Cruising is without a doubt a family-friendly holiday, with 51 percent of cruise parties travelling with children aged between 6-11-years-old, according to 2017 figures from Cruise Lines International Association. To attract and keep so many children happily engaged, cruise lines offer amazing kids clubs, meet and greets with beloved cartoon characters, splash-happy water parks, ziplines, ropes courses and lots more.
Most of the mainstream cruise lines are extremely family-friendly, including lines such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises P&O Cruises, Marella Cruises, MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. Celebrity and Holland America Line offer supervised activities and dedicated facilities for kids and teens on most ships, but do have a more adult-focused ethos and fewer family attractions outside the kids' clubs. Luxury lines like Crystal and Regent Seven Seas offer children's programmes on selected sailings, but the more high-end cruises are generally geared toward grownups.
All of these lines offer great cruises. It's the differences -- each line's signature features, onboard partnerships and the details of the kids and teens programmes -- that will determine which ship is the best fit for your family.
To get the most from your family cruise, consider the following tips when picking a ship.
1. Make sure the kids programme works for your kids.
Family-friendly cruise lines work hard delivering creative children's programmes that go beyond babysitting. Norwegian's Splash Academy engages kids with tumbling, juggling, spinning and other circus skill classes, culminating in a performance of circus acts for appreciative parents. Carnival's Camp Ocean has a marine theme, on Royal Caribbean, kids get the chance to perform a play for their adoring parents, MSC Cruises has a link-up with LEGO, and Disney utilises the fact it owns Star Wars and Pixar to offer attractions like a Millennium Falcon-themed Star Wars play area, Marvel Super Hero Academy and a recreation of Andy's room in Toy Story.
All cruise line youth programmes divide kids into age-appropriate groups, but different lines take different approaches toward age groupings. You'll want to think about the ages and personalities of your children to determine whether a cruise line's programme is a good fit.
Royal Caribbean, for example, offers separate groups for ages 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14 and 15 to 17, a division that takes into account kids' natural tendencies: An outgoing 6-year-old might be bored being with a 3-year-old, and a shy 8-year-old might feel overwhelmed being matched with a much taller and athletic 12-year-old. Carnival's Camp Ocean offers the same groupings, but starts the drop-off programme at 2 instead of 3 and youth staff change nappies. Norwegian's Splash Academy separates kids into Turtles, ages 3 to 5; Seals, ages 6 to 9; and Dolphins, ages 10 to 12. It combines all teens, ages 13 to 17, into one Entourage group.
MSC Cruises divides kids into groups by age -- 3-6, 7-11 and 12-14 -- and each gets its own room (on the newest ships) in a dedicated area called Doremi Land. As well as dedicated rooms by age group, there is also an interactive family room and a "Lab" where kids can use a 3D printer and laptops and conduct experiments. Teens also get their own space, which is more of a disco with circular loungers. Thoughtful design means the kids' facilities are directly above both the sports complex and the entertainment centre.
P&O Cruises has dedicated kids' facilities on five of its seven ships: Britannia, Azura, Ventura, Aurora and Oceana (the others are adults-only), called The Reef, where again kids are divided by age: Splashers: 2-4; Surfers: 5 to 8; Scubas: 9 to 12; and H20: 13 to 17. Each gets its own separate room. Kids get their own paddling pool, video games and disco. The areas enjoyed a revamp in 2017, adding new flooring, new toys and soft play areas, as well as a more modern teen facility.
Marella's latest ships -- Discovery 1 and 2 and Explorer -- each have a dedicated kids' club, which is open to 3- to 11-year-olds. Activities tend to be broken down into two age groups: 3-8 and 9-11 years, and take place in one room. There are also breakfast clubs, art sessions and movie nights. Daily activities are available on port days, and times are listed in the ship's Cruise News. There is also a Baby Centre equipped with changing facilities, a food preparation and bottle-cleaning area, and somewhere safe to play, complete with plenty of soft toys, games and a small ball pit.
Holland America and Princess also offer fewer age groupings, meaning a wider age range in each group. Princess groups kids in its Camp Discovery facility from ages 3 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 to 17; Holland America adjusts ages slightly in Club HAL with groupings for Kids (3 to 6), Tweens (7 to 12) and Teens (13 to 17).
