Cruising With Kids
Cruising is becoming ever more popular and young families with kids make up a good portion of the growth. When planning a cruise it always helps to take into consideration the ages of the people you’re cruising with and what different ships and cruise lines have to offer for them to do. While all major cruise lines have theaters, pools, and hot tubs, other amenities vary greatly from line to line and even among ships within the same line. The major lines also each have some sort of kid’s club type program, but again the sort of activities offered varies, as does the age at which kids can attend. Most start at either 2 or 3, and some such as P&O Australia and Princess require potty training prior to attendance even if the child’s age is within their guidelines. Ships also have spaces and activities for older kids and teens. Most ships have an arcade, but the games cost extra.
Destination is important too, not only because of what sort of activities the ports have to offer, but also if the ship is heading to a cold climate it may be too cold or stormy to count on outdoor activities to keep the kids entertained so a good kid’s club or other indoor activities become even more important. In stormy weather outside decks are often closed so even kids who don’t mind the cold could be affected.
It’s also important to look at all aspects of the ship that are important to your family because things like the ship’s smoking policy or how well they cater to special diets can make a big difference in how much you enjoy your cruise. Age or size restrictions also come into play because it doesn’t do any good for a ship to have something like a ropes course or climbing wall if your kids are too young or too small to use it. It also helps if the ship has guest laundries, especially on longer cruises. While you can always send things out for the crew to wash, that gets pretty expensive. Handwashing in your own cabin is an option too, but hanging space to dry things is quite limited even if your cabin has a balcony because it’s usually against the ship’s rules to hang laundry on your veranda.
How Kid-Friendly is Each Cruise Line?
The major American lines with the most kid-friendly amenities and activities are Disney, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Carnival. While Disney is most any kid’s dream cruise, it comes at a significantly higher price. Carnival is often the most affordable, but their liberal smoking policy may make anyone sensitive to smoke think twice about booking there – except in Australia where indoor smoking is prohibited. People with special dietary needs can make arrangements in advance on most lines, and for anyone with gluten issues, gluten free food has gotten much easier to find with some gluten free items becoming available in the buffet on many lines in recent years. Sometimes there are limited-time promotional offers where kids sail free on certain lines including MSC, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Costa.
Aida is an American/British owned German cruise line in the Carnival Corporation group that caters to younger German-speaking casual cruisers. Their kids club is for children over the age of 3. The main language onboard is German, including in the kids’s club. Food is mostly buffet. Some of their larger ships have indoor water parks. Organized activities mainly focus on fitness and wellness. The ships are kid-friendly, but everything from signage to menus to the daily programs is in German.
Carnival has a lot to offer for kids onboard. Kids club ages are Camp Ocean for kids 2-11, Circle C for 12-14, and Club O2 for 15-17. Besides going to the kids club itself, enrolled kids get a list of special onboard activities like scavenger hunts and parties for kids in their age group that are not listed in the daily activities guide. All of Carnival’s ships have waterslides and mini golf. Some also have splash parks. Other activities vary depending on the ship, but may include things like a ropes course, pool and ping-pong tables, foosball, and more. Some ships have Imax and/or motion theaters. Evening shows include family-friendly comedy and outdoor movies as well as nightly theater shows. Special kid-friendly events during the cruise include towel animal theater, Seuss at Sea with a Dr. Seuss breakfast, parade, and storytime, Hasbro the Game Show, and a towel animal takeover on the Lido deck. Carnival ships all have self-serve guest laundries, which have a fee to use. When smoking policies were pretty much the same on most lines Carnival was our go-to line because they have a lot to do and their prices are often lower than other lines. We don’t sail with them much anymore though because while most other lines have limited their smoking areas and many no longer allow smoking indoors, Carnival still allows smoking in their casino and casino bar areas as well as quite a few outdoor areas. The casinos are not fully enclosed so the smoke spreads well beyond the casino into other areas of the ship and the ships are far smokier inside than they once were because people are no longer allowed to smoke on balconies there as on most cruise lines. As previously mentioned, this is not an issue on Carnival Australia because Australian law prohibits indoor smoking on ships sailing from there. Although Carnival Australia books separately from Carnival USA, they have the same Camp Ocean kid’s program.
Celebrity’s Camp at Sea kid’s club has customizable activities for kids from 3-17 that can be tailored to the interests of the kids on board for each cruise. There are separate areas for kids 3-11 and for teens. Babysitting is available for a fee. Celebrity ships have pools and hot tubs, but no waterslides. Kids must be potty trained to go into the pools. Other than the kids club, you might find things like mini golf, a basketball court, video games or croquet depending on the ship. Generally the majority of passengers are adults. Older kids may enjoy some of the scheduled daily activities. The nightly shows on Celebrity are often of higher quality than those on many other lines, though not necessarily something that would interest small children. Smoking is permitted only in designated outdoor areas. There are no self-serve guest laundries.
