diving performances. Carnival also has performances as well as game shows, while Norwegian has magicians and acrobatic shows.
Seasickness can strike any member of the family on a cruise, even with ships being so large. Restauro packed Dramamine, Sea-Bands and other methods to combat the symptoms, but cruise ships are also equipped to deal with sickness.
She said she experienced a bit of seasickness as they departed, but did not need any intervention after that. If anyone does get hurt or sick, ships are equipped with medical centers that can provide health care, Restauro says.
By Karen Stysley
Betsy Stein contributed.
Photos from top:
A family on deck of a Norwegian Cruise Line.
The water slide onboard a Carnival cruise.
Penguins on a Royal Caribbean cruise.
The Gandel kids enjoy Grand Turk Island.