Cruises are great family vacations because kids are catered to as well as adults. Most ships offer supervised activities, and the biggest vessels have several spacious playrooms geared to different age groups, each with their own age-appropriate toys, electronic gaming, and furniture — there are even bathrooms with miniature toilets and sinks. If you’re the parent of a young child and are eager to cruise because you’ll have lots of time to do your own thing, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with these pointers first:
Drop-off kids’ programming starts on Day 2.
If you’re looking forward to an immediate break from your offspring, think again. The first day of the cruise typically features an open house for families to tour the playroom together, meet the counselors, and sign up for the program. There are rarely any drop-off activities scheduled on the first day.
Most ships have minimum age requirements.
With a few exceptions, most cruise lines only accommodate children 3 years and older in their free drop-off kids’ programming; if your child is younger, you’re out of luck.
Typically, children need to be toilet trained to participate.
Most cruise lines require children to be potty trained and out of diapers before they’re eligible for the programming. Exceptions: Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean provide care for infants and toddlers — including diaper changing — at an hourly rate, and Norwegian Cruise Line allows you to drop off children in diapers but will call you to come and change them.
There’s little wiggle room in programming designed for specific age groups.
On the biggest ships during peak family travel times — summers and holidays — children who join the kids’ activities are grouped according to their ages, typically 3 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 11. While it certainly can’t hurt to ask if your 5-year-old can be moved up to join his 7-year-old sister, generally speaking, cruise lines strictly enforce the rules. It’s safe to assume that even children just one month shy of an older age group will not be permitted to move up.
Cranky kids get the boot.
If your little ones have temper tantrums or crying jags, you’ll be called to come and pick them up from the playroom; parents of young children are often issued pagers for just this reason. The counselors supervise lots of children at once and don’t have time to focus solely on one upset child.
Private, in-cabin babysitting is a great alternative for young children.
A few hours’ break at the end of the day after young children are asleep is a huge treat for some parents. A few lines — including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, and most of the luxury lines — offer private babysitting in your cabin at an hourly rate of approximately $20. This can be a great option if you have babies or toddlers who are too young for the free drop-off programming but are at least 12 months old.
Off-duty female crewmembers — often cabin stewardesses or youth counselors — will come to your cabin to babysit while you dine or enjoy the ship’s entertainment options with other adults. Private babysitting isn’t guaranteed, but to request it, go to the guest relations desk as soon as you board.
Cruise lines don’t allow diapers or Pull-Ups in the pools.
Most cruise lines follow U.S. Public Health Service regulations and prohibit any type of diapers or Pull-Ups® training pants in pools for hygiene reasons. Although some ships turn a blind eye to children’s wading pools, the practice is technically not allowed, so don’t assume your diaper-wearing little one will be able to swim.
Some of the newest mass-market ships have water sprinklers, and a few — including Royal Caribbean — provide special shallow baby pools where diaper wearers are welcome.
Not all cabins have tubs.
Most standard cabins do not have bathtubs, so young children will have to be bathed in the shower or sink. One trick is to fold a bath towel into a nice thick square and place that on the shower flower as a seat for your baby while washing him or her.
Not all cabins have refrigerators.
Don’t assume your standard cabin will have a minifridge for storing milk or juice — many do, but not all.