How to Avoid Common Family Cruises Pitfalls

At its best, family cruises are economical, enjoyable vacations with fun activities that appeal to your whole family. At its worst, your cruise ship can seem like a floating prison where you're sentenced to pass what seem like endless days managing bored, unhappy children. How you can make sure your cruise is a dream and not a nightmare? Start by choosing the right cruise line.

Pitfall #1: Choosing the Wrong Cruise Line

Cruise lines have both ships in the fleets and sailing itineraries that are more family friendly than others. While almost every cruise line advertises an array of activities that address the needs of traveling families, don't take them at their word. Each cruise line has its own definition of what kid friendly means: one cruise line may cater to teenagers while others focus more on younger children. When you do choose a cruise line, check to see whether its family-focused services are offered year round or only seasonally.

According to the 2007 edition of the Unofficial Guide to Cruises, the Disney Cruise Line is-not surprisingly-the most family friendly option. However, both Carnival Cruise Lines and Holland America earned good marks, falling short of Disney for not offering escorted shore excursion for kids, kids-only swimming pools or teen activity center. If these amenities are top the list of what you're looking for, book your passage with the Disney Cruise Line which features a full range of kids' activities and facilities on every sailing for every ship.

Key services to look for when you're researching family cruises include on-board babysitters, youth activity directors and teen counselors. Be sure they're available for both the ship and sailing itinerary you're interested in. Choose wrong and you best start hoping your kids will like shuffleboard.

You'll always want to book your cruise at a time of year when you're likely to encounter other families. Your kids can only makes friends on board if there are kids to make friend with. You may pay more to sail during school vacations, but the options your kids have to entertain themselves, the more opportunity you'll have to enjoy yourself.

Pitfall #2: Assuming Your Kids Will Like the Cruise

You know your children best and while no single vacation is going to please every member of the family every minute you're away, do take the individual personalities of your children into account. If your child prefers to interact with small groups, you may want to consider smaller, boutique cruise lines or those that feature educational itineraries (Alaska may be good a choice, for example).

There's also the possibility that once you get on board, your children won't like the activities that are offered. Generally, cruise ships structure youth activities around video games, karaoke and dancing. If your children don't engage in these activities at home, they're probably not going to start on the cruise.

Pitfall #3: Exceeding Your Budget

Cruises can be a great vacation value, but once you're on board the opportunity to purchase expensive extras are plenty. Be sure to consider-and budget for-how much you're willing to spend on meals outside the dining room in the ship's restaurants, and clothing, jewelry, perfume, souvenirs and other items in duty-free shops. Shore excursions will add a significant amount of money to the cost your trip as can conveniences like Internet access and even purchasing commemorative photos from the ship's photographer.

Research as much about these extras and any costs associated with them before you get on board. Set a budget for each family member that's fair and try to keep that figure equal among your children to avoid any arguments.

Pitfall # 4: Cruising with Infants

It's not impossible to take your infant or toddler on a cruise, but the lack of services and amenities for children under the age of three may cut into your own enjoyment. Unlike hotels where infants and toddlers stay and sometimes even eat for free, cruise lines charge passenger fare for these little ones.

Most cruise lines define infants as any child under the age of one and infant fares come in at about 1/3 for a full adult fare. Even family focused cruise lines may not offer cribs or babysitting services, so be sure you understand exactly what you're getting when you book your passage. Then, weigh the expense against what is and isn't provided and decide whether cruising with your infant will work for you.

Pitfall # 5: Booking a Too-Small Cabin

Unless you're planning to travel like a rock star, don't overestimate the size of the cruise ship's cabins. You'll be staying in closer quarters than you might think (standard-sized cabins on some of Holland America's ships are considered roomy at 195 sq. ft.). Larger cabins may feature sofa-beds or other pull-out beds for children to sleep on. Take a few minutes to envision your family in a space that small, with everything each of you needs for a week away from home. You may decide to invest in upgrading your cabin or scrap the idea of taking a cruise altogether.

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