This time several years ago my two children, husband and I were cruising aboard Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas. Prior to our adventure, I’d never pictured myself as a sailor. I worried about motion sickness and feeling lost adrift a gigantic vessel on a seemingly infinite sea. I could barely watch Life of Pi or Titanic without projecting myself onto the screen, fear rising up inside me. Ultimately, I began meandering closer to thinking about cruising as a vacation possibility. Many of my friends are avid cruisers – one has cruised over twenty times and for years, has hosted a community forum thread on cruisecritic.com (look for “attempt at a semi-live report from the Adventure of the Seas”). So, I became more and more curious about what the fuss was all about. Upon exploring the option of all inclusive resorts in the Caribbean versus a cruise holiday, I was surprised to learn that the cruise was actually more economical. I became excited at the idea of being able to see five new places in one week, while only unpacking once. I realized that being on the ship was about enjoying the journey along the way to sampling wonderful destinations. Suddenly, I became hooked and before long, we were all booked and raring to go.
Now that we have been there, done that, we are glad we did. I’m not sure that we will become like some of my friends and people we met on board (one couple spend eight months of the year on board, another eight weeks and many do back to back cruises) who count down the days between one cruise and the next, but we will certainly add cruising to our list of vacation options. Although there were many couples cruising without kids, there were also just as many with their families – sometimes multi generational. Children ranged in age from infants (although our ship didn’t really cater to families with infants as some do), all the way through to young adults. The programs at ‘Adventure Ocean’ allow children the option of participating in activities with peers when they’re not hanging out with their families. Some children even prefer to stay back to play mini golf, participate in rock climbing, skating or swimming with their friends and counsellors rather than join their parents on island excursions.
One thing you will never hear onboard a cruise is “I’m bored.” Figuring out how you’re going to manage to do everything that is offered is more of a problem than finding something to keep everyone happy and occupied. Another thing you’re never going to hear onboard is “I’m hungry.” Everything you’ve heard about cruising and food is true. The food was excellent and the choices huge and there was barely enough time to get hungry between one meal and the next, especially with so much snacking in between. It was a common sight, for example, to see families commune around 11pm in restaurants along the ship’s “promenade” after the main shows of the evening were over. Sandwiches, pizza, cookies, cakes and refreshments were flowing like the sea around us. One night, a midnight buffet beckoned with rows and rows of hot and cold food. It had throngs of guests out around the pool on one of the upper decks, eating as if they had never seen food before.
Here are some tips I’d like to pass onto you following my first voyage atop the no longer scary waters.
- Book your own flights. Next time we cruise I will arrange to arrive at the destination we are sailing from with at least a day to spare. Since we booked our cruise and flight as part of a single package, we weren’t given a choice as to time and date to fly out. As a result of a five hour delay in our flight the day we were to set sail, we arrived at the ship with an hour to spare before sailing. We missed the orientation and muster drill, which allows you to know what to do in the case of an emergency. In regards to the flight home, I would prefer to arrive home at a reasonable time, such as mid afternoon, for example. We didn’t get home until 10pm on Sunday evening so there was no time to catch our breath before having to get our kids ready for bed and Monday morning at school. Returning home on a Saturday is ideal, if possible.
- Read and complete custom forms carefully. Take special note of what you can and can’t bring on board your flight. Whether cruising or not, fruits and vegetables, for example, need to be declared. We inadvertently didn’t declare an apple and were interrogated in a secondary screening room. When the US agriculture customs official spied a US sticker on our apple, we were suddenly free and clear. Apparently, US apples are allowed into the States. Canadian apples not. Make sure to complete the customs forms carefully and accurately. I don’t think my children will ever look at an apple the same way again.
- Be tourist savvy. Beware that tourists (especially those coming from cruise ships) are like prey to some locals. Twice we were intentionally misled as to the cost of our taxi fare in Puerto Rico. Another time in St. Kitts we were handed the most irresistible green monkeys to stroke but before we knew what was happening, we were asked for ten dollars in exchange for the photo we had taken. I understand that this is how some of the locals make money to survive, but don’t assume anything is free – not even directions – on some of the islands.
- Making connections. Everyone is required to carry a set sail pass with them at all times. An excellent system allows computers to scan in your personal electronic bar code on it so that ship personnel know who is onboard and who is not. This pass is also used in place of cash on board since ships are cashless. It’s also the “key” to your cabin. We asked guest relations (open 24/7) to punch a hole through the corners of ours so that we could wear them on lanyards around our necks. Prior to leaving Canada, we purposely purchased dollar store red and white lanyards with “Canada” on them so that we could proudly identify our nationality. This proved to be a great way to meet people. Other Canadians made themselves known – one person even lived in the same community as ours.
- Communication. Christian Franco, Adventure Ocean Manager, suggests bringing walkie talkies with. These are great ways to keep in touch with your kids, in particular, and vice versa. He also suggests another simple but great idea for communication – a white board left in the cabin so that family members can leave messages for one another such as “meet me at pool.”
- Cabins. Although inside cabins are slightly less expensive, it’s worth paying the extra bit for a cabin with a balcony. Even though our standard balcony room was very tight for space (and I had to keep reminding the girls to keep organized so we didn’t misplace anything), it was great even leaving our empty suitcases on the balcony. It was especially nice just standing out at night looking up at the stars in a clear sky or leaving the door open slightly to hear the breaking of the waves against the ship. Better yet, if you can afford a junior suite or the crème de la crème, an owner’s suite, you will experience true luxury.
- Footwear. Christian Franco recommends that each family member brings along at least a pair of waterproof shoes such as Crocs – these are great for around the pool, at the beach or at the kids club.
- Excursions. Before leaving, I did a lot of research on various excursions offered through the ship as well as by local companies. I also researched places of interest that we could get to by foot. I’d recommend internet sites such as cruisecritic.com and tripadvisor.com to learn about excursions at the various ports of call that others have taken. Ultimately, I booked a combination of tours – one through the ship to the amazing Dolphin Academy in Curacao where we hugged, stroked and kissed dolphins, another through Island Marketing Tours for an excursion in St. Thomas and a third through a wonderful woman, Beulah Mills, who you can contact through Welcome Tours in St. Kitts. Both these companies offered reasonably priced tours, the guides were incredibly knowledgeable about their islands, very friendly and extremely familiar with how to manage cruise guests such as making sure that we got back to the ship on time. I corresponded with Beulah and island marketing tours several times via email before leaving and felt good about supporting locals. Resortforaday.com, operating on various islands, also allows outside guests to take advantage of their facilities for the day, should you choose.
- Leave all technology at home. Connecting to the internet or sending texts or emails from a ship is extremely expensive and the perfect reason to leave all technology behind. If you really need to connect with others or check emails, you can find eating places on the islands that offer wi fi connections.
- Dining. On board you can choose to sit at the same table at the same time every evening or you can choose My Time Dining which allows you the freedom of choosing when you want to dine. The benefit to sitting at the same table each night is that you avoid line ups, get to know your waiter and him/her your family, and if you choose the earlier time slot, have a longer time for entertainment in the evening. If you’re travelling with an only child or have children who would like to meet others their age while, request a larger table with a family who have children of similar ages.
Overall, I highly recommend cruising with kids. Explore which lines and ships will best suit your family’s needs and then sail away, leaving all your worries behind you.