My family of four took our first cruise together earlier this summer, and we had a blast. I didn’t grow up cruising; this was only my second cruise, but as we were leaving the ship, we all agreed that we wanted to take another cruise sometime soon.
Because of all the stress that can happen when an airline cancels or changes your flight itinerary, we wanted to depart from somewhere local, and since we were traveling in early summer, we wanted to head south. If we hadn’t found nearby departure locations to our liking, we would have flown the day before our cruise departed to ensure flight delays and other complications didn’t keep us from sailing with the ship.
There are a ton of resources to help you pick the right cruise.
You can use Expedia to get ideas and book a cruise, but there are cruise-specific booking sites that help you aggregate and compare cruising options, like Cruise Critic or Cruise Line. These sites can give you information about price and availability, and most importantly, they can also help you pick the cruise with the amenities and feeling you want. For example, family cruises are a different ballgame than educational ones.
Also, travel agents can be a great resource to help with all the little details, and there is no added cost for you (they are paid by cruise lines), and they sometimes have access to deals you can’t find otherwise.
Based upon discussions with friends who are more avid cruisers and reviewing the amenities, it was clear that both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are relatively low cost and accommodate families well with lots of on-board activities like belly flop contests, rock climbing, great water attractions, and even mini-golf, to mention a few. Disney Cruises has impeccable service and regular sightings of your favorite princesses if you are looking for a themed family adventure. Since my daughter sometimes gets car sick, we picked a 6-day (5-night) cruise to Bermuda from New York, just in case she didn’t take to being on a boat.
A significant advantage of taking a family cruise is that they have age-specific activities where the kids could be dropped off to let them hang out with others their age or get a much-needed parenting break. Our kids had a great time and asked to be dropped off regularly while we were at sea. These kids’ areas were also located near an arcade that we all enjoyed (gotta love playing air hockey or table tennis on a slowly undulating ship).
And don’t forget the parent-only zones. Our cruise had a bar, dance club, and a pool area that were only for adults who wanted their age-specific activities.
Another thing to think about is what other perks you want on board. If you are a serious espresso/latte drinker, it pays to get a coffee card. We skipped the other beverage packages because my kids only drink soda occasionally, and I get tipsy on two drinks since my children came along, so we didn’t see the value of not buying them ala carte. Plus, there are a ton of drinks included on-board available with meals.
And speaking of dining, I loved the food options available in the main dining hall for our three meals a day. All of these meals were included in the reservation, and they had no problem with you ordering an appetizer, salad, main course, and dessert. Plus, as soon as my waiter learned that I have some food allergies, they sent over the manager and allowed me to select options for the following day’s meals that would be made with substitutions so I could eat them. So if you are vegan, vegetarian, or have any allergies, rest assured they will do a great job accommodating your eating needs.
I wish I had known more about the logistics of dining. On most cruises, you can have dinner every night at a fixed time (seatings are often at two times, like 5:30 and 8 p.m.), or you can go with MyTime or FreeStyle (which means you can choose seating times on each 15-minute period from 6-9:30 p.m.). We decided on the flexible dining option, and the thing we didn’t know was that we needed to make reservations in advance for our dining times, so on the very first day, when we tried to go for dinner, we realized we didn’t have a reservation for that night, so we didn’t get seated until late. Both options have pros and cons, so I recommend checking out the additional information about these two dining options for your specific cruise line.
If you have adventurous eaters, or you won’t be able to go the length of your cruise without sushi, you can make reservations at the other dining venues. On the first night of our cruise, many of these venues were low on reservations, offering 40% discounts and immediate seating to people waiting in line to get into the main dining hall. During our trip, we ate at most of the on-board restaurants. This means we got our fill of sushi, Italian (where my husband had the best Osso Buco of his life, and the kids learned of the magic of a great Carbonara), and also the magic of a cruise buffet (this is a great choice for breakfast if we wanted to eat either early or late and also right after getting on board for that first afternoon after struggling your way through the boarding process).
Last but not least, if you are worried about motion sickness, here are a few tips.
Book a room near the middle of the ship, and get one with a window if you can. This will minimize the movement of your room and help you see the horizon, both of which should help reduce your sense of vertigo.
Since my daughter regularly gets car sick, we already had Sea-Bands acupuncture bracelets and MotionEaze essential oils, which we brought along. We also got some ginger chews (I love the intense ginger flavor, so I enjoy GinGins, but my kids prefer the more mild version from Dramamine. If you are like me and want to be fully prepared, get Dramamine for yourself and the kids (they even have fruit-flavored chewables now). Also, don’t forget to order the kids ginger ale right when you get on board, and I highly recommend a Dark and Stormy for yourself.
Lastly, it is amazing what a little fresh air or a good distraction can do to help you feel better, so plan to partake of the various shows on board (we saw comedy, dancing, ice skating, and more. They were all delightful even my sometimes critical tween talked about them excitedly after).