Monica Quock Chan
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 23, 2011
The term "cruise passengers" once conjured images of retired couples or grandparents sans the grandchildren. But with cruising growing in popularity, families make up more of the mix. Keiki are increasingly likely to join parents and grandparents on board.
Our ohana is a case in point. We have not yet been to Disneyland or SeaWorld together, but our 3-year-old daughter has taken three cruises ("I like the buffets," she notes), and our 1-year-old son has taken two.
Convenience is the main selling point for young families. We appreciate having meals and entertainment a mere elevator ride away, housekeeping and room service 24/7, and the ability to travel to different places while only unpacking once. Affordability is another enticement. We were about to stay in Waikiki last year when we compared prices with the interisland cruise; the latter won out.
Still, even cruising can pose its share of challenges when kids are involved. Here are hints on how to make sailing with young ones a pleasant experience:
The number of options may be staggering, but the most important decision is whether to pick an adult- or child-oriented cruise. The latter may be best for many, as you are surrounded by other families and virtually everything is oriented toward keeping the keiki happy. No one will bat an eye when your tyke cries, needs a diaper change, or throws food on the floor. At the same time, adult-oriented cruises often have finer cuisine, better educational offerings, longer voyages and more exotic ports. In other words, they may feel more like a real vacation. Which type you choose is up to your ohana.
Base fares, port charges, government fees, taxes and gratuities may differ per passenger depending upon how many people are in the cabin and their ages. A child who is passenger No. 3 may be charged a reduced base fare, taxes and gratuity, but be subject to the same fees and port charges as the parents. Each cruise line differs, so obtain the exact breakdown before handing over your credit card. Some itineraries also have minimum-age requirements for infants.
Many ships have designated children's areas, but be sure to check specific rules. For what ages are the children's areas designed? (Many do not take children under age 3.) What are the potty-training requirements? (Most will not change diapers.) Are parents allowed to stay? (Some are drop-off only.) What hours are they open? (These can be limited, especially during port days.) Is off-hour baby-sitting available, how is it arranged, who provides it, what are the fees and what is the sitter-to-child ratio? (This varies by cruise line.)
Children's programs are usually full of fun and entertainment. Our preschooler enjoyed having her face painted, going on a "safari," watching "Dora the Explorer" and savoring chocolate ice cream. But as with any child care situation, safety comes first. Be familiar with emergency procedures, get to know the child care providers and let the staff know your contact information and if your keiki has any special needs.
Cabins are generally compact - our last one was 10 feet by 13 feet - and made even smaller by the presence of a crib. So don't overpack and use the space wisely. Gaps under beds can be invaluable for storing suitcases and other items you won't need regularly.
One feature we do miss while cruising are tubs, which are usually only found in higher-end cabins. This makes bathing babies tricky. Our friends suggest an inflatable tub, but whether it would fit depends upon the size of the shower stall. Usually my husband simply held the little one in the shower.
Rest is important for children. Window and balcony cabins offer nice views, but if your child still naps during the day, consider an inside cabin. The darkness works better than any blackout shade. Also, be aware of the public address system. Nowadays few announcements are piped into cabins, but some still are (crew emergency drill notifications, for example). It's difficult to know when these will be broadcast, but if possible, try to time your keiki's naps around them.
Pack as lightly as possible, which is not always easy with kids. Thanks to coin-operated laundry machines, laundry service and good ol' hand washing in the sink, the amount of clothes needed is usually minimal. Chances are you'll be picking up some souvenir tees along the journey anyway. Last time we forgot to pack their toys, but the kids played happily with new objects that they discovered (paper coasters, colorful brochures).
On the other hand, things like diapers, medications and formula are not so easy to find aboard, so it's best to bring an ample supply. A few baby-proofing materials (such as outlet plugs) are also handy. We packed water bottles to fill on board so that we had drinking water in the room. A stroller is a good idea if you're going to be
doing any walking, although an umbrella stroller or infant carrier might suffice. Car seats can be burdensome, especially if they're behemoths like ours, but if you are planning to take any car rides, they are a must.
Here you basically have two options: official shore excursions or DIY. Ship tours are convenient but generally pricey, although there is sometimes a reduced rate for children. There also might be age limits, so be sure to check. Some outings can be lengthy for a small child, so know your child's tolerance before you sign up.
Doing it yourself is usually more cost effective and provides the most flexibility, but you will need to handle all of the details. In either case, keep expectations reasonable, and don't try to fit in too much. Young children need their meals and sleep, and are often just as happy clambering about the ship as they are visiting a national monument.
With all the food available, meals are probably the least of any cruise passenger's worries. But there are a few things to keep in mind. Some lines require that baby food orders be placed in advance, although in a pinch the kitchen could probably puree something appropriate.
While fixed seating times used to be the norm, cruise lines seem to be moving toward more flexible meal options. During our last voyage, we could show up without a reservation at the sit-down restaurants, and head for the buffet at almost any time. Sit-down meals tend to run long for small children, so we usually ask that the courses be brought out in quick succession. The kitchen usually will accommodate special requests, which makes it easier for those who have allergies (or are simply picky eaters). Room service is normally available 24/7, which is helpful for ordering items like juice and milk.
All in all, cruising is an ultra-convenient and affordable way to vacation with the kids. By keeping the above tips in mind, your voyage should go even more smoothly. See you aboard!
-Monica Quock Chan is a Honolulu-based freelance writer and former marketing executive. She has lived in Europe and Asia, and traveled to nearly 70 countries.