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    How to take cruises with kids

    10howtokids -- One of the top cruise lines for kids, according to traveler reviews at CruiseCompete: Carnival Cruise Lines. (Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines)
    Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines
    Children try a ropes course aboard a Carnival cruise ship.

    So maybe we got lucky. Our cruises with the kiddos were among our best vacations ever. Nobody fell overboard, got seasick, or got sent to the brig (a.k.a. jail cell — yep, it’s a thing) during our trips. We still reminisce about watching movies under the stars, seeing the kids perform on a shipboard stage, snorkeling together, and dressing up as pirates for dinner. Looking back, there’s nothing we’d do differently — except maybe skip the “unlimited ice cream” option. (Can a 10-year-old boy eat his body weight in rocky road for five days running? Absolutely.)

    But will cruising be a happy experience for you and your tribe? To help you make that decision, we went to an expert, Heidi Allison. A partner at CruiseCompete (www.cruisecompete.com), cruise specialist Allison is the author of “Sea Tales 2019: Family Cruise Travel Planner,” and a veteran of more than 70 cruises with kids. We asked her the questions we often get asked about family cruising. Here’s her advice, plus a list of cruise ships that are tops for families.

    Aren’t cruise vacations expensive?

    Sure, she’s in the business, but Allison contends that a cruise is one of the best travel values out there. Many cruise lines are moving toward a completely all-inclusive format, so you know what your trip will cost you up front, she says. “Most cruise rates include shipboard accommodations, 24-hour cabin service, standard meals or buffets in the dining room, ports of call, and most entertainment aboard the ship,” she notes. Children’s programs are also included. “Factor in the amenities included in the rate, and you’ll discover that a seven-night cruise generally costs less than seven nights at a comparable resort,” Allison says.

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    To keep costs down, she offers this advice:

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    Once you choose a line, take a look at the age of the ship. “Cruising on a brand-new ship is often more costly than an older one,” Allison says. Since cruise lines upgrade their vessels on an ongoing basis, “even a five-year-old ship will have amazing amenities.”

    Even if you’re a committed DIY-er when it comes to travel planning, consider using a travel agent who specializes in cruising to secure the best price. Do your own comparison-shopping online, and then see what a travel agent comes up with, Allison suggests. “They know when and where to look for the best deals, and they’re privy to perks and specials that aren’t available to the general public.”

    It’s hard to beat the sheer joy of floating in a pool in the middle of the ocean.
    Pip Crowley for Carnival Cruise Line
    It’s hard to beat the sheer joy of floating in a pool in the middle of the ocean.

    Won’t we get bored senseless just sailing around all day?

    Not likely. “The flurry of activities on board a cruise ship is amazing,” Allison says. Aboard ship, typical activities include water sports, pool activities, fitness centers, live entertainment, casinos, bingo, dance lessons, talent contests, karaoke, wine tasting, rock wall-climbing, spas, movies, even roller-coasters and surfing.

    Plus, most days are spent ashore, in ports with plenty to see and do. Ships typically arrive in port early in the morning, allowing time for exploring. Cruise lines offer their own shore excursions using local sightseeing companies. There’s an additional charge for this on most ships. You also have the option of arranging your own sightseeing excursions, a money-saving gambit used by frequent cruisers. Just be sure you head back to the ship with plenty of time to spare so it doesn’t sail without you. CruiseCompete also offers discounted shore excursions on its website.

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    In addition, all of the major cruise lines offer organized programs and camps for small fry. “Kids can participate all day, or join in specific activities,” Allison explains. “This gives parents a chance to relax on their own.”

    I love my kids, but . . . a cruise ship cabin is claustrophobic and they’ll be climbing the walls, right?

    That depends. In her book, Allison breaks it down: An inside economy cabin does tend to be small and usually lacks a window. An outside cabin (ocean view) has a window or porthole, while a balcony (verandah) cabin has a glass door leading to a balcony that is usually equipped with a small table and chairs. Most ships feature larger suites for those who truly need more space, Allison says, but typically, there’s so much going on elsewhere that passengers don’t spend much time in their cabins. (We concur. We find that we use our cabin for basically two things: showering and sleeping.)

    Babes at sea: Yay or nay?

    Age-wise, 6 months is the minimum age for cruising with children on most lines, but it can be 12 months on trans-Atlantic and other select voyages. Those lines that offer children’s activity programs generally begin them at age 2, but lines may start as young as age 1, or as old as age 5. Baby-sitting services are available on some cruise lines, but not all of them. Expect to pay a premium for that.

    Keep in mind that cruise lines vary widely when it comes to kid-friendliness. Some cater to families with children’s amenities and programs; others allow, but don’t promote, travel with young children. Some lines discourage bringing young children aboard (imagine that!). Some lines accept babies in diapers, but some do not. So do some research before you throw down a deposit, Allison advises.

    Any tips you can share to maximize our chances of having a swell time at sea?

    You betcha.

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    “Give everyone responsibility for trip planning,” Allison says. “This helps children become invested in the vacation.” For instance, have an older child research shore activity options.

    Have a family budget for your vacation. “If you children have their own money, how much will they take along, or will you give them a certain amount? Will they be allowed to purchase a memento from the trip?” Spell this out before you go.

    Research the ports of call you’ll be visiting. “As you learn about these places, ask your children to give you a list of two or three things they’d like to do on this cruise,” Allison suggests.

    Lay out some ground rules regarding how you’ll spend your time. For example, say, “We all meet for breakfast, the pool at 2 p.m., and dinner. Other than that, we are good with everyone doing what they enjoy as long as we are in the loop.”

    Have a plan for contacting each other, should anyone become separated on the journey, or on the ship. “Walkie-talkies are a great investment, since they’ll work even where cell service is spotty or nonexistent,” Allison notes. “Our family wears the same color at the airport so we can spot each other easily.”

    For safety’s sake, enact the buddy system. Don’t go anywhere alone. Ever.

    And finally, if something goes wrong (not involving bloodshed or the brig), don’t sweat it. Today’s travel foibles are tomorrow’s best anecdotes.

    • • •

    Smooth sailing: These cruise lines are tops for families

    CruiseCompete researched thousands of reviews from travelers. “After tabulating all the reviews, we discovered which family-friendly cruise lines really stood out,” says partner Heidi Allison. Their current list of “the best of the best” and the category for each, price-wise, (with Contemporary being the lowest and Ultra-Luxury the highest):

    1. Royal Caribbean International — Upscale Contemporary

    2. Disney Cruise Line — Premium

    3. Norwegian Cruise Line — Upscale Contemporary

    4. Princess Cruises — Premium

    5. MSC Cruises — Upscale Contemporary

    6. Celebrity Cruises — Premium

    7. Holland America Line — Premium

    8. Carnival Cruises — Contemporary

    9. Crystal Cruises — Ultra-Luxury

    10. Cunard Line — Ultra-Premium

    Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.