Disney takes an unusual approach. Its Oceaneer Club and Lab are both open to all kids between ages 3 and 12. While Club activities target the younger kids and Lab programming is aimed at the older, any child can participate in any activity. This means that siblings or friends traveling together can stay with each other, despite age gaps. On the flip side, young kids might be overwhelmed by the activity choice if left in the kids club for several hours.
2. Cartoon characters are a sure-fire hit.
Disney is an obvious choice if your kid has a character crush, given that you'll find princesses, pirates like Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse and friends, Star Wars, Pixar characters and Marvel superheroes onboard. But it's not the only line to make storybooks spring to life. Carnival has rolled out Seuss at Sea, complete with Seuss-a-palooza Story Time and Green Eggs and Ham Breakfasts with cameos by the Cat in the Hat and Thing 1 and Thing 2. Shrek, Fiona, Puss N Boots and other DreamWorks stars parade on many Royal Caribbean ships, and DreamWorks' popular movie releases play onboard. Characters join kids club activities, and on Allure of the Seas, families can enjoy the Madagascar Aqua Show at the outdoor Aqua Theatre and the How to Train Your Dragon Ice Show in the ship's ice rink.
3. If you're travelling with babies, choose a ship with a nursery.
Although little ones aren't likely to remember their first sea voyages, you will -- especially if there are no baby facilities! Minimum ages to sail tend to be 6 months for most mainstream cruises, and 1 year for longer or more exotic voyages. Some luxury and expedition cruise lines discourage children, so check before booking.
Several cruise lines offer drop-off nurseries for under-3s at an hourly rate and/or play areas for the littlest cruisers, which they can enjoy with a parent or guardian.
Royal Caribbean is one of the best lines for the smallest cruisers, offering the Royal Babies and Tots Nursery for ages 6 to 36 months on most ships. Little ones can enjoy soft play areas and age-appropriate toys, as well as cribs and cots for snoozing. The nursery also holds interactive play groups for 6 to 18 month olds and 18 to 36 month olds and their parents, with arts and crafts, music and other games.
Disney Cruise Line is also one of the top lines for babies, offering full-service themed nurseries at sea for ages 6 months to 3 years, complete with toys and nap areas. Parents can use special onboard mobile phones to keep in touch with nursery staff, and take little ones to explore the Oceaneer Club and Lab's play spaces during open houses.
Norwegian offers a drop-off nursery only on Norwegian Escape. On all ships, the Splash Academy features either a dedicated play space for under-3s with their parents or staff-led parent-tot activities in the Splash Academy or other space (music, sensory play, etc.) -- or both.
P&O Cruises has a dedicated stay and play area for the tiniest passengers, with soft play mats and plenty of toys. There are no organised activities; instead, it's a safe place for parents to interact with their kids. At night, the space turns into a night nursery for children up to 4 years old, with space for 15 cots.
MSC Cruises has no minimum sail age, though the Baby Club is open for babies from 6 months to 36 months. It is sponsored by Italian baby gear company Chicco, which means there is plenty of free baby stuff -- diapers, wipes, formula, bottles -- even a selection of cots and strollers, which parents can borrow. The line also offers "Baby Time," which allows parents to play with their kids, and "Baby Care," which allows parents to leave their children (aged from 1 year old).
4. Don't be naive when cruising with teens.
Teen programmes are tricky, and the best ones, like the best children's programmes, separate teens into age-appropriate groups. Carnival, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean offer separate programmes for ages 12 to 14 and 15 to 17; Carnival and Royal also have exclusive spaces for the two teen groups. On Disney Cruise Line, teens also divide into two separate groups with different hangout spaces, but the age groupings are different: 11 to 13 and 14 to 17. Each has its own places to hang out.
On P&O Cruises, Teens are defined as 13- to 17-year-olds. On Britannia, they get their own H2O room, which is more like a nightclub than a kids' room. Teens can either join in the organised games, talent shows and parties, or hang out with friends in the dedicated chill-out areas and play video games or watch DVDs. On Britannia, they even get their own plunge pool with access from H2O. On Ventura and Azura, Teens get their own dedicated hang-out space, Decibels, and light-touch programming.
