Hi. I’m Charlie. I’m 12 years old, and I’ve taken nine cruises on five different cruise lines. You might think cruise ships are pretty much the same, but they’re not. If you want your kids and yourself to enjoy a family cruise as much as possible, here’s my advice.
1. Get a cabin that’s on a higher deck toward the stern.
Everything that’s interesting for kids and families is always at the back of the ship. So get a cabin that’s very close to the aft staircase and no more than three or four decks below the pool, buffet, and kids’ club. If your room is at the front of the ship, you’ll spend most of the day walking back and forth across the ship, and if your room is on a low deck, you’ll have to wait for the elevator.
2. Get a sofa bed rather than high-up beds that fold out of the wall.
A sofa that turns into a double bed, even if you have to share it with your brother, is better than two single upper berths. It’s easy to fall out of an upper berth, especially kids like my brother Doug who move around a lot when they’re sleeping.
3. Always get a balcony.
Without a balcony, rooms are crowded with four people in them. And you need a balcony so you can always see the sunrise and sunset and have nice light in your cabin, and so you can go out and get fresh air and enjoy the smell, and so you can see the place you’re visiting when you come into port.
4. Get a large pool with a water slide.
Some cruise ship pools are salty, so bring swim goggles. If the pool has a water slide, check the height limit because your kid might be disappointed if he’s too short.
5. Do not sign up for the early dinner seating.
A lot of parents make this mistake. The early seating means your kids will have to leave the pool at 5:00 so you can get to dinner by 5:30, and your kids will be stuck eating in the restaurant, which is boring and takes forever. Every kid would rather eat in the buffet because they can get food they know they like. (A possible exception to the rule is Disney ships because the restaurants are awesome.) Always sign up for the late seating because you can take your kids to the buffet at 6:30 and take them back to the kids’ club at 7:00, and then eat on your own at the late seating.
6. Make sure there’s food by the pool.
Sometimes you don’t even need to go to the buffet for dinner because you can get food by the pool at dinnertime. On Holland America we could eat hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream for dinner by the pool. But Disney was great because they had themed food stands with different types of food, like Flo’s V8 Cafe or Pinocchio’s Pizzeria, where we could eat in a beach chair in our swimsuits.
7. Get a kids’ club that’s open all day long.
Some kids’ clubs close for two hours at lunchtime and dinnertime, even though your children don’t need two hours to eat lunch or dinner.
Some cruise lines have much better kids’ clubs than others do. Norwegian Cruise Line’s and Disney Cruise Line’s are especially good, and if you’d like to find out why, you can read this about the Norwegian Star and this about the Disney Dream that I wrote when I was nine.
A kids’ club is always better when your kid can check himself in and out of the club. This makes life easier for both of you: Your child doesn’t have to be stuck doing something in the kids’ club that he doesn’t want to do or missing something he’d rather be doing somewhere else on the ship, and you don’t have to interrupt what you’re doing to pick him up at a certain time.
Also, get a kids’ club where your kid isn’t the oldest in his age group. If your child is in the 6-to-8 group and he’s turning 9 soon, he might be bored with the little kids.
8. Choose a ship that has scheduled activities for parents and kids to do together.
On Norwegian Cruise Line there’s at least one family activity on the program every day that parents and kids do together—like a scavenger hunt or “Family Challenge.” It was great because our family competed against my cruise-ship friends’ families. On Royal Caribbean there was only one family competition the entire cruise. There were things like 3-on-3 basketball tournaments and mini-golf contests, but for adults only, even though kids would enjoy those things much more than adults.
9. Don’t worry about what sports are onboard.
If you want a giant sports deck, choose Royal Caribbean, but you don’t really need one because every big ship has some good sports to choose from. They all have basketball, shuffleboard, and Ping-Pong, and most have mini golf.
10. Don’t get stuck wasting time on embarkation day.
Embarkation day sucks because the kids’ club isn’t open till nighttime, and there are no activities on the ship. Embarkation day is a good time to explore the ship with your kids and find all the places they’ll be at a lot, so your kids learn where they’ll want to go later and how to get there. Also, it can take a few hours for your suitcases to be delivered to your cabin, so make sure your kids pack their swimsuits in their carry-on luggage so they’ll have them for the pool.
11. Collect a souvenir from each port.
When you’re back home, whenever your kid sees each souvenir, he’ll remember the place where he got it. But don’t buy something like a teddy bear that says “Mexico” on in it. Instead buy something that was handcrafted by locals or is unique and you can find only in that place. For instance, in Honduras I got a metal fish made from an oil drum and an old ship’s hull. And in Belize I got a marble turtle that you wouldn’t find anywhere in America.
If you’d like my advice about which cruise line is best for your family, you can ask me below. Also here’s my advice for the Disney Wonder from my own travel blog.
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Great help, Charlie. We are taking our granddaughter on her first cruise next summer, when she’ll be 12. The itinerary she wants is available on both NCL Breakaway and RCC Oasis. Which would you recommend for a girl her age who is adventurous and loves water sports? Another question also: is it difficult on the big ships (we’ve cruised many times but always on smaller ships) to use the attractions like water slides and rock climbing walls, or are there long lines and fees?
