Sure, a cruise is a simple vacation to plan once you pick your ship – book once, and you have your lodging, meals, entertainment and transportation, all in one.
But traveling with babies, toddlers, and other young children requires a little more consideration. Some lines (such as Disney and Royal Caribbean) are more geared toward serving families than others, so do your research before booking to make sure your needs will be met, and then follow our top ten tips for what to do before and during your cruise:
1. Ask for the early seating in advance
If you’re cruising on a line that still has early and late sittings in the dining room, rather than open seating, be sure to request an early seating. Otherwise, dinner may not even start until after yours kids’ bedtimes. On ships with lots of couples and retirees you will have no problem getting the early seating, but on the most family-friendly ships – particularly during school vacations – you want to make your request when you book. Better still: Look for lines that offer open-seating options, including Norwegian Cruise Line and (more recently) Royal Caribbean, so that you can walk in whenever you like and get a table.
2. Read up on the playroom policies and hours in advance
Some lines don’t have any services for children under 3 years old; others require the child to be potty trained to participate, and still others have a playroom but no supervision. The caveat here: know what your ship offers before you plunk down your money.
3. Don’t assume there will be babysitting
The evening babysitting services available – from requirements to hours of availability and cost – vary widely from line to line, so do your research if you’re looking for some nights out so you can have a quiet dinner at a specialty restaurant and then see a Broadway-style show.
4. Bring your own tub for bath time
If you’re cruising in a cabin that only has a shower, but your child only takes baths, be sure to pack your own small tub to bathe them in. Sure, it may seem bulky, but the line may not have anything to lend you.
5. Make sure you pack everything you need for the first day with you
Your bags may not be delivered to your stateroom until early evening, so make sure whatever you need for the first day – from bottles to diapers and even just swimsuits – is in your carry-on bag when you check in.
6. Check the daily planner for family activities
Every night, while you are at dinner, your cabin steward will deliver the schedule for the next day. Be sure to check it for kid-friendly offerings before you go to sleep. If there’s a character breakfast in the morning, for example, you don’t want to miss it because you found out about the event too late.
7. Gather snacks throughout the day
At breakfast and lunch, wrap a muffin or a roll on a napkin, and pick up some boxes of cereal and pieces of fruit, to bring back to the room. This way, if your children are hungry in between meals, you have ready options for snacks. While many ships have food options between meals – such as grills that serve up burgers and hot dogs or pizza stands – you may not want to hunt and gather when the need arrives.
8. Talk to your waiter the first night
On some ships, dinner in the main dining room is the main event of the evening, and paced out over several courses. If you need your meals to move faster than that in order to accommodate a child’s short attention span, talk to your waiter (and possibly even the maître d’) about your needs. Be specific: If dinner starts at 5:45pm and you need to be out the door by 6:45pm every night in order to start the bath and bedroom rituals, make sure you convey that information.
9. Have a dinner back-up plan
Most cruise ships have an open buffet at dinnertime so if you have to forgo your dining room plans one night, say, because of a missed nap or just a long day at the beach, you can always hit the buffet instead. And, while some smaller luxury ships don’t have a buffet, many of those offer room service as an alternate.