""Who's going to watch the baby when you go on your cruise?"
This was a question my husband and I heard frequently when we mentioned our plans to take our son on his first cruise at the tender age of 11 months. Although cruise lines were becoming more accommodating to families, cruising was still perceived by many to be an adult-oriented vacation. Truthfully, if it had not been for a conversation we had with a cruise director nearly two years earlier - in which he urged us to "bring the kid along" - we might have never learned that cruising can be a wonderful vacation for passengers of all ages.
I will state right up front that if your primary reason for taking a cruise is to spend "alone time" with your significant other, then bringing a young child along will simply not work. However, if you view cruising as a vacation for the entire family - and accept the responsibilities that come with it - parents and baby will be able to enjoy a cruise while being respectful of other passengers and crew.
Ship and Itinerary
Choosing the appropriate ship for you and your family is probably the most important decision you will make.
Father & Son Plotnick Relaxing on Deck
The first step is to take a good look through the cruise brochure. Do the "passenger" photos include young children? Does the deck plan show a separate play area or splash pool for the younger set? Are there organized programs for preschoolers, even though your child will be too young to participate? These are all good signs that the line caters to youngsters, and that both the ship's staff and other passengers will have a reasonable expectation that there will be young children onboard.
While you have the brochure open, carefully review the fine print. Most lines have a minimum age requirement for young children (ranging from 12 weeks on Disney to 12 months on Princess exotic voyages), and some lines will limit the number of children per sailing. Finally, note any restrictions regarding in-cabin or group babysitting. Fewer lines are offering these options for infants and toddlers these days, and space is not guaranteed.
Itinerary is of lesser importance than the ship, in my opinion, but still warrants consideration. Three- to seven-night cruises to the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Canada/New England are, in our experience, family-friendly with many activities within a reasonable distance from the piers. Caribbean cruises are also appropriate, although try to avoid itineraries that will require you to tender ashore at most ports. Another factor to consider is the ease with which you can travel to the ship's embarkation/debarkation port.
Getting ThereIf you need to fly to meet the ship, I suggest that you make your own air arrangements or pay the cruise line's deviation fee to get the flights that best suit your family's schedule. When making seat assignments, let the agent know if you plan to use your child's car seat on the plane, as there may be restrictions regarding particular rows or seats. Also check that the car seat is approved for airline use.
If you can swing it, see if you can arrive in the port city a day before the cruise. We have found this to be a far less stressful way to begin a cruise, and the baby can gradually adjust to being away from home. It also gives you the opportunity to purchase any essentials you might have forgotten to pack.
Cabin SelectionAs you probably will be spending a lot of time in your cabin, go for the largest one your budget will allow. This will give your little one plenty of space to run around, something he or she will not be able to do elsewhere on the ship. Reserve a crib at the same time you book your cabin, as availability may be limited. For the child who has outgrown a crib, look for a cabin in which the extra bed is a lower berth, or request a rollaway. If your child doesn't mind sleeping on the floor (like our son), consider packing a compact air mattress that can be stowed away during the day.
Balcony cabins can be a haven, but use caution if your toddler is a climber. While railings are generally high, be sure that the outdoor furniture is placed well away from the edge. Don't be discouraged if you need to reserve a small cabin; we did just fine in 145 square feet on the Royal (Now Norwegian) Majesty. Finally, try to avoid adjoining cabins unless you know the folks next door very well. Noise does travel through the connecting doorway, even when closed.
Dining RoomWhat we consider to be a highlight of a cruise may bring apprehension to some parents of young children - the formal dining room. There's no need to be anxious. Believe it or not, taking meals in the dining room is easier than going to the buffet. You will not have to contend with long lines, your meals will be brought to you, and unless you are doing the Freestyle or Personal Choice thing, you won't need to wait for a high chair after the first night.
Most families with young children select early sitting dinner as it is typically more in sync with the children's schedules at home. We have also found that it is best to reserve a single table for the family instead of sharing with others, unless you are absolutely certain that your tablemates will also have young children with them.
As far as the meal itself, most dining rooms offer children's menus, although you are not obligated to order from them. Do order some type of appetizer for your child and request that his or her main course be brought out at the same time as yours, otherwise your child will be ready to leave the dining room while you're still on the soup course. Also keep in mind that most ships do not have food specifically for babies, so you might want to bring a jar of your baby's favorite food with you, just in case.
NightlifeTraveling with a young child does not necessarily mean you will miss out on all of the nightlife a modern cruise ship has to offer. Of course, there are some venues that are off-limits to young children, including the casino and the more intimate lounges. On our son's earliest cruises, we found plenty of after-dinner activities, such as taking walks on the outer decks, dancing and listening to music in the more upbeat lounges, and watching the production shows. When going to the show lounge, we would sit in the back corner for two reasons - in case we needed to make a quick exit, and to have enough room for the stroller, which was necessary as our son usually fell asleep.
Some cruise lines, including Carnival and Disney, offer group babysitting for children under two years of age for a nominal fee. As mentioned earlier, space is not guaranteed, so have a contingency plan in case this doesn't work out. We often took turns going to the casino, show lounge, or midnight buffet, so that the other parent could stay in the cabin while the baby was asleep. (We still do this occasionally, and our son is now eight years old!)
Shore ExcursionsForget about parasailing, swimming with stingrays, or climbing the ruins. When traveling with a young child, low-key shore excursions are in order.
Organized excursions may be a good way to sightsee in a new locale, but select your tour carefully. We generally avoided bus tours out of consideration for our fellow passengers, none of whom would have been too appreciative if the narration were to be interrupted by a crying baby. We have always had success with boat tours, especially those that take passengers to a beach for several hours. Other good options, if offered, are family-only excursions. While in New Brunswick, Canada this past summer, we met several families with babies on a wonderful tour that combined a stop at the Reversing Falls with a couple of hours at a local zoo. It was quite a contrast from a tour of a rum factory in Barbados several years earlier, where I decided to wait outside with an antsy toddler.
We generally had the most luck by organizing our own walking tours of the ports. This way, we were in control of our schedule and were able to head back to the ship when baby, or parents, began to get weary. As many taxis in foreign ports do not offer seat belts or car seats, we usually brought the stroller ashore and explored the area on foot, armed with a map from the shore excursion desk. A port with reliable public transportation is ideal - our son's first two cruises were to Bermuda, where we left the stroller on board and rode the pink buses to the beach.
Father & Son Plotnick in Bermuda
Baby GearThe following is a list of items we found useful on our cruises with our son when he was younger. By no means is this list complete - but these were truly the items we could not have done without.
PHOTOS courtesy of Lisa Plotnick.
Lisa Plotnick, a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and young son, has written many SeaLetter Cruise Magazine articles, cruise ship reviews and book reviews. Lisa is a fan of the classic liners, unfortunately a dying breed in the early 21st century. The Plotnicks have cruised once or twice a year for the past twelve years and have been on most of the major cruise lines as well as several lesser-known lines.
Lisa recently joined our staff of SeaLetter Columnists and also assists in the management of the SeaLetter Cruise Forum. She may be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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