By Melissa Shaw
Hitting the high seas with your family can seem intimidating for first-timers, but mom and family travel expert Lissa Poirot says cruises can be a unique family travel experience, one in which parents can actually -- really -- relax.
"Cruises have something for everybody to do together as a family, but it also gives kids that chance to say, 'Hey, Mom, I'm gonna go explore on my own.' They get that freedom they might not get on another vacation. If you go to a city, of course you're not going to do that with your kids," says Poirot, editor-in-chief of Family Vacation Critic, a comprehensive online travel resource for families that offers reviews of family hotels, resorts, and destinations. "That's what I liked about [cruising]: having that moment where I get to go sit at the pool and read a book, and they're happy, too. But we're still together and having a family vacation." (Family Vacation Critic's sister site, Cruise Critic, outlines "Best Ships for Families" based on cruiser reviews and ratings, and offers a family forum message board where parents can ask questions and get answers).
Of course, younger children can't go wandering around a large ship by themselves, but Poirot says cruise lines offer age-specific, drop-off kids clubs and programs. Parents can check their children into the club/program and then go enjoy their own activity, kid-free.
"When you're dealing with your kids that young, having that break is so important, because otherwise it's not a vacation for you," she notes. "You can have a little bit of a break, which is important."
She shares the story of her family's first cruise, a trip to Alaska on Disney Cruise Lines. She asked her then-4-year-old son what he wanted to do on his last day of vacation. His choice was to stay in the kids club all day; he didn't even want to leave to eat meals with the family. However, when all of the Disney characters came out for meet-and-greets, Poirot couldn't resist going to get him, figuring he wouldn't want to miss the opportunity.
"He was furious!" she laughs. "'I told you not to take me out! I was having fun with my friends!' I felt guilty thinking he was going to be in there all day, but that was the vacation he wanted," she recalls.
While parents must drop off and pick up young ones from programs, many cruise lines enable kids ages tween and up to check themselves in and out of clubs and programs, with parental permission.
"My kids are now 11 and 12. My daughter is starting those tween years, and the thing she really likes is having the freedom to walk away from me," Poirot says. "That was what was great about cruises -- I know she's not going anywhere. So I can say, 'Let's meet at five, we're going to have a family meal together.' I'm giving her three hours where she can go and do things with her friends in some of the kids programming." Planning and choices Talk to cruise veterans and many are fans for life, booking repeat trips on their favorite line. But for newcomers, the array of destinations, packages, and choices can seem intimidating.
"For me, it was overwhelming trying to plan a cruise the first time," Poirot admits, noting her children were 4 and 5 the first time they sailed. "The fear of the unknown was the biggest hurdle. Am I going to be happy being stuck on a ship for a few days? Are we going to have enough to do? Once we experienced it, it was, like, "Oh, wow, there really is a lot to do' and it really was easy."
For Poirot, her planning began with the destination: "We wanted to see Alaska. We ended up going with Disney, because we thought if you're gonna do anything, Disney must know what they're doing. It helped us take a lot of the guesswork of it. They helped plan everything, and they had so many details available, which made it easier for us. Since then we have done a couple of other cruises, and it made it easier because now we're familiar."
If you're flexible on destination, other places to start planning include duration (some can last 3-4 days, others up to 10), price (where can you get the most for your money?), or family programming options.
"With kids, we were very interested in knowing what kinds of kids programs they had," Poirot says. "Do they have kids clubs and activities? Are there things they're going to be able to do with other kids, and will there be a chance to have alone time at dinner while they're at a pizza party? We've seen since more and more cruise lines trying to appeal to families in that way, offering great programming for kids and kids clubs options for different age groups."
She encourages parents to think of what they want out of a cruise when they are researching options.
