Under the wrong circumstances, bringing a kid along on a luxury cruise could be considered a gross miscalculation. The higher end of the market tends to cater to an older and more sophisticated clientele, which translates to not-so-kid-friendly upscale dining venues, grown-up rather than family-focused entertainment and zero to little babysitting.
Set sail with kids and you run the risk of: 1) annoying everyone onboard should the dreaded tantrum ensue, 2) boring your children to tears with long dinners and a lack of children-focused diversions and 3) not getting any time to yourself.
But if you're a parent (or grandparent) who's not quite ready to trade in luxury cruises for a circuit of theme parks and Club Meds, we're happy to report that you don't have to give up upscale travel in order to vacation with kids. With the right attitude from all parties, kid and adult -- and a little advance planning and preparation -- rest assured that you really can enjoy a luxury cruise with the whole family.
Here are eight essential tips for making a luxury cruise with kids actually feel like a vacation.
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1. Travel on a luxe line that caters to kids.
The best luxury cruises for families are upscale sailings where kids are actually expected -- and welcomed -- to tag along. You'll save a whole lot of hassle and headache by simply choosing the right cruise line and ship.
Aboard posh German line Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' Europa 2, expect three different kids' clubs, suites designed with families in mind and in-cabin babysitting services. Cunard is also a good choice, with all three of its ships touting staff-helmed kids' and teen zones, as well as a complimentary night nursery for babies under 2; Queen Mary 2 even has a planetarium that older kids will get wide-eyed for. (While Cunard is not a small-ship, all-inclusive line, its Queen and Princess Grill areas rival luxury lines for food, service and spacious accommodations.)
Crystal Cruises offers dedicated kid spaces, too, outfitted with video games and art supplies, for both younger kids and teens, aboard its two ocean liners. Crystal's family programming is amped up further still during specially designated family sailings, which coincide with the school-break summer months and end-of-year holidays.
Several other luxe lines that might not be inherently kid-friendly by design undergo a transformation during similarly scheduled family-dedicated sailings, when they will bring on special youth staff and put on programming for children. For instance, Regent Seven Seas has its Club Mariner Youth Program for ages 5 to 17, while Paul Gauguin Cruises offers a Stewards of Nature program, in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which targets kids ages 7 to 17.
Don't overlook river cruise options, either, since some upscale lines likewise designate segments of their inventory for family-branded journeys, including companies like Uniworld, Adventures by Disney/AmaWaterways and Abercrombie & Kent.
Obviously, you'll have no choice but to steer clear of cruise lines that explicitly prohibit kids, like Viking Ocean and River Cruises, as well as those that have minimum age requirements, if you have smaller kids. (Windstar, for one, doesn't permit children under age 8.)
2. Choose the right cabin.
Choosing the right cabin configuration, where you'll spend a good chunk of time hunkering down with the clan, is a critical necessity that can make or break your family trip. The options boil down to shared standard staterooms, larger suites or interconnecting staterooms.
Happily, luxury lines tend to offer more spacious accommodations, and some luxury ships are all-suite, all-balcony. If you go the single-room route with multiple berths, you'll want to ensure that the bedroom can be curtained off from the living room where the pull-out sofa is or crib will be placed. Note that on some luxe lines, like Crystal and Paul Gauguin, a third birth is the maximum offered in standard cabins (and sometimes with limited inventory at that), which can pose a logistical problem for families with more than one child.
Keep in mind that while connecting staterooms are a tempting prospect when you're traveling with kids, it's hard to keep tabs on young travelers who have their own exit. Besides, many lines won't let you book under-18s in a cabin on their own, necessitating some complicated booking and sleeping arrangements.
And then, of course, there's the big-ticket price tag of a second cabin, which can work out to some serious bucks on the high-priced luxury lines. It will often be the case -- especially if your kids are small and don't require a lot of extra space -- that you'll find a better and more cost-effective solution by upgrading to one single larger suite that will accommodate the whole clan.
If we could dream up a cabin for families in the luxury realm, it would be those found aboard Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' Europa 2, where dedicated "family apartments" (a combo of an ocean suite and a connecting stateroom) come with all the fixins, like changing tables, loaner baby monitors, games and even mini bathroom fixtures sized just for kids.
(One nice bonus in the luxury sector, too, is that many units come with full bathtubs, making life infinitely easier if you have smaller children to bathe.)
3. Consider the costs.
Luxury cruise lines tend to bundle in lots of extras, like beverages, specialty restaurants, gratuities or even shore excursions -- with the price tags to match. But if your little sidekicks aren't going to be downing fine wines or tucking into filet mignon, you understandably might not want to incur a hefty fare.
Many luxury lines do make special fare accommodations for kids when sharing cabins with fare-paying adults. On Crystal and Cunard, for instance, kids sail half-price, while Regent Seven Seas starts its kids' fares at just $499. On other lines, the very youngest sailors cruise completely free, like those ages 3 and under on Crystal, or under 2 on Cunard.
Crystal and Regent also occasionally run kids-sail-free promos, too, while lines like Hapag-Lloyd and Paul Gauguin waive kids' fares entirely as standard practice (though, note that for some lines, "kids" might only count as those under age 12.)
4. Be ready to spend time with your kids.
Most luxury cruise lines don't have full-time kids' clubs or programming; fewer still offer in-cabin babysitting services. On mainstream cruise lines, you can dump your darlings in tricked-out kids clubs for the day. On most of the upscale lines, however, child care falls solely in your lap, so lots and lots of playtime with your kids should be in your definition of a fun family trip.