On MSC Cruises, 15- to 17-year-olds get their own private room adjacent to, but not a part of, the kids' club. It's a circular lounge, which is effectively one big dance floor, where teens can hang out. It has plenty of chairs, huge TV screens, beanbags and numerous video games, including PS4, Nintendo Switch and VR.
Teenage passengers (defined as 12- to 17-years-olds) on Marella ships have a dedicated and spacious area called The Hideout, complete with a dance floor, a DJ booth, and a karaoke booth where budding pop stars can record a CD. Daily organised teen events include UV parties, ice-breaking activities and movie nights (from 10 p.m. to midnight). The adjoining GamerZone also provides plenty of Xbox consoles and a good assortment of games.
On Norwegian, Holland America and Princess group ages 13 to 17 together, with teens having their own spaces on each line. On some Holland America ships, teens congregate at the Loft, an indoor teen lounge, as well as at the Oasis, an outdoor sun deck.
While teens meet each other at supervised events and do fun things together with the dedicated youth staff, there's plenty of time for them to form cliques and couples and to roam the ship sans adults. Your 13-year-old secondary-schooler could well be hanging out with sixth formers. Be realistic. Everything you worry about at school and at teen parties on land -- bullying, drugs, alcohol and sex -- can be issues at sea. Talk to your teens ahead of time, set rules about where they can and can't go without you onboard (such as into other friends' cabins or onboard bars) and be aware of their activities on the ship.
5. Look for programmes that operate in port and ships with evening babysitting.
Just because you holiday to spend time with your family does not mean that you don't want some grown-up time to hit the spa or visit a winery in port. To maximise your options, consider lines that offer drop-off activities onboard when the ship is in port. Double-check that you can leave the ship while your children are in the youth club. (Many -- P&O Cruises, for example -- insist that one parent or guardian must remain onboard. Royal Caribbean, on the flip side, does not.) Also check to see whether there are any port-day fees. For example, Norwegian charges a fee to supervise kids during meals while their parents are off the ship, whereas Royal Caribbean and P&O Cruises do not.
Similarly, most lines offer evening group babysitting in the kids clubs for a fee. Norwegian's Late Night Fun Zone, for example, operates from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. for a per-child hourly fee. Carnival, Disney, Holland America, Celebrity, Princess and Royal Caribbean also offer late-night programmes. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity even allow you to book in-cabin babysitting for children aged 1 year and older.
6. Choose a cruise with plentiful pools and kids play areas.
All family-friendly ships feature pools, but some dedicate more space to water fun than others. If you've got water babies, look for ships with multiple pools and/or water parks. Newer ships tend to have more water-based wow features than their older fleetmates.
Carnival, known for its signature slides, ups the energy on its newer and refurbished ships with longer, windier slides that snake, twirl and even "flush" passengers. Its WaterWorks play areas also feature splash areas and kiddie slides for young cruisers not quite up to the big slides.
Young kids will also relish Royal Caribbean's tame H20 Zone, which brings out the giggles with geysers, water guns, small pools and a mini lazy river. Tweens, teens and adults test their skills on the FlowRider, a surf simulator. Harmony of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas and UK-based Independence of the Seas offer the line's only water slides (known as The Perfect Storm); all three Oasis-class ships offer multiple pools for family fun.
MSC's newest ships have some of the best dedicated kids' splash areas at sea. On Meravliglia, for example, you'll find The Polar Aqua Park on the top deck, complete with spray guns, water dunkers and a small slide. Above it are three waterslides for kids older than 4 years. On Seaview and Seaside, the water park has five water slides, including an interactive Slideboarding tube, which combines video games, lights, music with a 367-foot water slide; two high-speed racing slides with clear loops that extend over one side of the ship; the Aquatube, an inner tube slide; and a pint-sized flume-type slide for the little ones. Other water park features include an AquaPlay and AquaSpray park for kids. Passengers can also climb on the Adventure Trail, a ropes course mainly for children -- complete with spray cannons. The ships also have the longest (426 feet/130 meters) ziplines at sea.
