Tips for Making Your First Family Cruise Smooth Sailing

We’ve got specific advice on how to make a family cruise stress-free and cost less. Our cruise-planning secrets will make sure your next sailing is easy and memorable from booking to disembarking. 


Cruises are known to be the ultimate in family vacations, for good reason. The variety of activities, food, and entertainment ensures that everyone in your clan, from the baby to grandpa, is sure to enjoy the trip. But there’s plenty to know before you go, especially if this is your first cruise. Get planning with our savvy tips.


Pick the right line.

A few cruise lines stand out as far as what they offer families with young kids.

Royal Caribbean International has a stellar line-up of kid programs, and, even better, features that will thrill you just as much. The Quantum of the Seas, the newest ship in RC’s fleet, has a list of firsts at sea that will impress even the most jaded teen: North Star, a capsule that takes you 300 feet over the sea, a skydiving simulator, bumper cars, roller skating, and a robotic bartender. The latter is in a common area, so under-21s can enjoy his antics as much as those sipping on his vodka tonics. And its sailing from the NY area, so no pricey plane ride required. Their science programs involve kids with their parents, a perk you’ll appreciate if you’ve never liked just dropping your kids off for the day in a club. And their Caribbean excursions, like the Butterfly Farm Tour in St. Maarten, are geared to children more so than other lines. 

Carnival Cruise Lines recently launched their unique Suess at Sea Program. In 2015, the entire fleet will be outfitted with activities inspired by the classic kids’ books.

• The Oceaneer Labs on Disney Cruise Line earn high marks from parents for the fun learning activities, including Ratatouille’s Cooking School, the Animation Antics Program, and building with penne at Fourth Pig’s Pasta Palace.

Be ready to hit the decks running.

Pack a tote bag with everything you need to get through the first day, much the same way you’d pack an airplane carry-on in case your luggage is lost. As leaving a cruise isn’t the same as checking out of a hotel, it’s not like checking in to one, either: It takes 3-5 hours for luggage to be delivered to cabins. Essentials to include: bathing suits, medications, sunscreen, a change of clothes, and if you’re traveling with toddlers, enough diapers and wipes. You can leave towels at home, though: Both pool and beach towels are given out onboard.


Royal Caribbean Quantum of the Seas Bumper Cars

Imagine: bumper cars at sea! SeaPlex, on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, also features rollerskating and a full-size regulation basketball court.


Book early.

If you or your child are prone to sea-sickness, you may wish to book a cabin on a low deck, midship. This is where you’ll feel the least amount of movement. And research the organized shore excursions sold by the cruise line on their website carefully in the weeks leading up to departure, reserving your tickets before boarding. Many of the most popular tours and activities sell out quickly. Take note: The quality and efficiency of tour operators varies from ship to ship, and some tour offerings are duds. Make sure the shore excursion you’re considering isn’t just a time-consuming bus ride with drop-offs at shopping centers proffering souvenirs you can live without. We like for researching and booking cruises. Their reviews are full of insider-y info.

Leave enough time.

When booking your return flight, allow plenty of time. Getting off a cruise ship is not like checking out of a hotel. It generally takes two-three hours to disembark a ship and get your luggage.


Cruises have the rep of being “all-inclusive,” and to a large extent, they are. But you will add to your cruise cost on board—the question is by how much. Decide what premium or pay-extra eateries, main courses, beverages, and activities you want to splurge on by checking the cruise line’s website before you go.

Also, see what the suggested gratuities are. Tips are usually added directly onto your statement at a set amount per day, per person—not per cabin. If your family of four is taking an 8-day cruise, that number may be higher than you’re anticipating. You can adjust the amount at the end of your cruise if you’re unhappy with the service, but few cruisers feel compelled to do that.

If you’re a big shopper, brace yourself to be tempted. Some ships seem like floating malls. Figuring out how much you’ll spend, where, and on what will help you dodge sticker shock when you see your bill.

Hit the dollar store.

Many cruises host a special costume party or theme night, always popular with the kids. Before you leave, find out the theme and hit a local discount store for inexpensive props. Disney Cruise Line’s Pirate Night is a prime example—swords and eye patches are going to cost way less at home than in the on-board gift shop.

Call ahead.

Contact the customer service department of the cruise line before you leave if you are celebrating your child’s birthday or another milestone day. They’ll plan a special surprise that is sure to make your child’s day, such as decorating your cabin door, leaving some goodies in the cabin, or arranging for a birthday serenade in a restaurant.

Stay in touch on board.

Pick up Walkie Talkies if you have older kids. Remember: cells won’t work. Motorola Talkabouts ( are battery-powered and reasonably priced.

Drink up.

Consider buying the unlimited beverage option for the kids after boarding. It will save you money and the hassle of having to sign a receipt every time they get thirsty. Just be sure you don’t mind them guzzling soft drinks all day, because they will be. 

Ensure kids’ rest.

If you’re traveling with a child who takes a nap in the afternoon, check in with your room steward on the first day to make arrangements to have the cabin cleaned either before or after that time—all you have to do is ask. In addition, consider bringing a white-noise or sound machine; it makes napping a lot easier. Hallways tend to be noisy, especially if yours is near an elevator bank.

Tap in.

More often than not, the ship’s crew can be your best source of information. These individuals travel for a living and can probably share a lot of little-known facts about the ship and places you’ll visit. Take the time to chat with the stewards and waiters. You’ll get great advice on questions such as “What’s the best time to snag a deck chair at the main pool?” “What’s the cleanest beach with the best facilities on the island?” and “Is this restaurant I had in mind at the next port really kid-friendly?”

Check your bill early.

Ask for a copy of your statement at customer service the morning of the last full day, so you can scan for any errors and ask questions before the long lines form.