Note that with this lack of available child care, there won't be time for any lingering, five-course dinners-for-two -- or any shared "grown-up" time with your spouse at all for that matter. And once the kids are tucked-in for the night, your evenings will pretty much be a bust. Your only hope for catching a nighttime show or spinning the roulette wheel in the casino will be if you opt to tag-team and take turns on kids-in-the-cabin duty. (Consider inviting additional family members or even a babysitter or nanny if you must have adult time on your cruise.)
There are a few notable exceptions: Crystal, Cunard and Hapag-Lloyd all have drop-off, age-appropriate kids' clubs; Regent, Seabourn and Paul Gauguin offer youth programming, as well, on select family sailings. Only, Crystal and Hapag-Lloyd, however, offer in-cabin babysitting.
5. Know how to navigate dining.
On luxe lines, passengers take dressing for dinner seriously and have paid top dollar so they can indulge in a gourmet, multicourse affair, while a sommelier recommends choice wine pairings. Suffice it to say, not everyone appreciates the extra noise of a 5-year-old or a toddler flinging her noodles from a high chair in the formal dining room.
Come to terms with the fact that many younger children just won't be able to make it through a formal dinner service, even with the saint-like patience of the restaurant staff. If you do push for it, just be sure to put your order in as soon as possible and to let the server know that the kids' food should come out as soon as it's prepped; some lines like Crystal and Hapag-Lloyd have dedicated kids' menus with items that are meant to appear fast (while others will let you place a standing order to be delivered just about as soon as you're seated).
Ask for a table off to the side and, ideally, positioned close to an escape route, should things turn south. Thankfully, all luxury lines offer open dining now, so you don't have to worry about subjecting strangers to your daily dining struggles.
Some other strategies for success: Consider bypassing the main dining room altogether whenever possible and opting instead for the casual, quick-hit, meltdown-minimizing buffets or poolside grills. And remember that complimentary room service is your friend. You can often order off the main dining room menu during dinner hours; book a high-level suite and you might even be able to order specialty restaurant fare to your room.
Kitchens will generally be happy to oblige special kid food requests like pizza or chicken strips. With advance notice, they can easily manage any allergies or intolerances, too.
6. Prepare for the shore-tour compromise.
Your preference might be to hit every historical site along the coast, your husband might be intent on basking on the beach for days on end and your young'un might have no further goal than to eat as much ice cream as possible. Without a doubt, you'll have to compromise and accept that, especially in cases where small children are involved, those tiny ones' needs and wants tend to win out.
If you do manage to find a group shore excursion that seems manageable, you'll have to check if you can even sign the kids up for those, since some have age restrictions and/or car seat requirements. There will undoubtedly be tempting prospects that you will just have to forego (or agree to split up for), if you know the need for naptime will likely make a full-day tour implode, or if you don't want to end up carrying a crying tot up the side of a volcano.
Many families find that hiring a private tour guide or wandering on their own is an even better choice than a group tour; you can call it a wrap when you need to, take breaks for snacks and restrooms at whim and not be subject to the embarrassment of interrupting a guide's impassioned anecdotes to the group with the wails of your screaming 2-year-old.
Remember that kids generally have a lower tolerance for excessive walking and museum visits. Pick a few must-do experiences and settle for more relaxed-pace touring the rest of the time -- or better yet, some straight-up downtime on the ship or at the beach. If you plan ahead, you can locate kid-friendly attractions -- like parks, play areas and aquariums -- where you can stop between visits to more grown-up-focused attractions.
For the very safest crowd-pleasing bet, consider sailing to a destination that's sure to engage kids of all ages, like Alaska or the Galapagos, where nature diversions abound with wildlife sightings, or to a fun-in-the-sun sand-and-surf beach destination like the Caribbean.
7. Bring your own diversions.
Unless you want to be subject to a weeklong chorus of "I'm bored" onboard, pack some diversions to keep the kiddos entertained, just as you would on any long road trip or weekend visit to Aunt Edna's. Portable toys, such as puzzles, dolls, toy cars and books, will help keep cases of incurable boredom at bay. Coloring books (especially ones with mess-free markers) are great distractions in the cabin or at dinner.
And, raised eyebrows be damned: Incorporating some screen time -- with some games and movies on a pre-loaded iPad, or via the in-room DVD/TV -- can be an absolute savior all around when you need some downtime in a pinch.
8. Get set to make fast friends -- and perhaps a few enemies.
Luxury lines tend not to attract a lot of small children, making them a bit of a curiosity onboard. Accordingly, they're likely to be endeared by the grandparent-aged clientele, as well as the staff -- many of whom are missing their own kids back home. Their very presence makes for living, breathing icebreakers that will lead to countless conversations with fellow passengers and crew -- a wonderful scenario if you're keen on chitchat, a nightmare if you're more the keep-to-yourself type.
Of course, inevitably, there will be the odd curmudgeon who isn't going to be happy about the presence of kids onboard and who isn't shy about telling you so. Just accept that you're unlikely to persuade somebody who's unhappy about the company of children to suddenly change their mind on the matter; it's probably best to avoid engaging in any conflict and to simply do your best to steer clear of the spoilsport for peace of mind all around.
As long as you're courteous and mindful of your kids' impact on their surroundings (i.e., no dropping cannonballs into the pool!), rest assured that there's plenty of room on even the fanciest ship for everybody, young and old, to have a genuinely good time.