Costa is an Italian-based line in the Carnival family of cruise lines sailing mostly in Europe. This low-cost cruise line often has incredibly cheap deals through Vacations to Go. Their kid’s program is called the Squok Club and features activites with Peppa Pig for the youngest kids from 3- 6. Other age groupings are 7-11, 12-14, and 15-17. Some ships have amenities like basketball courts, 4-D cinemas, or a Grand Prix simulator. Indoor smoking is allowed only in cigar lounges. Outdoor smoking is allowed in designated areas and on cabin balconies. Water parks and slides are available on some ships. Some have retractable roofs to enclose pool areas on cold or rainy days. Costa does not have self-serve guest laundries. They sometimes have special cruise saver rates for kids staying in the same room as their parents.
Cunard is a Carnival owned British based cruise line known for luxury style cruises. While requiring more formal evening wear than most cruise lines, they do allow children onboard and have a kid’s club area for them. The Play Zone is for kids 2-7 and the Kid Zone for 8-17. Smoking is allowed only in designated areas of open decks other than cigars and pipes, which have a lounge. Self-serve guest laundries are not only available, but complimentary which seems to be more of a trend in British ships because American ones normally charge to use the washers and dryers on lines that have them. Kids are allowed on board as young as 6 months for short cruises or 1 year for longer ones. There is a baby zone on board, but parents must stay with kids under 2. Cunard has pools of which some allow children, but no waterslides. Outside of the kid’s club there’s not a lot of entertainment provided for kids.
Disney has a unique rotational dining system so passengers indulge in several restaurants over the course of their cruise at no additional charge. Onboard kids can meet Disney characters, and themed play areas at the kid’s clubs let them immerse themselves in a variety of Disney shows and movies. Age groups for their kid’s program are 3-7, 8-12, 11-14, and 14-17. Kids 3-12 can go back and forth between interconnected Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab areas. Edge is for the tweens, and Vibe for the teens. There is a nursery available for children 6 months to 3 years old (some itineraries 1-3). There is an hourly charge for the nursery and space is limited so reservations are required well in advance of the cruise. There are scheduled activities that the entire family can participate in as well as activities targeted to various age groups. Pools and waterslides have age and height restrictions and children must be potty trained before entering any pools. There are splash parks available for youngsters with swim diapers and wading pools for little ones who are out of diapers. The ships have no indoor smoking, but do allow it on some outside decks. Movies include Disney favorites as well as new releases. Disney ships even have adult only areas where parents can relax away from the kids. Dinner dress is usually cruise casual, and each cruise normally includes a pirate or other themed night. Short cruises have an optional dress-up night and longer cruises include both formal and semi-formal evenings. Disney ships have self-serve laundries.
Holland America has smaller to medium sized ships, none of the giant ones carrying 3000 or more passengers. Their kid’s program is called Club Hal and is for children from 3-12. There are separate activities for 3-6 and 7-12 year olds. The 13-17 crowd has their own space apart from the younger set called the Loft. They also have culinary workshops for kids and babysitting available for a fee. Potty training is required before attending Club Hal. The kid’s club has open and closed hours throughout the day rather than being open all day long and kids are not given anything to eat or drink from the kid’s club staff. Some of Holland America’s older and smaller ships have self-serve guest laundries, but the bigger and newer ships do not. Their smoking policy also varies from ship to ship. We’ve sailed on 3 of their ships recently. The Oosterdam and Westerdam only allowed smoking in a small covered shelter on one side of the top back outside deck, but the Veendam still allowed active players to smoke in the casino inside the ship at some slot machines. Holland America has pools and hot tubs, but no waterslides. Some ships have a sliding cover for an indoor pool area in cold weather. There are a few things to do around the ship. There may be a giant connect 4 game somewhere as well as a giant chess set. There’s also often a ping-pong table, shuffleboard, and a basketball court. Scheduled activities are mainly for adults, but older kids might like some things like the America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations. One night per cruise the evening show is often a BBC nature film accompanied by live orchestra music which animal lovers among the kids might enjoy, but mostly they would have to entertain themselves outside of the kid’s club.
Swiss-owned and based in Italy, this line mostly does European cruises, but does have some cruises sailing out of Miami targeting Americans. Although Italian is the main language on most of their ships (except when Miami based where it’s English), they do give announcements in about 5 different languages. They also have daily newsletters and events in different languages as well. Kids under 2 always sail free other than port fees and taxes. On certain cruises older kids can sail free as well. Ships may have anything from aqua parks and waterslides to virtual world gaming, racing car simulator, bowling, and 4D cinema depending on the ship. (Cinema and games have a fee.) The kids clubs are not open continuously all day, but there are mealtime options provided and the ships have scheduled family, kids, and teens activities. Babysitting is available for kids 1-3 for a fee, but parents are responsible for diaper changes and feeding. There is a special laundry service for kids 0-6 years old. There is a mini kids club where parents can bring children under 3 if they stay and play with them there. Kid’s club ages are 3-6, 7-11, 12-14, and 15-17 with separate space for the older kids. There’s even an optional prepaid card for kids 7-17 for families who want to give their children the freedom of their own onboard spending money. MSC does not have self-serve guest laundries. Smoking is allowed in some bars and on one side of the outside decks on European based ships and outside only if the ship is based in America.
