Since the CDC issued its no-sail order last March, lines have worked hard to make sailings safe once cruises resume – without compromising fun. Ralph Bias, president of a Virtuoso travel agency, says the numerous hygiene and safety protocols include requiring guests and crew to be vaccinated, Covid-19 testing pre-cruise and during the cruise, reducing the number of passengers on each trip, social distancing in dining rooms and lounges, eliminating self-service food options, and increasing the frequency of cleanings.
While many cruisers hope to set sail this summer and fall, Bias notes that pent-up demand is driving a huge interest in 2022 and 2023 itineraries. “Bookings are through the roof, and the majority of my clients are opting for longer, extended voyages,” he says, adding that lines are offering attractive incentives to travelers who book early. “After being homebound for so long, people are looking to make up for lost time.”
With activities for all ages and interests, endless food options, and the convenience factor, cruises have long been family favorites. “They’re easy and successful trips for families because they can accommodate everyone’s needs and wishes,” says Leah Bergner, a Virtuoso advisor. But there’s no one-size-fits-all family cruise. Here, Bergner and other members of Virtuoso’s cruise advisory board offer insights on finding the best option for your brood and making sure that next family getaway is worth the wait.
The climbing wall on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas.
“The options are vast, and the best pick depends on your kids’ ages and your family’s interests,” says Virtuoso agency owner Rob Clabbers. Don’t rule out smaller vessels, but know that larger ships have a broader range of activities, along with more choices for accommodations.
Parents with younger children should look for a ship with amenities such as babysitting, a kids’ club, and children’s menus or express meal options. Royal Caribbean International, for example, offers a family mealtime on all sailings, where kids ages 3 to 11 can eat (with the family) in 45 minutes. They’re then whisked off for ocean-themed activities while parents enjoy a relaxing evening out.
For families with teenagers, ships with waterslides, rock-climbing walls, and zip lines may be the best pick. Older kids who appreciate history, on the other hand, may get a kick out of a cruise that hits Pompeii and other sites in the Mediterranean.
Fun on the surf simulator on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas.
Virtuoso agency owner John Upchurch suggests midship cabins. “You’re at the heart of the ship, and no activity is too far away,” he says. A two-bedroom suite with attached baths gives families enough room to spread out; two connecting rooms also work well. For families with older children who don’t need to be in an interconnecting room, Upchurch suggests booking inside-outside cabins: a balcony cabin and a cabin across the hall that’s much cheaper.
“What you don’t want is a family that’s used to three bathrooms at home jamming into a cabin with one bathroom. It makes for a long week,” he says. Also, avoid booking cabins next to or near stairs, elevators, smoking areas, and entertainment venues, as they can be noisy.
Rushing from the airport to port on embarkation day can be stressful for both children and adults – especially if a flight is delayed or canceled. Bergner suggests arriving at the port of call a day or two before the cruise departs. “Some lines have the option to overnight on the ship at the embarkation port, which is great because you get a bonus vacation day to explore the destination without making transfers from a hotel to the vessel,” she says.
Sign up for shore excursions and reserve onboard restaurants as soon as you book your cruise. Virtuoso advisor Jessica Griscavage says tables at specialty eateries (like that burger bar with an arcade) and excursions to view wildlife, zip-line, mountain bike, and other active adventures fill up fast. “I’ve seen several instances where families end up disappointed for not planning in advance and wind up wasting precious vacation time trying to see what’s still available that will please the children,” she says. “A little bit of planning ahead of time with your travel advisor will ensure a seamless vacation without disappointment.”
On embarkation day, your suitcases might not be delivered to your room until hours after you board. Don’t wait for them to show up to start the vacation, Clabbers says – “Tote a carry-on with items such as swimsuits, sunblock, and books, and get going.” Also, when packing for multiple people, spread some items for each person (sneakers, shorts, polo shirts) over numerous bags; if one goes missing, at least everyone in your family has some essentials for the trip. Keep in mind that with all the excitement, transfers, and check-in, embarkation day can be overwhelming for children, so bring extra snacks and some activities to help bide the time.
Paddleboarding with UnCruise Adventures in Alaska.
Symphony of the Seas. While Virtuoso’s cruise advisory board agrees that Royal Caribbean International goes out of its way to accommodate families, Clabbers says that the Caribbean itinerary on the 5,518-passenger Symphony of the Seas, with stops in Sint-Maarten and Puerto Rico, gets an extra thumbs-up. Onboard attractions include a waterpark, laser tag, surf simulators, and separate clubs for younger kids, tweens, and teens, and many cruises include a stop at CocoCay, the line’s private island in the Bahamas. Symphony’s New England-style seafood shack, New York pizzeria, and hot-dog joint are hits with kids. (Among the fine-dining options: a steakhouse, an Italian restaurant from Jamie Oliver, sushi at Izumi, and the six- to eight-course tasting menus at 150 Central Park.) The pick of the staterooms is the two-level family suite with an in-room slide and air-hockey table on the balcony.
Wilderness Discoverer. Boutique expedition cruise line UnCruise Adventures counts active adults as its primary passengers aboard the 76-passenger Wilderness Discoverer. Its special family-focused summer itineraries to Alaska, however, are great options for outdoors-loving children ages 8 and up. A team of guides leads kids (and their parents) on nature-focused excursions such as sea kayaking, paddle-boarding, whale-watching, snorkeling, and wildlife walks to spot black bears, otters, mink, and more. Expect treasure hunts, polar plunges, boat races, beach bonfires with s’mores, and games of I Spy with leaping dolphins.
Norwegian Bliss. Upchurch describes Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,004-passenger Bliss as a self-contained amusement park. The ship sails the Pacific Coast from Alaska to the Panama Canal, as well as Caribbean itineraries. “Bliss hits all the marks for the perfect family vessel,” he says. “Even on a weeklong sailing, you won’t be able to get through everything there is to do.” The upgrade: a suite in The Haven, a boutique ship-within-the-ship that’s accessible by key card and has its own pool, restaurant, and bar. This mini-city is home to 19 dining venues – from a classic diner to a brewhouse – and boasts a go-cart racetrack, open-air laser tag, two waterslides, two huge pools, a casino, an arcade, and multiple theaters showcasing magicians, comedy shows, and Broadway productions such as Jersey Boys. The kids’ club is divided into three age ranges: 3- to 5-year-olds enjoy parades and treasure hunts, 6- to 9-year-olds can learn to juggle, and 10- to 12-year-olds participate in video game competitions and themed spy nights. Teens, meanwhile, meet up at Entourage, a venue with a dance club, a movie theater, and classes such as the art of improv.
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