Tara Bone, contributing writer
Finding family vacation options that are both budget-friendly and meet your vision of a “perfect” family vacay are top of mind with COVID restrictions lifting and summer around the corner. As you consider options, a cruise may just be what you’re looking for.
This year our family was ready to try something new. So, we budgeted and embarked on a cruise for spring break. There were unexpected bumps in the road, but overall, we loved our time together and the lasting memories we made in beautiful places we’ll probably never see again.
There was so much information to navigate and at times it was overwhelming. We hope our experience will help you know if cruising is right for your family. Here are a few things we learned:
Our family considered a cruise for years, but hesitated. As a child, I was terrified of getting on a ship and bobbing around in the big blue ocean — even though I was a Love Boat fan. I was plain nervous. One of our sons also opposed the idea. Before you book a cruise see how your family feels about the idea. Look at photos of the ships to see how massive (and safe) they are, learn about new technologies they’re using in ship systems, and talk to others who have gone. If you can conquer those fears, a cruise is like no other experience.
“HOW DO WE LIKE TO FAMILY VACATION?”
Honestly, I had never thought about this question. Growing up I was grateful to go on our oncea-year trip to Yellowstone or Jackson Hole in between my dad’s farming. I was just grateful for what I got, and still am. But if you’re spending a lot of time and money on a cruise, ask yourself what your “best” family vacation looks like. Is it family time together all the time, or independent time for your kids with some quiet adult time? Many cruise lines offer activities for both children and teens. There were also babysitting services for younger kids (for a fee). And if your kids are vastly different ages (like mine) I spent a lot of time watching my 2-year-old in his designated splash zone wondering how it was going for my teens on the flow rider at the opposite end of the ship.
Bottom line, will you like seeing your kids just at dinner to compare notes, or do you want to be with them more? Each family is different and there’s no right or wrong answer.
RULES — WHAT RULES?
This brings us to our next cruise epiphany. With the ages of your children in mind, compare onship entertainment and recreational offerings on each ship along with their restrictions. Onboard, hassle-free entertainment really is a cruise benefit, but are there age appropriate options? What are the age restrictions and other rules for pools, slides, sport courts, climbing walls, and even dining venues? It was disappointing to learn how many restrictions there were for our toddler.
Also evaluate how you feel about onboard casinos. Disney cruises offer oodles of kid-friendly entertainment and are casino-free, but are expensive compared to other cruise lines.
FOOD, FOOD, AND MORE FOOD!
As a mom of all boys … hungry boys … endless and all-inclusive food options were a selling point. The food was incredible, and we were so grateful for those who served us. Not only did it help us teach our boys manners and the art of conversation, but they tried new foods and met incredible people. For one of my boys, the dinner experience was his favorite part of the cruise!
CONTROL HIDDEN COSTS
We were surprised how quickly additional, unexpected expenses could add up. These included: gratuities, drink packages, excursion packages, picture bundles, and Wifi and phone carrier fees.
• Some cruise lines add a gratuity or service fee automatically to guest credit cards each day. It can be a shock to first-time cruisers. For more control over gratuity charges, you can opt out of the automatic gratuity payment and personally tip those who help you using cash envelopes provided. Gratuity recommendations are $3.75 per day for your main waiter, $5 per day for cabin housekeeping staff, $2.15 per day for the assistant waiter, and $.75 per day for the head waiter. Keep in mind this is per day, per person.
• Getting off the ship at different ports is beyond exciting but can also be a tourist trap. Excursions can also be expensive. We found booking through a “travel counselor” that connects you with dependable, local businesses was a better experience than booking excursions through the cruise line. In fact, booking our entire cruise through Vacations to Go saved us a lot of time and money. Our snorkeling and beach excursion booked through them was a trip highlight.
• We learned after boarding that drink packages are not inclusive on most cruise lines. This included soft drinks. Lesson learned: Read all emails the cruise line sends before you cruise. A soft drink package was over $100 per person for our seven-day cruise, but half the price if ordered before port. Dreams of endless Dr. Pepper were dashed for us.
• A frustration for us was Wifi access and phone charges. Things we learned: If you need it, buy Wifi through your cruise line before boarding for best rates. Check your phone carrier’s international roaming coverage and costs before you cruise, but just to be safe put all phones — including teen phones — on airplane mode or turn them completely off so you don’t get zapped with charges.
• Sea sickness wasn’t a problem using these 100% natural, non drowsy products we ordered from Amazon: South Moon Motion Sickness Patch and Sea Band wristbands.
• Use frequent flyer miles: Check with your credit card or preferred airline to redeem discounts or tickets.
• Read all emails from the cruise line leading up to departure.
• Inside cabin vs. ocean view cabin. If saving money is the most important consideration or you won’t use your room much, an inside cabin saves money. Ocean view and balcony rooms offer natural light, fresh air, and the sounds of the sea, which are a fun experience for kids. Check cruise line rates.
• Read all the fine print when it comes to COVID and vaccine guidelines. Requirements are changing all the time, but COVID tests, at date of publication, are required to board, regardless of vaccination and age status.
• Make sure to have COVID vaccination cards and passports when boarding.
• Discuss basic manners with kids before boarding. Specifically, for elevators, patiently waiting in line, table manners, and saying “please” and “thank you.”