Stretch your dollars and dodge stress-inducing experiences at sea with these pro tips.
Cruising can offer an enriching family vacation. With high values, whiz-bang features (zip-lining or surf simulator, anyone?), designated kids clubs and family-friendly entertainment options, cruising offers plenty of enticements for wayfaring broods. But while cruising can be fun for the whole gang, keeping your savings – and sanity – intact can be a challenge. That's why we asked seasoned cruisers to share their secrets for trimming costs and getting the most value out of a family cruise. Whether you're traveling with toddlers or teens, here are tips and tactics for smooth, anxiety-free sailing.
Snag special discounts and promotions by sailing at off-peak times.
School breaks tend to be prime time for family cruises, making it difficult to score significantly discounted prices, explains Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. If you have some flexibility, consider cruising at a less popular time, like hurricane season, from late summer through fall. "The beauty of taking a cruise in the Caribbean during hurricane season is that ships are able to quickly adjust itineraries and port stops, so you most likely won’t be affected, and you have a better chance of your vacation not being a complete washout," she explains. But if you decide to roll the dice, make sure to arm yourself with travel insurance, she says.
Look for cruise lines offering complimentary perks and add-ons.
Some cruise lines lure budget-minded families with attractive extras. To trim costs, search for cruise companies offering complimentary perks "to sweeten the booking pot – things like onboard credit, drink packages and Wi-Fi packages," Brown says. Another bonus to seek out: cabin upgrades, especially if you're traveling with a large group and want extra space to sprawl out and get quality sleep. You'll also likely score a more desirable location on an upper deck near public areas, pools, the buffet and kids clubs. These extras are "costs that families would incur on top of the base fare, so while you're not saving upfront, you can save hundreds on your final bill," she explains.
Get an early start on planning.
"For families, things like sail dates, cabin selections and ships are incredibly important," Brown says, cautioning that the most popular itineraries and room categories fill up quickly, particularly during school breaks. Though there are a variety of kid-friendly lodging options well-suited for families, including interconnecting rooms and suites, she stresses, "these accommodations are in high demand, so plan ahead if you can." Brown also advises booking your vacation between six and nine months ahead of your desired departure date – or as soon as an itinerary becomes available – to get the greatest selection and optimal added benefits.
Pick the right cabin.
To secure your desired cabin category and location – the key for planning a successful family cruise – book early with a reputable cruise travel specialist. This pro should have extensive connections to secure added benefits and the best cabin value for your dollar based on your family's needs, says Wendy Perrin, founder and editor of travel-planning site WendyPerrin.com. A trusted agent will also weigh the pros and cons of your ship, and can suggest the cabin type and location that offer the greatest bang for your buck – and cater to your family's unique needs, she adds. "The larger the ship, the more confusing the cabin choices. And the cabin that works best for your family will depend on your children's ages," Perrin explains.
Choose the right ship and itinerary by working with a trusted agent.
"Cruises are quite complex purchases," Brown says, emphasizing that a travel agent can not only help you net the best price, but also help you wade through dozens of options, from ship to itinerary to cabin type. Even better, you don't need to pay an extra fee to work with an agent and leverage his or her expertise, explains Charles Sylvia, vice president of membership and trade relations at the Cruise Lines International Association. An agent will help direct you to the best vacation value propositions and ensure you're matched up with a cruise line that caters to your needs with age-appropriate programming and amenities such as kids clubs and shore excursions, he adds. Plus, if the price drops, an agent can secure a refund of the price difference for you, Perrin explains.
Book shore excursions in advance.
It's wise to finalize shore excursions to guarantee availability and avoid sticker shock before climbing aboard. First, see what tours your cruise line offers. Then, "look at the websites of local tourism boards, check museum and monument websites for exhibitions and hours and find out what’s happening in port on the day your ship is stopping there," Perrin says. Keep in mind, excursions are priced per person, so if you're traveling with a family of four or more companions, you can often trim costs by making private arrangements through a reputable independent company or on your own, Perrin explains. She advises hiring a driver for the day or renting a car for shoreside sightseeing.
Create a budget – and stick to it.
“To help stretch dollars onboard, be sure to budget in advance," Brown says. Anticipate out-of-pocket expenses, such as soda, specialty dining and internet, and factor those costs into the price of your vacation, she adds. "For families traveling with older kids, put a spending limit on your onboard account at the start of the cruise. This will help you stay on budget and keep kids from purchasing too many add-ons," she says.
Consider all family members' ages, needs and interests.
When picking an itinerary, consider cruises that are well-suited for your children's ages, "such as those with many outdoor adventures like zip-lining for teens, or even river cruises that take kids to castles and palaces in Europe that they’ve only read about in their history books," says Lissa Poirot, editor-in-chief of Family Vacation Critic. Also, consider onboard services and programs to pare down your choices. Younger children will want amenities like waterslides and a robust club where they can play with kids their own age, Poirot explains. Meanwhile, older kids crave things to do onboard, including rock climbing and testing their skills on a surf simulator; a club where they can hang with other teens also doesn't hurt, Perrin says.
Arm yourself – and youngsters – with a few key essentials for a worry-free vacation. Perrin suggests bringing swimsuits in your carry-on, so youngsters can head straight to the pool on embarkation day. If your kids are old enough to explore the ship on their own, Perrin suggests bringing Post-it Notes, so they can leave messages for parents before heading out, along with a lanyard to ensure they won't lose their room keys. Another staple is a highlighter, so kiddos can flag the onboard activities they are interested in attending. For older kids, bring watches to ensure they meet you at a designated time, since there are few onboard clocks, Perrin adds.
Traveling with an infant? Make a plan.
If you're planning to travel with a baby, don't forget to review your cruise line's policies, Poirot says. "Cruise lines have age restrictions, and some may not have the means to accommodate an infant," she explains. "If you want to travel with a little one and still be able to see and do activities, turn to a ship that offers infant care on board. Also, check options for cribs, diaper containers, formula and other needs," she adds. When selecting your cruise line and ship, make sure you consider facilities and services available for young kids, Perrin says. "Some ships have waterslides, some don't. Some have splash features for toddlers, some don't."
Consider all meal options.
When it comes to dining, skip signing up for the early seating in the main dining room, Perrin says. If you sign up for the later seating, you can feed your kids at the buffet, drop them off at the kids club and enjoy a date night. Eating some casual meals at the buffet can also trim costs. "A ship's alternative restaurants may cost $15 to $25 to $40 per person, which really adds up for a family," she says. Meanwhile, "buffets allow kids to choose what they want, to eat without long waits and to try small amounts of a new food without ordering a whole entree of it," she adds.
Create long-lasting memories with trip mementos.
"Let your kid collect a souvenir – preferably one handmade by a local, or one that your child finds or makes himself out of local materials – in each port," Perrin advises. Every memento tells a story, "and my kids remember all about the place where they procured each souvenir and the people they met doing so," she explains. It's also a great idea to snap pictures of your kids while in port, to retain the memory long after your journey, she says. "Take a photo of your child with each little treasure and the artisan whom they watched make it."