My extended family loves to vacation on cruise ships. One of my sisters actually worked as a camp counselor on Carnival Cruise Line after college. Cruises are also the perfect vacation for my parents – my mom is a night owl who loves to stay up late watching the entertainment, my dad likes to relax by the pool and eat ice cream; they are scheduled to go on another one in a few months.
But I just wasn’t that into the idea. I went on a Caribbean cruise about a dozen years ago with my sisters and mom, and while I had fun, I would pooh-pooh the idea when my husband (who had never been on a cruise ship) would bring it up. My excuses included that it was a pain to get to the port and onto the ship, that we like to stay in one place and really get to know a spot when we vacation, and that there were other places in the world I wanted to see other than the beach destinations I usually associate with cruises.
Last year, though, my mom proposed the idea of a family vacation with the sister who had worked on a cruise ship all those years ago. The two of them swore they had found a fabulous deal, and so we went ahead and booked it more than six months in advance: An eight-night cruise on Carnival around the eastern Caribbean with stops in Grand Turk, St. Kitts, St. Martin and Puerto Rico.
We left in late July from the port at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The group included my parents, my husband, daughter and myself; and my sister with her husband and two children. Guess what? We had a blast! It was such a fun trip – certainly a memorable, exciting one for the young cousins and their grandparents – and it made me think a lot about why this cruise was such a better fit for my life now. After returning to Illinois and raving about the trip, I was surprised by how many friends said they had actually never been on a cruise. With summer vacation season coming up, I wanted to share my thoughts and “Eight Signs Your Family is Ready for a Cruise Vacation.”
- Your youngest child is of preschool age or older. My daughter and her cousins are all in the early elementary-age phase, and they did great on the cruise ship. We don’t have to worry about naps, they are able to walk long distances without getting tired, and they could help with luggage, holding their own food trays, etc. We didn’t have to worry about the kids climbing a railing or doing something else dangerous, and they are flexible enough now that the fact that each day was different didn’t cause them any stress. I did see some families with babies and toddlers on our cruise, but it just looked exhausting for the parents – especially dealing with strollers in the ship’s narrow hallways – and probably not a lot of fun for the little ones, either.
- You are traveling with a group. We had nine people in our group, divided between three cabins. We ate dinner at our scheduled time in the main dining room every night, so that was a time we were always together. We stuck together, mostly, on the port days, when we enjoyed the beaches and local shopping. But during the days the ship was at sea, each person or family could do whatever was best for him or her — sleep in and skip breakfast, take an afternoon nap, hang out by the pool and read, play cards, gamble in the on-board casino, or catch a show in a lounge. We had a lot of wonderful family time, but if you needed your own space, you had a cabin or a whole ship to explore. And note that I think a “nuclear family” would have a lot of fun on a cruise, too, I just think cruises are particularly good when you are traveling with extended family or close friends.
- Getting just a peek of life in your ports of call won’t frustrate you. Like I mentioned, we had four days in ports, and I think the longest we were anywhere was about 10 hours. Our visit to Puerto Rico was only about five hours. So you don’t have time to experience the town or village like you would if you were staying there for a week at a resort. At most of our stops, we were just looking to enjoy a relaxing beach and maybe do some shopping on the way back to the ship. At St. Kitts, we hired a taxi driver to take us on a tour of an amazing fort, and we still had time to enjoy a couple hours at the beach. Still, it was a far cry from what you experience when you stay in one spot for almost a week or more. I think this upset me on my first cruise; this time around, I knew what to expect.
- You don’t like to think about money while on vacation. Like Disney with its magic bands, the cruise industry has tried to move to a “cash-free” system. You pay for your cruise before you board, of course, and then while on the ship, you charge drinks, merchandise and other extras back to your personal account, which is usually tied to a credit card. It was freeing to only have to leave my stateroom with my room key. Of course at the end of the cruise, you get an accounting of all you’ve spent onboard!
- Your family is comfortable doing some silly things or trying something new. The days you are at sea are what my mom actually loves best, because she finds them so relaxing. But of course with a kid to entertain, you can’t just read by the pool all day. We tried the “Camp Carnival” for a few hours with the kids, but they didn’t want to go back – they said it was too noisy and crowded and some kids were mean. Maybe that was just the day, or our ship, but we had enough adults on the cruise who could take turns supervising the children so everybody got some alone time to relax. Still, with the kids, we did take part in a lot of the ship’s entertainment options: Dance parties on the lido deck, contests with the cruise director and her staff, a puppet show, a magic show, a seminar on making towel animals, you get the drift. Anytime I felt like an idiot, I remembered that other than my family, I was never going to see any of these cruise ship passengers again!
- Your kids love to eat – or alternately, are picky eaters! Midnight buffets are a thing of the past, but food is still a big part of the cruise ship experience. Whether you decide to eat in the “formal’ dining room, grab a slice of pizza near the pool, or order room service, when and where you eat can form a lot of the structure on a cruise ship vacation. If your children are picky eaters, rest assured you’ll be able to find something they like — there are always familiar choices available somewhere on the ship. But I also thought about how great a deal a cruise vacation could be for a family with a teenage boy — nearly all the food is included in the cost of the cruise and is readily available.
- You want your kids to meet people from around the world. When my sister worked on her ship, she was one of only about a half-dozen Americans aboard. The reason? It’s a very tough job. The employees on cruise ships work long hours, certainly longer than a typical American work week. Their “time off” might just be while you are in port exploring or while the ship is being readied for its next batch of guests. As a result, many of the employees on cruise ships are from developing countries and often send money back home to help their extended families. Our main waiter in the dining room was from India, had worked on cruise ships for 20 years and had a wife and children back home. An assistant waiter was from Nepal, and told me how her parents were opposed to her working on a cruise ship but she wanted an adventure. One of our regular bartenders was from the Dominican Republic, another from Bali. Our room steward was from Trinidad and Tobago. After he saw how much our daughter loved the “towel animals” he created each night, he kept making more complex varieties, until we had a towel animal zoo by the end of our trip. My family is a talkative one, and we really enjoyed getting to know the people who made our vacation so fun and relaxing – and I think they appreciate that we wanted to hear about their lives and families back home.
- You hate packing and unpacking. The cruise ship is going to leave its port on time whether you are on board or not. So you really have to arrive in the departure port a day ahead of time in order to make sure an airplane delay doesn’t keep you from getting to the port, checking in and going through security before the ship pulls away. Other than that wrinkle for Midwesterners who have to travel a ways to get to any departure ports, you get to pack once at home, settle into your stateroom, then pack up for the trip home. Depending on your itinerary, you’ll likely return home having seen three or four different spots, but only having had to cram the suitcase full once at the beginning of the trip and once at the end.
So there you have it — my reasons for why I think a cruise vacation can be a great option for families.
Go West readers: Have you been on a cruise vacation with your kids? Are there any reasons you’d add to this list?