Thanks for your help,
Charlie has been at camp, but I finally managed to get a reply from him. He says:
“I’d recommend the Oasis of the Seas because Royal Caribbean is better for someone who’s really active. Royal Caribbean has a lot of water sports, such as the FlowRider and all the stuff at their private island. On the Breakaway, you can be active, but there’s a lot more to be done on a Royal Caribbean ship. The Breakaway is just as fun but not as active.”
As for lines and fees, Charlie says, “The activities are usually included in the price of the cruise, but it really is about what time you go. When we were onboard the Disney ship, for instance, if you went to the AquaDuck waterslide at 2 or 3 pm, you’d wait in a 45-minute line. But if you went at 11:30 pm, the line was only 5 minutes. It’s easy to avoid the long lines if you go early, right when it opens, or late, before it closes. On Royal Caribbean, I don’t ever remember an extra fee for rock climbing or water slides.”
And my husband, Tim, has this advice for you: If you can swing it, rent the FlowRider for a half-hour private lesson early in the cruise, so she can get a full half-hour of instruction in how to do it. Otherwise, she’ll be standing in line for a long time just to get a short turn, and she’ll have to spend her turn learning how to do it, rather than enjoying it the way she would if she already knows how to do it.
This article written by Charlie’s younger brother Doug should prove helpful too: How To Keep Your Kids Happy on a Cruise.
And if you’re looking for how to book your cruise so as to get the best value for your money, write to Ask Wendy.
Hi there, congratulations on you excellent article.
I want to take my 5 year old grandaughter on a Royal-Oasis cruise August 27 (she is turnign 6 on September 10) however, some of the more fun activities, like zip lining, seem to be only for 6 yr olds and above. Being that she is so close to 6 will they allow her to participate or should I avoid those ships?
Hi Maria, Cruise lines are very strict about age restrictions. They won’t allow her to participate if she’s not 6 yet. Enjoy your cruise!
We are planning our first Disney cruise and we can’t decide whether to take our daughter when she is 9 or when she is 10. Can you recommend the “best” age you started enjoying Disney cruises?
Charlie says: “It doesn’t really make any difference, but I’d take her when she’s 9 because she’d rather go sooner rather than later. “
A BIG THANK YOU Charlie. Researching now for our kids on NCL Breakaway. Helpful tips thanks again. Enjoy your next destination. Cara :-)
Great blog, I love it that u travel so much. Here is my question, out of all the Disney ships, do you have a favorite? We have a 6 year old that is very out going. We are also planning to spend 3 days at Disney as well.
Thank you for your advise.
Happy travels to you
Hi Maggie. I’ve read your question to Charlie, and he says, “I like the Disney Dream most, but I’ve only sailed on two Disney ships: The Dream and the Wonder. A 6-year-old might actually like the Wonder more, as it’s a little less overwhelming.”
Love getting a point of view from a young man. Any advice on cruising with a 50 year couple, 2 brothers in their early 20’s, A FOUR YEAR OLD BOY, and his mom?
You are right on, Charlie! I could have used your comments thirty years ago when we took each of our seven grandsons on a special trip with us. Five of them went on cruises and we chose ships with special programs for children, which was not too many back then. We are ages 82 and 84 and have been on 39 cruises. Your account and advise is just wonderful!
Charlie, you are so right.
I enjoyed the Norwegian Cruise Line as it is a little more relaxed in eating times and you don’t have to dress up for meals. I liked being able to eat whenever we wanted instead of a set meal time like on the bigger cruise lines. The employees are fantastic too.
I would love to take my family and grandsons on a family cruise, but none of the other adults are interested.
Can I adopt your family?
Hi Charlie. Great article! I have two girls ages 10 and 13 What do you recommend? They are active, sporty and girly!
Hi Charlie, it’s really helpful to have your point of view. Our family is going on a HAL cruise with kids aged 7,9,11. We are worried that the 7 year old is going to be excluded as he falls in the 3-7 age group, whereas the others will be in 8-12. In your experience, are they flexible on board with letting siblings stick together despite their ages? Thanks for your input!
Charlie, this is an awesomely helpful article and you are a talented writer. Like the other commenters, I had never considered Norwegian, but I will now! Thanks for the tips.
What a great article! My 9 year old has done 4 cruises – not sure how her list would compare, but I think I am going to take a closer look at Norwegian thanks to Charlie’s tips.
I highly encourage you to take a closer look at Norwegian. People often pass it by because they don’t see anything really stand out about it. Disney stands out because everybody knows Disney, and Royal Caribbean stands out because its ships are so huge, but if you want a great kids’ club, choose Norwegian because its counselors are the best.
This article made my heart smile. I’m so happy that you and Doug have been able to travel so much with your parents. And I’m so glad that you wrote this article. I wasn’t able to travel much with my children when they were young like you so there were a lot of tips you gave in this article that I would never have known to tell my clients about.
I was also interested to hear how much you enjoyed NCL. Most travel agents I know steer families away from NCL and towards Disney and RCCL.
Really great article, Charlie. I’m going to go check your blog out now. :-)
I don’t have much experience with travel agents, because my mom is practically a walking travel encyclopedia, but I’m shocked at this news. From my experience, Norwegian was built for families to have a fun, relaxing and hassle-free vacation.