Disney ships offer multiple pools, including two family-friendly pools (one with a little kid water slide), an adults-only pool and a splash area for nappy-wearing tots on each ship. Disney Dream and Fantasy tout the AquaDuck, a fairly tame water coaster ride that circles the pool deck, while Disney Magic features the AquaDunk, a more adrenaline-pumping slide, and Disney Wonder a more typical water slide. Magic, Wonder and Fantasy also have the AquaLab, a water play area with jets, geysers and dump buckets.
7. Look for ships with extra family activities.
Beyond kids' clubs and pools, the most family-friendly lines offer attractions and programmes that kids will enjoy, with or without their parents. Many lines offer athletic activities, but Royal Caribbean sports are at another level, including ice skating, rock climbing, ziplines, surfing and even bungee trampolining on Skypad (on Independence of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas). The line's ships, especially its newer ones, appeal to active teens and adults. Anthem of the Seas even offers a deckside version of skydiving known as RipCord by iFLY, as well as the SeaPlex, an indoor fun space with bumper cars and roller skating.
MSC's newer ships (Meraviglia, Seaside and Seaview) have a whole area of the ship dedicated to fun and games, including a full-size indoor basketball court, a 4D cinema, bowling, simulated F1 and virtual reality skydiving.
UK ships don't compete with their big American cousins, but Marella's three latest ships (Discovery, Discovery 2 and Explorer), do all have rock climbing walls and sports courts. P&O Cruises' larger ships (Britannia, Ventura and Azura) all have multi-use sports courts as well.
On Norwegian's ships, you can challenge your gang on the ropes course on Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway, or see who gets the highest score at bowling, available on Norwegian Pearl, Epic, Breakaway and Getaway. Norwegian also scored big by being the first line to offer Nintendo Wii sports games, now also available on other lines. Select ships have rock climbing walls and mini-golf.
Carnival Vista has an IMAX theatre and a 4D Thrill Theatre, plus a Clubhouse for mini-bowling, Ping-Pong, sports video gaming and arcade basketball. Vista and other Carnival ships run Hasbro, the Game Show, an audience-participation competition for kids and grownups alike.
8. Seek out family-friendly evening entertainment.
Cruise lines are known for R-rated comedians and adults-only games, but they offer plenty of family-friendly shows at night, so look for a line with after-dark options for your brood. Princess Cruises introduced Movies Under the Stars, films shown on deck while you relax in a lounge chair, tucked up in a blanket. Holland America Line's Koningsdam offers the same. Carnival and other lines also offer outdoor movies. Disney wows kids and adults with first-run movies in its indoor theatre and its Disney-themed stage shows.
Older kids like the West End hits playing aboard Royal Caribbean, such as "Grease," "Mamma Mia" and "Saturday Night Fever." Ice skating, acrobatic and diving shows on select ships are great family fun, as well. Norwegian is also great for big shows such as Rock of Ages.
P&O Cruises has recently launched "Astonishing," a magic-revue-entertainment-musical onboard Britannia, Azura and Ventura.
9. Look for family-friendly dining options.
No one goes hungry on a cruise ship, and the family-friendly lines satisfy young kids and always-hungry teens with extended-hour pizza, lavish dinner buffets, specialty casual restaurants and room service, in addition to seated dinners. Just be aware that lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean now charge for room service, so consider if that will be a problem because your little kids can't handle long restaurant meals or your teen is always starving at 11 p.m. Have a fussy kid or one who's vegan or lactose intolerant? Alert the cruise line ahead of your cruise and talk to the head waiter once onboard; the cruise line will be happy to work out meals that your child will eat.
Most lines offer kids' menus at lunch and dinner. In Carnival's dining rooms, for example, young cruisers can order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, hot dogs or mac and cheese. Along with signature restaurants geared to teens and adults, Carnival kid-friendly eateries include Guy's Burger Joint, Pizza Pirate, Cucina del Capitano for lots of pasta and SeaDogs for hot dogs on Carnival Breeze and Magic.
On Norwegian, Freestyle Dining means you can try your luck just walking in, or make reservations if your kids must eat early or won't do well waiting for a table. Kids can order off the standard kids' menu for free in any specialty restaurant, or order off that venue's menu at list price.
Lines like Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival let you choose between traditional dining (set time, set table, same waiters and tablemates) and a flexible option (arrive any time within dining hours and hope your preferred table size is available or share with others) in the main dining room. Disney does things a bit differently; everyone has the same tablemates and waiters, but you rotate among three restaurants, for a different option each night.
