10 Cruise Tips for Families
Last month I sailed the Carnival Glory to the Canadian Maritimes as part of a media tour. Having never been on a cruise before, I found the experience fascinating, both from sociological and travel logistics perspectives. And as I took notes along the way, it became clear to me that I gained many takeaways from this trip. The following are 10 cruise tips for families -- I hope these will be helpful, whether you've never considered a cruise, are on the fence about taking one, or are in the thick of travel planning and preparation.
Before I launch into the tips, I wanted to share some background about the Carnival Glory. Through June and July they ran excursions out of Boston. Ours was a 5-day trip. We departed at 5pm on Saturday -- after a busy work week, it was nice to have the day to pack! Parking was easy and there was a shuttle that ran to the cruise terminal. Then Sunday was spent in transit at sea, Monday we visited Saint John, Tuesday we visited Halifax, and Wednesday was spent in return transit (arriving at 8am Thursday morning back in Boston).
And here are my thoughts on research, planning, and preparation:
1. Investigate cruise style/vibe. The Carnival Glory is a mix of Vegas party vibe (e.g., casino, singles events, Vegas style shows) and family-friendly (e.g., kids zone, kids menus...we saw tons of families with kids ranging from toddler to teen). Admittedly, the Vegas party vibe is not my scene; I'm more into serene vacation environments. So from a sensory perspective, the interior trappings were a little overwhelming. However, I found that there were other factors that balanced out the overall experience for me (more on that below).
2. Consider destination vs. transit. From an editorial perspective, I was interested in attending this media tour both to explore the family friendliness of the Carnival Glory, as well as to evaluate a cruise as reasonable transit to the Canadian Maritimes. I think there were many folks, however, for whom the cruise was the primary attraction and they did not disembark at either port. If this is the case for you, it's even more important to research boat style/vibe and make sure your cruise meets all (or most of) your needs.
And as for Canada, we had a wonderful time. I spent three years in Kingston, Ontario during my Ph.D. but had never made it to the Maritimes. I've wanted to visit, but the thought of negotiating multiple air connections + car transit with kids has definitely hindered us. I found Saint John charming; the Big Pink Hop On Hop Off sightseeing bus is a nice way to tour around and we otherwise strolled the downtown area and relaxed at the city park. In Halifax we had the benefit of one of my grad school girlfriends as a tour guide. We visited the Citadel, Museum of Natural History, Public Gardens, and Seaport Farmer's Market and generally walked all over the city. It was utterly beautiful and I wish we had had several more days here. I definitely want to return to the Maritimes soon!
3. Consider the benefit of being on vacation as soon as you board. One of the major bonuses about cruise travel is that once you board (boarding at Boston was seamless and easy, by the way) you can go ahead and get your adventures started. No need to attempt to entertain the kids on car rides or airplane. This was fantastic.
4. Compare pricing. Obviously, pricing will be a major factor; I recommend lining up your budget against the closest style match (point #1 above) possible. For the Carnival Glory, rates are subject to change, but at the time of this writing, 4/5-day rates start per person at $329 for an interior stateroom (no windows), $439 for an oceanview stateroom (window only), and $519 for a balcony stateroom. These fares include lodging, meals, and traditional entertainment options (as well as government fees and taxes). Kids don't pay less, but there are third and fourth person rates.
5. Budget for a balcony room! I highly recommend budgeting for a balcony room, particularly if you have small children. Though we tend to go loose on schedules when we travel, Violet was pretty much done by 8pm each night. In the evenings, the balcony was where Jon, Laurel, and I retreated until bedtime. And really, one of my favorite things about this trip was the ability to sit and stare out at sea and gaze at the stars with Jon in the evening. Completely magical and utterly relaxing.
6. Communicate about food issues in advance. Because we needed to bring perishables such as rice milk and other dairy/gluten-free options for Violet, I asked about a fridge. It turned out there was a bar fridge in our cabin that we could use, and the staff was also willing to store items for us in one of their kitchens (though we didn't end up needing that). The other issue we ran into was not having a ton of great protein-rich options on the kid's menu to accommodate Laurel's vegetarianism. I wish I had inquired about this in advance because the service on the boat was fantastic on all counts. I'm sure we could have worked with them on this.
7. Reserve a crib. In advance of our trip, I inquired about a crib for Vi, mostly because I wanted one less thing to haul. The ship provided one and it was a good thing; obviously, cruise cabins are compact and our Pack n' Play would have completely taken up our free floor space. The compact crib provided by the ship allowed for us to still retain a walk through space.
8. Explore fitness options if that's important to you. One of my favorite things about the Carnival Glory was the running track on the top deck. Violet is an early riser so I took her upstairs in her stroller and ran laps in the morning. It was so beautiful and calming to run on the top deck (though I wish the ship didn't play music that early in the morning), and also go up with the whole family to watch the sun set at the end of the day.
9. Check out your wireless coverage in advance. I'm really, really glad I thought to do this in advance of our journey. I use AT&T and the at-sea/international rates for data and phone/texting were exorbitant. I basically shut off my phone not long after we departed (which turned out to be awesome!). I also found Internet speed (via my laptop in the cabin) incredibly slow. So I didn't use that much either. Also not a bad thing. There was an internet cafe on the ship (perhaps speed was faster?) but I didn't try it out because I was enjoying being unplugged!
10. Travel with family/friends if you can. We saw several families on vacation together, and personally, we immensely enjoyed the unexpected benefit of Laurel hitting it off with the daughter of another blogger traveling on this media tour. It just made everything easier to be able to "village parent" with another family and Laurel was so happy to have a buddy her age.
In summary, I think there are major benefits to cruise travel -- particularly as it relates to starting your vacation as soon as you board and getting to destinations that would otherwise be unwieldy via ground/air transit. It's definitely worth doing some research on boat style and pricing, and also doing some advanced planning and reservation, particularly if you are traveling with small children.
And while personally, the party vibe elements of the Carnival Glory were not in line with my personal preferences, the service in all domains was superb, and the experience offered a wonderful way to visit the Canadian Maritimes, unplug, be with my family, and reconnect with nature. There's something incredibly powerful about feeling so small against the vastness of the sky and sea.
Disclosure: For this media tour, my family's cruise tickets and internet access were covered by the Carnival Glory. We covered all the other costs associated with the trip.