Today’s cruise ships can provide a perfect family holiday, where every day is different and everyone can do just what they want
A family cruise has become one of life’s great luxuries. Today’s top cruise ships offer an even better family experience than old favourites like a trip to Orlando or a top-end family beach resort. On a cruise you’re not stuck in one place or with one routine. There’s a feeling of being in a luxurious environment but sharing a long journey together - and having a selection of interesting places to visit along the way. On each day you can pick and mix from all the amazing experiences on offer.
As a travel writer, I’ve been lucky enough to take my family on three cruises in the past 18 months. At first we were anxious. We thought that cruises were a safe but boring holiday for older people wanting to be waited on hand and foot without risking too much exposure to foreigners.
Bigger and better
But since the old-fashioned days of cruising, operators have launched more and bigger ships, and more and better routes. As competition increases, many cruise lines have made big efforts to attract families on board. Today’s big cruise ships have excellent family facilities, including kids' clubs, kids' pools and kids' food everywhere. And the best thing for the kids is that there are other kids to play with.
A standard cruise cabin can often sleep four but becomes very crowded like that. You’ll find yourselves leaving the room while one person gets dressed and taking it in turns for the bathroom. It becomes tiresome pretty quickly. So it’s certainly worth paying more for the various cabin upgrade options, including family suites and, my value-for-money tip, adjoining rooms. A major family suite may have a bigger balcony and big lounge area but just two standard staterooms adjoining or simply side-by-side can do the trick for less than half the price.
Spoilt for choice
Once on board you’ll be able to pick and mix your activities. My wife Joanna and I enjoy the rare treat of wandering around the sights, shops and cafes of fascinating foreign cities without having to worry about the children. Harry, seven, and Millie, five, happily rampage around the ships' kids' clubs. These are always excellent. Their free activities have included joining a pirate parade through the ship, enjoying a late-night pyjama party, a talent show that was broadcast on the ship's TVs, face-painting, art and craft experiments, quizzes, computer games, a concert for parents, ‘ice cream outings’ and voting for which member of the enthusiastic and well-trained club staff would be “slimed” (covered in gooey coloured jelly) at the end of the cruise.
We also have had memorable family adventures together when we were all in the mood: finding the local bus that took the four of us to a little-known beach in Tenerife, finding a taxi to take us to see baby penguins in the Falklands and eating in a quirky little café in Rio, the like of which my wide-eyed children had never seen before. We also did things as a family on days at sea: trying every ship’s restaurants and swimming pools, and watching theatre, music and ice shows. We even went to the cinema together.
Sometimes we did our own thing. Harry tackled a climbing wall, while Millie took up ice-skating. Joanna went to the spa and investigated the shops, and I tried to get fit using the brilliant free gym and running tracks around the open deck.
One ship, The Independence of the Seas, is so big I even played in football tournaments on the five-a-side pitch up on deck. One of my ‘shots’ was so wide and high it went right over the fencing and was heading for the Bay of Biscay before it bounced back off the railing round the edge of the deck. I was hiding my hands in horror - but everyone else cheered as if I’d meant to do it…
Three of the best lines for family cruises
RCI’s massive family suites include a large balcony sheltered at the back of the ship - perfect for taking advantage of the free room-service meals. The two bedrooms are separate, with their own doors from the central lounge. On-board facilities are exciting - recent ships have offered ice-rinks and climbing walls.
There’s a relaxed American feel onboard a Princess ship, with fewer eye-catching attractions but better service. Smaller amusement arcades and fewer computer games in the kids’ clubs may actually please some parents. The family suite is smaller and cheaper than RCI’s. It has a children’s bedroom for up to four, just off the parents' room. This has a small lounge area and balcony.
The company that boasts it offers “cruises for people who don’t like cruises” is much less formal. Entertainment is much more contemporary and shore excursions more exciting. The kids' clubs are lively and offer free babysitting in the evenings but you have to pay to leave your children behind if you go ashore. There are no family suites - you either share one cabin or book adjoining ones.