If you're worried that your kids can't make it through a two-hour dinner, look for lines that offer expedited kids' dining. With Royal Caribbean's My Family Time Dining programme, kids finish their meals within 40 minutes, and kids club staff pick them up from the dining room and bring them to youth activities, while parents finish their meal at a more leisurely pace. MSC Cruises has a similar concept -- Happy Dinners -- where children eat a speedy dinner with the family while the grown-ups enjoy their starters. The children are then taken back to the Miniclub by the entertainment staff while the adults enjoy a leisurely dining experience.
Disney has a similar programme. If your family eats during the later, second seating for dinner, you can opt for the Dine and Play option and have waiters serve children ages 3 to 12 first; after about 45 minutes, youth counsellors pick your child up from the dining room and escort them to the children's programme.
P&O Cruises offers a special children's tea every evening, serving kids favourites, such as sausages, fish fingers and pizza. A children's menu is also available in the main dining rooms.
10. Choose a ship with family-friendly accommodation.
When picking a cruise ship and cabin category, consider options for connecting cabins, multiple berths in one cabin (and whether that means lights out for everyone once the little ones go to bed) and family-focused staterooms.
Disney Cruise Line's cabins are family-friendly across the board. Most cabins feature a welcome bath-and-a-half set-up. In addition to one full bathroom with a toilet, sink and tub/shower, the second bathroom has a vanity, sink and toilet. Many rooms can accommodate extra passengers in pullout sofas and pulldown bunk beds, often with dividing curtains between the kid sleeping area and the grown-up one.
Carnival Vista's Family Harbor cabins range from inside staterooms to suites but all are clustered around and offer free access to the Family Harbor Lounge, which offers a buffet breakfast, daytime snacks and soft serve ice cream; TVs and computer stations; and board games. Plus, residents get a free night of Night Owls babysitting and free specialty dining for kids under 12.
MSC Meraviglia debuted a new cabin type, "Super Family Cabins," which allow family groups of up to 10 (or groups of friends) to stay together. They are basically two balcony cabins (though aft balconies, so bigger and deeper than standard balconies), joined by an Interior, with a total of 580 square feet of space.
If you've got a big group and are prepared to splurge, look for special cabins and suites that can sleep more than four. On several ships, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a 500-plus-square-foot villa with two bedrooms that sleeps six in The Haven; residents get access to Haven perks like an exclusive pool and sun decks, restaurants and lounges. Royal Caribbean's family suites can accommodate five to eight; the Family Connected Junior Suites with Balconies on Anthem of the Seas sleep 10 in a warren of rooms, which is actually three cabins combined: a Junior Suite, a Studio cabin and an ocean-view with balcony. The Presidential Family Suite on Freedom-class ships and Harmony of the Seas can sleep up to 14 in a four-bedroom configuration.
11. Find the type of ship that works for you and your kids.
US vs UK vs European? It depends on your temperament and what you want from the ship. Generally speaking, if you are after expansive kids facilities, character parades, water parks and an array of sports activities, such as climbing walls, ropes courses, dodgems, go karts and simulated skydiving, you'll want to opt for the US cruise lines. You'll also find a more international passenger mix onboard.
If you are happy with more sedate offerings like pools, traditional sports courts and, for example, cooking classes, opt for P&O Cruises. Marella's three latest ships offers a bit more in terms of outdoor activities, featuring a rock climbing wall. You'll be sailing with almost exclusively Brits.
If you want a truly international mix drawn mainly from Southern Europe, opt for MSC Cruises. Its newest ships compete with the US ones in terms of onboard activities.
12. Pick a family-friendly itinerary.
Everybody loves a beach, so Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico itineraries play to all ages. Alaska, with its kayaking, rafting, fly fishing and dog sledding, tends to appeal more to older kids. Europe is somewhere in the middle, depending on how you structure your days. A heavy load of museums and historical sites can make kids grumpy. With active teens, look for itineraries with plenty of options for bike tours, hiking and water sports.
Also consider departing from a port near your home. If you drive to your ship, then you automatically save the cost of airfare and the hassles associated with flying, plus you can pack as much stuff as you can carry (especially helpful when travelling with baby paraphernalia).