Cruise ships and cruise holidays are one of the easiest ways for entire families to enjoy time together. Grandparents, parents, young children, and teens can all divert themselves on these modern floating palaces.
Best of all, virtually everything is done for you. You only have to unpack once, but you can benefit from multiple destinations. No need to worry about meal reservations: the table is laid. Don't even worry about planning transfers to and from airports, or tourist attractions in ports; if you book through the cruise line, they will make sure you're in the right place at the right time, every time.
All of the cruise lines described below have facilities for people with different abilities, and day care for younger children (as well as supervised groups for tweens and teens). There are many cruise experiences for you to choose from, but the majority are managed one of 3 companies, all headquartered in Miami, Florida.
So let's take a look at these three parent companies, and the cruise they have to offer.
1. Carnival: The Good, The Bad, the Price
Carnival ships - also known affectionately as the "fun" ships - are definitely geared at a much younger demographic than the rest. That said, there are plenty of families, including parents and grandparents.
The endless food options, available virtually 24 hours a day ensures there's always "something to do." The pool decks of these ships are also a major attraction, since they all feature water slides.
The active nightlife on Carnival ships is definitely something to consider, especially when choosing the location of your stateroom. Most cruise ships have an upper and a lower hotel block. On these ships, much of the evening entertainment (as well as much of the ships' machinery) is adjacent to the lower hotel block. Bear that in mind if you're looking for a quiet room.
Carnival-branded cruises offer some of the best value in the industry in terms of costs. This also means that not as much is included. If you plan to consume a lot of alcoholic (or even soft drink) beverages, keep this in mind, as Carnival makes a significant portion of revenue from charging for these items in addition to the base price of your cruise. Available drink packages can improve value for passengers, but you need to pre-pay for a lot of drinking to make that work.
If budget is less of a concern, try a Princess cruise which is definitely step up and includes more perks while having less of a party atmosphere. You won't find as many water slides or late-night discos, but there is still something for everyone here, including the kids.
If you're looking at traveling alone or with your spouse and would prefer a crowd more your own age, consider Holland America. This line is strategically geared at a mature audience, and while there are still activities for kids, the emphasis is definitely muted compared with the parent company Carnival. Destinations on Holland America cruises often include longer stops (allowing for a more measured pace) and some overnight opportunities.
2. Norwegian: Pioneer of "Anytime dining"
Norwegian may be the "little one" among the three giant companies, but this is mostly because they have been focusing on their main brand and renewing their fleet. Norwegian operates some of the most modern ships in the world, so you will definitely be in the lap of luxury.
Since they don't have any subsidiaries catering to different groups, Norwegian cruises are tailored to please everyone. From water slides to movie theaters and top-rated night time entertainment, these ships have it all. Kids and adults of all ages will be treated to a seemingly unlimited supply of food and activities.
Virtually all cruise ships are "all inclusive" regarding food, but most make you pre-select a dining time to allow the entire passenger roster to eat. This is not always convenient or desirable, so Norwegian's creative "anytime" dining option allows passengers to eat whenever they like (subject to availability).
Most ships offer fine dining experiences with reserved times as an option, but this comes at a price. The same is true for Norwegian. Some seasonal deals, especially for fringe seasons (such as early fall in Bermuda), make this a very competitive option.
3. Royal Caribbean: The biggest ships in the world.
Royal Caribbean is the world's second largest cruise company, but they have the world's largest and highest tech ships, as well as a fleet of immaculate smaller ships. The larger ships certainly have more amenities (such as the Flow-Rider shown below) and both indoor and outdoor amusement parks. Bumper cars, ice skating rinks, and aqua-shows performed in high dive pools are all features of the newest ships. If Broadway-style shows are your thing, you won't find full-length productions anywhere else on the sea.
Dining options and entertainment are plentiful, so pre-planning can be helpful. The ship will provide you a paper itinerary every day (most companies will do this) but there is also "an app for that" on the newest vessels.
The ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet, more than other brands, have a different feel and vibe for each class. Some people prefer larger ships with lots of activities, while others prefer the intimacy of the smaller ships. Getting around on these ships should be a consideration. It's possible to go for a whole trip without ever climbing stairs, but the larger ships are over 1000 feet long, so getting from place to place can take a while.
If you'd like a fancier experience, consider Celebrity Cruises. Their ships tend to be slightly older and smaller than Royal Caribbean, but the experience is definitely not compromised at all.
The ultimate "Club Cruise" adventure can be enjoyed on Azamara. With an exclusive fleet of relatively small ships, the experience is rich and intimate. These trips tend to be two weeks long and include overnight stops in the best places. A much deeper cultural immersion should be expected.
The Sports deck on more than half the Royal Caribbean fleet have a Flow-Rider surf simulator (above) which can be fun for all ages. Friendly staff will help you learn how to use it.
The Central Park area on the Royal Caribbean Oasis class ships (there will be 5 of this class by next year) features inward facing balcony rooms, restaurants and shopping on an internal open-air street lined with real trees and grass.
Best times and places to travel:
All three major cruise companies offer deals and loyalty programs. Choosing your cruise requires you to choose a destination and a season. Some good suggestions would be winter in the Caribbean or summer in the Mediterranean. Off-peak seasons often mean a lower price tag, but the weather may be less than perfect.
Other things to consider:
Arriving the day before your scheduled cruise date at the embarkation port is always a good idea.
Your cruise line will provide you with an up-to-date set of rules and regulations, including what you should not bring aboard. It's a good idea to check this carefully because a lot of items are confiscated on every cruise.