Just another opinion. Congratulations on planning another Family Vacation.
1. Which cruise line & ship?
One cruise line that I did not see mentioned was Carnival and it's newly built ships. As a grandmother and person who loves to travel without kids in my face, I was amazed at how wonderful the Pride, Legend and Conquest were for all age brackets. They are not necessarily the all party rowdy fun ships. However, Fun can definetly be had by all age groups. There are some great early purchase rates, too. Cabins are also bigger comparing size of inside, outside or regular balcony categories. The best thing to do is narrow down your dates and itinerary and port of embarkation. President's week is a majoy family cruise week, thus you will have anywhere from 500 to over 1000 kids on a Disney or RCCI Voyager class ship. Any other week accept Holiday weeks would be much better.
( We are leaning towards RCCL, Princess, or NCL due to the little bit of research we have done on the internet. We don't want to spend an arm & a leg, but we do these family vacations only once every 6-7 years, so a little bit of a splurge is ok. We want to make sure that we are not catering just to the kids or just to the adults.)
2. Eastern vs. Western? February can be still a little cool and there may be some showers in the Eastern Caribbean ports. We have now sailed the last week of February 3 times (our school vaction week) and had rain in 3 ports of call with brisk breezes at Nassau, too. A Southern itinerary although port intensive, might be another option. Cruise ships on a Western itinerary include Jamaica, Grand Cayman, a private island and Cozumel or a tour to Playa del Carmen and Tulum. (Our last family vacation was to Cancun in 1998, so do we go Eastern b/c we've seen that part of Mexico already?)
3. The one couple with the kids, what what room size is necessary - A quad with a balcony will work well or two adjoining outside or inside cabins to save money. Celebrity's 3rd. & 4th. passenger rates were $400 each this past Winter season and their Millennium Class ships are great for families.
4. Is our group big enough for a group rate? - No, I don't think so. However, many good large travel agents can "make" a group by adding more of their customers for the same cruise. Mine did that, as I have very little family. We only had 3 other cabins booked for my immediate group and our total number ended up to be 32 people. Usually it is one free birth (bed) for every 8 cabins at double occupancy. The kids or 3rd. & 4th passengers in a cabin don't count. Contact a good large cruise agency. Mine was an American Express agent.
5. How exactly do extra charges on these cruise lines work? I understand the excursions, but how much on average are soft drinks( $2 each)? Alcoholic Drinks ($3.50 to $8.95) plus Wine is from $20 to $$$ a bottle all plus a 15% gratuity which is automatically added to your Sign & Sail Account. Coffee $2.50+ Specialty like Latte or Espresso. Is there some sort of drink card for the week? -RCCI, Celebrity ($40) and Carnival sell soda cards. There is juice, coffee and tea, iced tea, leomanade and fruit punch available in the buffet area during the day and at the dining room table. Other things not included in the price of the cruise? - Photo's a big expense especially for those once in a lifetime family photo - 8x10 = $20, 5x7 + $10, 6x8 $8, etc. Bingo, Souvenirs, Princess charges for Ice Cream at its bar, Pastry from the Cafe's, Massage's or spa treatments and special exercise programs like Pilates, Kick Boxing, Spinning, Computer/Internet time.
Tips not automatically included: Porters, Room Service - pay when served $1 or $2 depending on the size of your order - food is free. Tips for tour guides and bus drivers. Tip ($1) for taking someone's photo in a foreign port. These folks are needy and trying to earn a living whatever way they can.
Bingo or Casino Gambling - I save lots of money here and just don't go!
Tours - you also can save lots of money by making tour arrangements before you go on your own or at the port of call in most Caribbean ports. These vendors know the ship's routine and rely on your tourist dollars. Check out the Ports of Call threads for some recommendation on this and other cruise forums.
If I can help in any way, please feel free to write. Let me know what ship you decide upon, I too may like to sail again next February. I am looking at the Mariner of the seas, but a Western Caribbean itinerary for 2005.