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Cruisin’ with Kids

Tips and ideas for first-time family cruisers.

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I”ve heard it from parents so many times: “I need another vacation to recover from my vacation.” In fact, I know I”ve said it myself. If you”ve felt this way, a cruise might be the key to actually relaxing and spending quality time with your family.

“Cruising is our vacation of choice,” says Karla Brumfield, a mom of two from Jasper, Indiana, who has vacationed with her family on 11 different cruises, on five different cruise lines. “We don’t have grandparents we can leave our kids with, but with kids” clubs on the ships, we get the best of both worlds―family time and adult time, too,” Brumfield says.

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Cruises are known for high-quality customer service and attention to detail. If you travel with extended family, cruises allow family members with different vacation habits to do their thing, then gather together for dinner or group activities. If you’re thinking of cruising with kids, here are some tips and ideas.

Consider The Route

For Colorado parents looking to simplify the trip to the cruise port, flights to the West Coast are shorter, less expensive, and have more options for direct flights. At the end of my family’s recent vacation on Princess Cruises that left from San Francisco, we especially appreciated a quick, non-stop flight home to Denver after a full week. If your kids are young, this can be a sanity saver―especially considering that boarding and exiting a cruise ship involves additional wait times and security checks.

Excursions

Cruise ships offer a variety of off-ship excursions at every port, whether you are looking for adventure, history, culture, or hands-on experiences. You can book these on the ship, but to make sure you get what you want, book your excursions online prior to your trip.

“For me, any kind of traveling is about exposing my kids to different cultures, and above all, finding things we can enjoy together―not too adult, not too kid-like,” says Liz Gumbinner, publisher and editor-in-chief of Cool Mom Picks (coolmompicks.com). “For that reason, I suggest including your children in the choice of excursions and making the decision as a family. When kids are invested, they”ll be more enthusiastic.”

If you decide not to book excursions through the cruise line, local companies can help after you port. On a Disney cruise, Valorie LeRette, mom of two from Arvada, wanted to go horseback riding on the beach, but when her son did not meet the minimum age requirement for her ship’s excursion, she found a local company that accommodated her son. Just remember that if choosing a tour or activity not associated with the ship, there is a risk of cancellation, or not making it back to the port on time.

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Gumbinner says she likes to balance port experiences with some planned excursions and some time to themselves. “One of our most enjoyable days on a recent cruise was just walking around Santa Barbara by ourselves, visiting the amazing new MOXI interactive children’s museum, and relaxing over a great pizza. If you’re not go-go-go every single day, you”ll probably have a better trip overall.”

Kids” Clubs and Activities

Kids” clubs on the ship, at which children can be dropped off, are available usually for kids ages three to 17. Older children are able to check themselves in and out of the club, if parent permission is given. Kids” clubs are often divided by age so children can play with similarly aged children. It’s a great option if you and your spouse want a date night (or several). Always research the ship’s kids” club offerings in advance, as these will vary.

For additional fees and with reservations, parents can opt to have their children stay on board the ship in the kids” club while they go on excursions with other adults. For children under three, says Brumfield, you can request a babysitter for your room, for an additional fee. “The babysitters even brought bags of toys and books for our kids. The ladies we used were amazing with our children,” Brumfield remembers.

Check the regular schedule of cruise events for activities that your kids might enjoy, too. Aboard a recent Princess cruise, Gumbinner’s children enjoyed performances from the on–board magician, Alex Ramon. “While the show wasn’t promoted specifically to children, he was perfect for them,” Gumbinner says.

Of course, swimming pools on board often provide endless entertainment for kids on their own. Remember, though, that children in diapers are not allowed in the pools of most ships.

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Food and Dining

Cruises are known for their abundant array of choices and unlimited access to delicious food. Be prepared to relax in this area, and don’t let food battles detract from your enjoyment of vacation.

“If letting loose on the food front is a challenge for you, then you may want to set clear expectations before you board,” says Stacie Billis, cookbook author of Make It Easy and managing editor of Cool Mom Eats, who recently enjoyed a cruise with her family. “My kids are pretty used to limits around soda, for example, so keeping them to one a day―which is a lot for them―was easy to enforce. But there were cookies, sweets, and ice cream a plenty. Instead of trying to limit that, I just made sure that they also got tons of protein and veggies at our sit-down meals.”

When it comes to food allergies or special requests, just ask. “My older son is dairy-free and, even at the buffet, which is very busy with a rotating schedule of cooks and servers, finding someone to help us always worked out,” says Billis. “They even went to the back to get him food that wasn’t available on the buffet a few times.”

Before booking a cruise, discuss whether your family is better suited for more formal dining at exact times, or more relaxed buffet-style dining with no set dining time. Many cruise lines offer both options. LeRette chose formal dining at a set time, even though she had young children. “I liked (a set dinner time) because we always knew when we had to get back on the ship, shower, and start getting ready for dinner. It was good for my kids to have this structure and stay on a schedule,” LeRette says, adding that she choose the earlier dinnertime option to avoid possible meltdowns.

Communication on the Ship

While at sea, cell phone service will be limited or non-existent. Many ships offer plans but they can be costly, and sometimes the connection is slow. Look into your cell phone provider’s international plan in advance.

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Most ships will offer a printed daily bulletin or newsletter that includes the weather at your current location, popular attractions, on-board activities, and an events schedule for the day, so internet isn’t necessary.

Money

When you are budgeting for your family cruise, LeRette advises families to put aside an additional amount for expenses not included in the cost of the cruise itself: transportation, in-port purchases, and expenses accrued while on board. Little purchases here and there, all billed to your account via your room number or key, can add up. “The shell shock for us was the price at the end that we weren’t prepared for,” LeRette says. Consider applying for the cruise line’s credit card if they offer one, and put all expenses on that card, as a way to earn rewards.

Overall, when it comes to cruising with kids, “I think you”ll have the best time if you plan, plan, plan―and then be willing to change any one of those plans at a moment’s notice,” says Gumbinner. “But then, doesn’t that describe all of parenting, all the time?”

Lydia Rueger is an Arvada-based freelance writer, editor, and mother of two.

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