There are two types of cruisers out there — those who are booking for the first time and have no clue what they’re getting into, and those who are booking their 12th annual trip because they insist that cruising is the only way to vacay.
So what separates the cruise newbs from the cruise vets? Surprisingly, 66 percent of Americans have never taken a cruise, mostly related to cost, with some hindrances due to bad word-of-mouth. Travel agents and cruise lovers continue to argue that cruises are one of the most cost-effective vacations out there, especially for families, and each boat is packed to the gills with food and fun, so it’s really hard to have a bad time.
The cruise-obsessed among us also have a few little secrets. We’ve cracked the code and figured out which cruises to book and when and why and for how long. If you’re dying to know how the happiest cruisers do it, we’ve asked some travel industry experts (and fellow cruisers) for their favorite cruising tips to optimize fun while keeping price affordable.
1. Consider a travel agent
The internet is great and all, but if you want the best of the best cruise deals, it helps to talk to someone in the know. For any family cruise, Ken Muskat, executive vice president of MSC Cruises, says, “Use a travel agent to help find the best deals and match you up with the cruise line that best meets the needs of your family and the experience you’re looking for. For instance, if you’re looking to save money when traveling with your kids, your travel agent will be able to tell you that with MSC Cruises, kids 11 and under sail free, and those 12 to 17 receive a significant discount.”
2. Book as early as possible
Travel agent or no, Muskat agrees wholeheartedly that the early bird gets the worm. “The earlier you book your cruise, the better. By booking early, you’ll not only get the best deals in terms of price, but you’ll have first pick in terms of choosing your stateroom and location, and you have a better chance of getting the shore excursions you want, since popular ones often sell out quickly,” he explains.
3. Give yourself some space
If you don’t think sleeping in cramped quarters with small children sounds like fun, we don’t blame you. Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations, whose main expertise focuses on small ship cruising, recommends, “Book your family cruise on a ship that has interconnected cabins. Here are three of our favorites.”
Peggy Mehos and her daughter Brianna Grewal, owners and operators of Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Southeast Edmonton, Alberta, say, “Many cruise lines are now offering family suites or multiroom suites so family members can stay together during their vacation. Typically these suites include a set amount of separate rooms with a shared living room, dining area and family space. Adjoining rooms are also available. Some suites can accommodate up to 13 people. For smaller families, suites may be a bit of a splurge, but they are definitely a better value for larger groups. A travel agent can help narrow down the options to find the best value for each specific group and navigate the family through the trickier booking process involving a unique layout of multiple rooms. Additionally, travel agents have the availability to block off group space on a ship, helping [to] get all family members within close proximity.”
4. Pay attention to detail
Serving as the fodder of every negative TripAdvisor review is one unforeseen traveling pitfall that ruins a family’s entire vacation. To prevent a small problem from turning into a big issue, Maureen Schommer, lead travel advisor for Traterra Vacations, a division of The Mark Travel Corporation, recommends paying attention to the fine print, especially when booking with small children. For example, she says, “If you are traveling with an infant or toddler who may need to sleep during the day, be sure to book a cabin that is below another cabin and not one of the public areas on the ship, such as a restaurant, show lounge or jogging track. Look at the deck plans when choosing a cabin to confirm that you will have a room with the desired amount of ‘quiet’ you will need.”
Schommer continues, “Be aware that most cruise ships do not allow kids who are not potty-trained into the pools on the ship. If you have a little one who is not potty-trained who likes to play in the water, make sure the ship you sail on has a toddler splash pad or baby pool that allows swim diapers.”
5. Take the fancy cruises now
Think the big and bold cruise to an exotic getaway should wait until the kids are older and can remember everything? Smith disagrees, saying, “Take a family cruise to the Galapagos Islands before the kids are 12. Most ships with discounts for children have this age as the cutoff for higher adult rates.”
6. Plan your daily activities
Almost every cruise ship provides a long list of kid-friendly activities, if you know what to look for. Muskat recommends doing your homework early by putting together an itinerary of on-board activities that will keep the kiddos entertained from morning till night. He says, “Do your research on family-friendly activities the cruise line offers ahead of time so you have an idea of what to expect, and then once on board, don’t forget to check the daily program for a day of highlights. For instance, on MSC Cruises, a must-do for kids and families — featured in the daily program — is the LEGO Experience Day, which includes LEGO-themed competitions and games and meet and greets by the LEGO mascot, Sailor Walkabout.”
Mehos and Grewal agree that plotting out daily activities can make or break a family cruise, especially when it comes to multigenerational cruising with grandparents, parents and kids. “Determining the general interests of the entire group will help to plan a vacation that caters to every member. Consider whether the group would like to be occupied with lots of activities, prefers to just relax and enjoy each other’s company without an itinerary or wants a good mix of both,” they say.
And while on-board kids’ clubs can keep the little ones active in the daytime, Schommer reminds parents to not forget the silver lining of the family-friendly cruise. “What you may not know is that many cruises will also provide a dining room pickup service, in which the kids attend dinner with the parents, and at a specified time, the Kid’s Club staff will walk through the dining room to gather any kids that want to go to the club, leaving some ‘alone’ time for Mom and Dad.”
7. Turn it into a learning experience
If you’re going to cruise halfway around the continent, you might as well give your kids a real souvenir they can take home — beyond the shells they find at the beach. Tying locale to scientific and historical facts can make for a great learning adventure for children of all ages, says Smith. He advises, “Pack some fun learning material for kids about your destination, its people, plants and animal life. Small ships often travel in wilderness areas without Wi-Fi and cell service, and some cabins will not have TVs or DVDs.” For this reason, Smith recommends keeping kids engaged and excited for each day’s adventure with printed books and learning materials that relate to your location.
Updated on 5/24/16