Smiling mother and daughter traveling on big cruise ship.

Selecting a small-ship voyage that offers engaging educational programming and all-inclusive pricing are just a couple of ways to ensure seafarers of all ages are happy on the open seas. (iStockPhoto)

On a small-ship cruise through Panama and Costa Rica aboard UnCruise Adventures' Safari Voyager, you can spot dolphins playing in a protected inlet, enjoy snorkeling with stingrays and sea turtles and hike through a tropical jungle to discover a family of capuchin monkeys in a single day. If that sounds like the vacation of a lifetime, you may prefer cruising on a smaller ship that enables you and the gang to visit hard-to-reach locations and enjoy bucket-list experiences rather than sailing on a larger, 3,000-plus passenger megaship. And if a cruise vacation that prioritizes uncrowded, private access to destinations over shipboard amenities and buffet spreads sounds like a fit for your family, a sail on a small ship might just fit the bill.

Small-ship cruising is generally defined as a cruise with 100 or fewer passengers. Because of their smaller ship size, vessels in the small-ship category can offer access to remote destinations across the Caribbean and Alaska, among other locales. Plus, small-ship operators often partner with local experts and naturalists who can lead in-depth tours. When exploring kid-friendly small-ship cruise options, look for the following indicators of a stellar small-ship cruise operation.

Search for Strong Ties to Local Resources

When researching potential cruise companies, look for operators who offer onboard expedition leaders as well as local experts that teach passengers about the native flora and fauna, along with unique cultural and historical backstories throughout the journey. For example, UnCruise has a partnership with national parks on their itineraries, which allows its guests to enter parks before other tourists and optimize their time with experienced guides.

Pick a Child-Friendly Cruise Itinerary

Most small-ship cruises are highly active, and offer few onboard entertainment options. As such, many companies require that cruise guests are ages 6 and up. Also, keep in mind that some itineraries are more kid-friendly than other sailings, and you can expect most voyages to be populated primarily by adults. Call your cruise company before booking your vacation and ask for the best date and itinerary for kids, and after booking, call again to find out if other children are booked on your dates. Some cruise companies, including UnCruise, provide family-specific cruise dates, during which additional expedition guides dedicated to children are available onboard.

Consider a Cruise Ship With an EZ Dock System

These onboard systems allow cruisers to depart the ship directly on the water, via small zodiac-type boats or skiffs. Plus, these ships allow families to kayak and paddleboard directly from the ship. As a rule of thumb, an EZ dock indicates a highly active itinerary with many opportunities for kids to go off the ship, making it an ideal choice for active groups.

Choose a Cruise Itinerary With Evening Educational Programming

Small-ship cruises will keep you busy from breakfast through dinner, but during those after-dinner hours, you won't find Vegas-style entertainment or onboard swimming pools. To provide entertainment beyond a deck of cards or a board game, look for a cruise that offers a nightly eco-talk or cultural programming. Even young kids will enjoy learning more about the places they visit especially since the presentations are typically conducted by engaging expedition guides.

Find a Cruise That's Truly All-Inclusive

A coveted feature of small-ship cruises is their inclusive pricing. Most, though not all, cruise vacations include absolutely everything (think: meals, lodging and onboard activities) with the exception of gratuities, alcoholic beverages, airport transfers and excursions. Know what you're getting before booking to avoid sticker shock later on.

Pack Smart

Selecting what to pack depends largely on your destination and trip itinerary, but many small-ship cruise lines send guests detailed packing lists ahead of their departure. In general, families can expect a casual, yet luxurious onboard experience with many leading small-ship cruise operators, which translates to packing comfortable and pants, shirts and dresses. There is little need of formal wear or even a tie on most small-ship cruises. Always bring essential items, such as rain gear and extra layers, and use the space you would reserve for dressy clothing for an extra pair of walking shoes or boots.

Also keep in mind that small-ship cruises feature small cabins. Families will want to take advantage of in-room storage such as below-bed drawers and hooks for jackets and sweaters, and will need to remember that clothing will likely get dirty on hikes and other excursions. Don't expect laundry service, and bring plenty of options. No matter the destination, sun protection is almost always a must.

Manage Your Expectations

Don't anticipate your small-ship cruise to feel anything like sailing aboard a megaship. Instead of grand entertainment and exploring multilevel promenades by day, families on small ships will enjoy an open bridge (yes, let the kids steer the ship for a while) and cozy lounges with games and books. Instead of multiple dining venues and bars, families will find top-notch cuisine served in an intimate dining room and drinks prepared by a bartender who knows your name and preferred cocktail.

Plan for a Mix of Activity and Relaxation

Do expect your small-ship cruise to be highly active. Of course, families can opt for as much or little physical activity as desired, but on most small ships, a morning and afternoon excursion to different venues is the norm. In the morning, families may take a guided hike through a forest, and in the afternoon, they may visit a cultural center or meet local natives to learn a new skill. On a subsequent day, passengers may have the option between kayaking amid seals or paddleboarding in the surf. Aim for a mix of adventure and down time.

Get Ready to Mingle With Other Guests

Expect to get to know your fellow passengers. As on most small-ship cruises, seating is not assigned at mealtimes, and passengers mingle at cocktail hour and during excursions.

Tags: travel, vacations, cruises


Amy Whitley is a family travel writer, editor, and columnist based in Southern Oregon. An avid traveler, backpacker, skier and hiker, Amy has written about family and outdoor experiences for local and national publications since 2009. Amy authors the NWKids column in OutdoorsNW Magazine, is the Southern Oregon ambassador for Travel Oregon, works as a gear reviewer for multiple outdoor brands, and is founder of family travel site Pit Stops for Kids. Amy has been a U.S. News Travel contributor since 2015. Follow her on Twitter @pitsopsforkids.

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