We just got home from an amazing 12 night cruise to the Caribbean. We had an amazing time. I have a bunch of friends trying out cruising as a family vacation with small kids so I thought I’d post my tips. I’m no expert but here’s my top 10:
1. Bring their stuff.
It might seem a little insane when you’re packing sand pails, shovels, Barbie dolls in swim suits, life jackets, inflatables, snorkelling gear, hats, water shoes, and sun block for the beach and stuffing it into a suitcase, but trust me you’ll be glad you did! You will snorkel with non-leaky masks, that fit, and snorkels that have only been in your mouths. You will get to relax as your kids build Barbie’s dream sand castle, swim, and float on an air mattress while others try to borrow an ice bucket or old cups for their kids to play with, have to be right beside them at all times because it’s the ocean and their kids aren’t great swimmers, and have to pay way too much to rent a floating mat, and buy SPF 50 sun block, if they can find it. Trust me. It’s just easier to bring it.
2. Let them eat cake…or donuts.
It’s vacation. Relax a little. Let them have a chocolate donut for breakfast every morning! Our rules at home are healthy first. On vacation it’s a little more relaxed, I just try to make sure that at some point during the day there’s a little fruit and veg in there somewhere. One way we fit in those veggies is by ordering a side of veggies at dinner, along with their chicken and fries, or pizza, or mac and cheese from the kids menu in the dinning room, we fit in some broccoli.
3. Weigh your bags at home.
The thing with cruising for 12 nights, plus a couple days away before we got on the boat, is that you need a lot of clothes. You need warm clothes for the beginning and end of the cruise, you need hot clothes for later, you need tracksuits for the airport, you need formal wear for 3 nights, you need beach clothes, and you need cute little outfits for dinner -well cute is optional, but isn’t that half the fun of being on vacation and you need all this plus 14 pairs of underwear times 4 people. Oh, and don’t forget running shoes, flip-flops, dress shoes, crocs, high heels and your cute gladiator sandals.
Check your airlines weight restrictions and rearrange as necessary on your bathroom floor, rather than the middle of the busy airport. Then remember what you packed where for the return trip.
4. Bring the umbrella stroller.
Even if your four year old walks everywhere at home, bring the umbrella stroller. While you’re trudging through the airport, the aquarium, the line to get through customs and onto the cruise ship you’ll be glad that you brought it. The ships cabins are small, but you can fold up the stroller and shove it under the bed with the suitcases when you don’t need it.
5. Break out the personal electronics!
You may or may not be a big fan of iPods, portable DVDs and other electronic devices for little ones. My husband is a computer programmer, let’s just say we’re believers. We put new games and movies on the iPods, bought good child friendly ear phones and a splitter, and got a couple new cartridges for the LeapPad. Also bring all your chargers and fresh batteries. A three course, hour and half long formal dinner in the dinning room is so much more enjoyable when your kids are entertained with their ear phones in. Kicking it old school, we also got new crayons, paper, colouring books, and chapter books from the library. See a trend here, I’m a slight over packer, but I almost never regret it.
6. Talk to their teachers before you go.
Talk to your kids teachers before you go about being away. I know lots of parents who don’t feel comfortable about their kids missing school. I think that when they are little there are some huge advantages to broadening their minds through the experience of travel. My kids have great teachers, who prepared some work for them to do while we where away. We told them well in advance and really appreciated their support. A little gift from the islands wouldn’t hurt either.
7. Do your research.
The cruise will gladly arrange your trips to the beach and lunch for you and your kids but it will cost you! I totally understand that your first few times it’s worth the money and peace of mind to go on the cruise lines excursions. You will ride in air conditioning, and have the peace of mind of knowing that the boat won’t leave without you and your family if the bus gets a flat tire or something and you’re late. But, it’s pretty easy to go out on your own and sooooo much cheaper. You can find everything you need to know on line before you go about cab prices, best beaches for kids and how far away they are. Most of the ports rely on tourism for a huge chunk of their economy, ensuring that things are safe and easy in port. The cab drivers will approach you, bargain with you, give you a tour of the island, drop you at the beach, and come back and get you at a prearranged time. I promise it will be cheaper than doing it through the cruise line, and that always makes me have a better time!
8. Sign-up for your cruise line’s loyalty club.
It’s free. You might not think you’ll be cruising too often, but then again you might be. I wouldn’t have thought after my first honey moon cruise that I’d be on my 4th cruise at this point. What can I say…it’s a great holiday and a great holiday with kids. This was our first trip as “Platinum” members on Royal Caribbean, and the priority check-in and free bathrobes to use on board were a nice little perk. The kids get the same status as their parents on Royal up to age 18, whether they’re with you or not, which is also nice.
9. Use the child care.
We’ve done two Royal Caribbean cruises with kids, and I have to say that both times our kids loved the kids program. Not all kids programs are created equally so make sure you do your research and find a kid friendly cruise line. Vacations are family time, but I’m a stay at home mom, and my husband comes home early each evening, so we are blessed to spend lots of time with our kids at home. On the cruise our kids loved going to the kids club, so we let them, and enjoyed a little mommy-daddy time which was so nice. Don’t feel bad when your kids would rather go to the kids club than hang out with you, just enjoy it!
10. Tired, hungry kids are no fun
It’s vacation, schedules are more relaxed, you let them stay-up and sleep in, but don’t go crazy or…you’ll pay for it. Bed time at home is 8, on the cruise we’d pick them up from the evening kids program as late as 9, and they’d take a while to settle down and go to sleep after that. At home we’re up at 7, but on the cruise it was as late as 8:30 one morning. I personally won’t keep my kids at the kids club until midnight though. They’re just too little and it would be paid for the next day I’m sure. Same thing with meal times. Hungry kids are no fun, for us that means the second seating for dinner at 8pm is just too late. Also, carry water bottles with water from the ship with you in port, along with some snacks. I always bring a few zip lock bags with us, and grab a couple cookies and apples in the morning on port days. Around 10:30 at the beach, you’ll be glad you brought them. We usually headed back to the ship for a late lunch, so the snack tided everyone over and gave us longer at the beach.
These are my tips. I have to say that cruising for us with two little girls aged 4 and 7 has been a great fit. There is something for everyone, and we all had a great time! When you’re on vacation in the Caribbean, life really is a party!