Norwegian invented freestyle cruising. On their ships nobody has assigned dinner times or places, but anyone can go to whichever of the included dining venues they feel like rather than having to stick to the same dining room each night. Booking a spot in one of the many premium dining venues for a fee is also an option, and Norwegian has more premium eateries to choose from than most lines. Even on formal nights dressing up is an option rather than a requirement. For kids 6 months to 3 years Norwegian has an area where parents can play with their kids as well as paid babysitting. Free kid’s clubs start at age 3 and have groups for ages 3-5, 6-9, 10-12, and 13-17. Amenities for things to do outside of kids club vary from ship to ship. Of course they all have pools and hot tubs. Some ships have waterslides, bowling alleys, rock climbing walls, or even a race track. Norwegian’s Free at Sea offer sometimes includes free guests when sailing with more than 2 people in a room meaning with the right booking kids can sail for free. NCL does not have self-serve guest laundries, but they will bring an iron to your cabin for a few hours upon request. Smoking is allowed in designated outside areas and active players can smoke in the casino.
I’ve only sailed on P&O once on a cruise from Chili to Australia, and that was on the Arcadia, an adults only ship. They do have other ships that are family friendly though. P&O is a British line in the Carnival family of cruise lines. We quite liked P&O, but since they are British with no sailings near where we live haven’t sailed with them again. They had some fun things to do that we haven’t seen on other lines like Wii bowling and deck coits. Deck coits is a fun and popular game on P&O ships that you don’t find on American-based cruises. They had both deck coits and shuffleboard tournaments daily. P&O kids club ages are 2-4, 5-8, 9-12, and 13-17. There is a complimentary night nursery available from 6pm to 2am to babysit kids 6 months to 4 years old for those evenings when the parents have non-kid friendly activities they want to do. Ships have a special tea-time for children with child-friendly food. Which pools are open to children varies from ship to ship, and some have splash parks or children’s pools that allow kids in swim diapers. P&O ships have free self-serve guest laundries. Smoking is allowed only in designated areas on outside decks. P&O Australia is separate from P&O UK, but they have kid’s club and other activities for kids and ships based there have waterslides and an adventure park.
On Princess ships, the piazza is a hub of activity, often with events themed toward the destination of the cruise. Some of the activities are just for adults, but others are family-friendly like a visit from husky sled dog puppies on an Alaskan cruise or parrots on a Caribbean cruise. Princess ships do not have things like waterslides, but like all major cruise ships they do have pools and hot tubs. Princess’ Just For Kids program age groups are 3-12, 13-17, and a young adults program for 18-20 year olds. 6 month to 2-year olds are welcome in their Camp Discovery area when accompanied by a parent. Evening entertainment includes movies under the stars as well as theater shows and activities in the piazza, all of which may or may not be family friendly on any given night. Princess does not have babysitting services. Self-serve laundries are available on all Princess ships. There is a charge for the washers, dryers, and detergent. Smoking is allowed in designated areas of the outside decks, and in the cigar lounge (which is fully enclosed.)
Royal Caribbean is one of the more kid-friendly lines, with lots of things to do outside of the kid’s club, especially for older kids and particularly on the newer, bigger ships. Amenities vary from ship to ship, but some of them have things like ice skating arenas, flow riders, rock climbing walls, waterslides, a carousel, mini golf, laser tag, skydiving simulator, or a zip line just to name a few. Some activities have minimum age or height restrictions. Inside the ships have a city-like area called the Royal Promenade with shops and eateries. The newer, bigger ships have a Central Park area as well. Ships with ice arenas have ice skating shows to watch as well as scheduled times when the arena is open for passengers to skate – and they provide the skates. People who bring their own skates can skate in the advanced sessions. There is no charge for ice skating or many of the other activities. Oasis class ships also have an aquatheater with water based shows. Royal Caribbean has activities just for kids and teens too. The kid’s club is called Adventure Ocean and has age groups for 3-5, 6-8, and 9-11. Teens and Tweens have their own spaces where they can come and go as they please. For the youngest guests there are parent/baby interactive classes for kids 6-36 months. There is a charge for late nights in the kids club areas after 10pm. Royal Caribbean does not have self-serve guest laundries. Smoking is allowed in designated outdoor areas. There were a lot of smoking areas on Explorer of the Seas, including next to the jogging track and one side of the pool area.