"Value, to me, is going to be: What do I get?" she says. "Do I get to have that free time? Is it going to be really easy on me? Because then it becomes more of a vacation for me. I've heard people complain that Disney can be a little bit pricey, but for me at the time I wanted this value. I wanted to know my kids are going to be entertained, that somebody's going to take care of us because I was afraid to go cruising for the first time. I had no idea what I was doing. It was involving a lot of travel and the kids were young and little. I thought, to me, it was worth it, having a little extra money going to that." Know your kids Port excursions and special off-ship activities are a highlight of many sailings, but Poirot argues less may be more when it comes to cruising with kids.
"When they're that young, my kids just wanted to be in the kids clubs," she remembers. "I had taken them before to vacations where we did attractions and all these things. At the end I asked them what was their favorite part of the vacation, and they said, 'The hotel swimming pool.' When they're really little, they don't need those excursions. You don't need to show them everything. They're going to be happy if they're playing in a pool all day. They're not going to want to go and whale watch, they want to play in the kids club and play in the pool."
When Poirot took her kids on the Alaskan cruise, she chose two excursions she knew they would enjoy (dog sledding and gold panning), and skipped the rest: "It was just enough it wasn't going to tire them out. It got them off the ship for a little bit of time and they were back in the kids club and splashing in the pool. That's what's really great about cruising - you get to choose what you want to do. My thing has always been: When the kids are small, don't overdo it because you're going to end up being exhausted and it's not a vacation. Tailor it to your kids' ages and what they can handle." Extra expenses Carefully selecting excursions and resisting the need to book many will also save you a lot of money, as many excursions cost extra above what you paid for the trip.
"I thought cruising was all-inclusive -- once you got onboard pretty much everything was going to be included. And I was surprised to learn it wasn't," Poirot says.
For example, alcohol, and often soda, are not included in your package price. Some of a ship's signature or upscale restaurants may cost extra, too. She advises parents do their research ahead of time and remember what is -- and is not -- included in their package. Another mandatory additional charge that can add up -- gratuity for the ship's staff, such as the cabin steward, housekeepers, and dining room staff who have served you for the entire trip. Many lines will outline a minimum of what each guest (kids, too) needs to pay to compensate the staff for their service.
Poirot, who since Disney has also cruised Norwegian, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean with her family, says families may be able to save money by looking for unadvertised deals or discounts, especially the first night of the cruise. She remembers the first night of one trip, when her family took advantage of discount dining at one of the upscale restaurants on the ship. The server happened to mention a special, available that night only, in which for every bottle of wine they bought, they would get one free. Poirot and her husband took advantage of the offer and were able to buy their wine in advance for the duration of the trip at that deep discount.
"That was something I would never have known about, it just happened the server told me about it," she remembers.
She encourages parents to check their itinerary or ask the staff if there are special deals or other discounts, perhaps even on excursions, especially on the first night. River cruises Say "cruise" to a New Englander and "Caribbean" or "Bahamas" are usually the first thoughts. But Poirot says European river cruises are making a push for families -- often multiple generations together -- with special sailings designed for them.
While traditional city-sized cruise ships offer everything from zip-ling and bumper cars to Broadway-style shows and multiple nightlife options, river cruise lines, such as AmaWaterways and Uniworld, offer much smaller ships, more relaxation, and the opportunity to see Europe in a new way.
"I hadn't heard about [river cruises], and I really loved it because they're small, they're boutique," she says. "I thought this is something only older people want to do, but it was really relaxing. Everybody knows who you are, you see the same people for all your meals in the evening. You're traveling together, and you make friends. It's more intimate than a large cruise." Packing "On the cruise ships, there's not a lot of space to put your things," Poirot notes. "If you're sharing a room, you're not going to have a lot of room for big suitcases. Try to pack as light as you can. Bathrooms are usually very small -- think of that."
If there are clothes or goods you'll need the moment you step onboard, she recommends putting them in your carry-on, as luggage make take a few hours to reach your room that first day. Diapers or other necessary supplies can be shipped ahead of time to save you precious space and weight in your bag.
Poirot advises children use their school backpacks as easy carry-ons: "School backpacks are already so large. I will try to get as much in their backpacks, as they're used to carrying it anyway, so they can carry them and get them on the plane."