Another roundup of common family cruise questions
It's been a year since the last Family Cruising "Frequently Asked Questions" article. During that time, the family cruise message board has been very active with helpful (and once in a while, emotional) dialogue. Posted questions have ranged from concerns about newly potty trained kids participating in their first youth program to whether parents should take their older children out of school for a cruise. The overall participation has been overwhelming this year in the numbers of both messages posted and replies. In fact, the question about taking older kids out of school already logged close to 100 replies!
In this edition of Family Cruising FAQs, I'll cover costs involved with a family cruise; details regarding those less than three years old; teens at sea; and some miscellaneous questions.
COSTS INVOLVED IN A FAMILY CRUISE
Q: Which cruise line costs less for a family of four: Carnival or Royal Caribbean?
A: This could be a toss-up. Responses to this question were evenly split between the two leading companies in family cruising. For example, one parent wrote, "I shopped around forever and chose Carnival because they are the lowest priced and have a wonderful kids' program." On the other hand, another poster said, "I've been doing a lot of price comparison between Carnival and Royal Caribbean and right now, Carnival sailings are more than Royal Caribbean. In addition, Royal Caribbean is a great choice if you want to satisfy the needs of a wide age range of kids, from a new program for toddlers to great facilities for teens."
Q: Can you please detail hidden on-board cruise expenses for a family?
A: On-board costs (excluding tips) really vary depending on your family's interests and budget. One parent claimed her family of four only spent $150 in on-board expenses during a seven-day cruise, but that is much lower than what most families typically spend. We tend to average $400 to $500 for a seven-day cruise; another reader said his family usually runs up around $700 in on-board expenses. Here is a list of possible on-board expenses, depending on your interests: alcoholic drinks, gambling, professional photographs, shore excursions sold through the cruise line, specialty restaurants such as Johnny Rockets, video arcade games, and Internet access (priced per minute of usage). While juice, milk, lemonade and coffee are included with meals, soft drinks are not. Inquire about a soda card package plan for the week – i.e., a set price for unlimited drinks for adults and a lowered price for children and teens.
FOR THE UNDER-THREE-YEARS-OLD CROWD
Q: Is a three-year-old too young to sleep on an upper berth safely?
A: Most definitely! Although upper berths have very small safety railings, they may not be big enough to keep a little one from falling out of bed. When my daughter was a pre-schooler, she fell out of bed a few times while we were cruising! Luckily we always had her on the lower berth at that age.
Q: I'm cruising with one-year-old twins and only want to book a ship that has private babysitting available.
A: While most cruise lines with youth programs also have group babysitting starting at 10 p.m. in the youth room, group babysitting is only for children who are old enough to be in the youth program. (Most lines require children to be at least two or three years old and potty-trained to participate in youth programs.) Only a few cruise lines offer private, in-room babysitting for babies and children. They include: Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Cunard Line and Crystal Cruises.
Q: I'm concerned about feeding my toddler while on a ship, since he still needs soft foods.
A: Waiters on cruise ships are very helpful with dietary needs. For breakfast and lunch, you can usually find some soft foods in the buffet, such as pancakes, eggs, bananas and fish. You may want to bring from home some of your toddler's favorite snacks such as teething biscuits or Cheerios (not all lines always have Cheerios on hand) to hand out when you're exploring ashore.
Q: Is there a web site where I can find out if my cabin will be big enough to fit a crib?
A: You should definitely do some research prior to booking a cabin to make sure a crib will fit. (Also be aware that you need to reserve a crib ahead of time through the cruise line.) Most cribs are either Pack ‘N Plays or small, hotel-styled cribs with metal bars, which are usually smaller than Pack ‘N Plays. Your travel agent can also log onto www.cruisestateroom.com to check out cabin sizes; or ask him/her to verify with the cruise line's reservations department that a crib will indeed fit. We didn't do this one time and the crib didn't fit. Thus, my infant son had to sleep in our double bed with us.
Q: Do you think we need to worry about two teenaged girls walking around alone on a cruise?
A: While there are no guarantees, your teens will probably be fine if you take a few precautions. For example, talk with them beforehand about safety issues such as: Never enter anyone else's cabin, don't take a drink from someone they don't know, and don't go into port without an adult. My daughter is a pre-teen and we have walkie-talkies for her to keep in contact with us when she's wandering around alone on a cruise ship. Also, set up times for your children or teens to meet you throughout the day and night in order to check in. Lastly, set a nightly curfew time.
Q: What do you think about booking a separate room for my 14- and 16-year-old boys?
A: One reader said, "We travel with three to four teens/college-aged children and always get a room right next to ours for them. We bring a baby monitor to keep in their room, which helps us keep track of them. Also, they need to be in their room by 11 p.m. We would never be able to cope if we were all in one cabin sharing one bathroom." Some adults prefer to get an inside stateroom (which is cheaper) for their teens and book an outside cabin for themselves right across the hall.
Q: We thought we were booking a cruise during our teen's winter vacation, but mistakenly booked it for a week when he has school. What do you think about taking pre-teens and teens out of school for a week to cruise?
A: This was the million-dollar question this past year on the family cruise message board. This emotional topic had posters split between those who think that travel is very educational and worth missing school, vs. those who feel classes are too important for high school students to miss. In the end, as a parent, you'll have to make this decision on your own!
On a personal note, my sixth-grade daughter has been on plenty of cruises. When she was little, once a year we usually took her out of school for a week to go on a cruise. We would ask her teachers for course work ahead of time. Since my daughter rarely gets sick, at the end of the year she would still have fewer days absent than most of her friends. However, now that she's older, we do not take her out of school to travel since her work load has gotten heavier.
Q: I understand that Holland America Line will be lowering the minimum age for its youth program from five to three years. Is this true?
A: Yes. Holland America Line is in the midst of lowering its youth program minimum age from five years to three-year-old potty-trained children. This is part of the line's $225 million Signature of Excellence program. In addition, new youth rooms and teen facilities are being installed. As soon as individual HAL ships have their facilities upgraded, they will start to accommodate kids over three years old. These upgrades are being done over the next two years. Thus, you should contact HAL directly prior to booking to see which ships can currently accommodate your three-year-old in the youth program.
Q: Where can I go to get requirements about passports for kids?
A: Since we travel a lot, we got my son a passport soon after he was born. While some countries accept original birth certificates for minors, I find it personally easier to have a passport for my kids. It also gives me more peace of mind since you never know when policies might change due to security concerns is these days.
Your best bet is to go to: www.travel.state.gov/ for details on passport requirements for kids.
Q: Where can I get a lanyard for my children to hang their room keys from?
A: You can usually buy a lanyard in the on-board gift shop or liquor store. The main desk usually can punch a hole in your children's room key cards so they can attach the key to the lanyard and hang it around their neck for safekeeping.
Q: Has anyone ever surprised their kids with a cruise and if so, how did you do it?
A: Many parents on our message board have surprised their children with a cruise and have done so in very creative ways. The most popular one is a scavenger hunt with either word clues such as ports, islands, etc.; or with little prizes that have to do with travel. The last clue is usually a coupon for the cruise or a little plastic ship. Rather than a scavenger hunt, one family covertly packed for their kids and had a limo arrive to surprise the children and take them all to the airport. Make sure you have a video camera for the moment when the kids get their final clue or limo ride! Smooth sailing!