If you’re planning on hitting the high seas for your next getaway, you’ll definitely want to check out my first-time cruise tips for families! We just returned from our very first family cruise vacation and I learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) on our trip. Read on for my #1 advice plus 9 more tips that will help you squeeze the most fun out of your vacation!
Top 10 Best Cruise Tips for Families
While these tips work for any cruise lines, let me give you a quick overview of our trip. We spent one spectacular week on the The MSC Seaside, which departed out of Miami. Our trip took us to Jamaica (Ocho Rios), Cayman Islands (George Town), Mexico (Cozumel and took a Ferry to Playa del Carmen) and The Bahamas (Nassau). There was a lot to see and do in just 7 days, but we managed to pack in a lot of fun! It all started with my #1 tip!
1. Choose a kid-friendly ship
Of all the cruise tips here, this is the most important one if you’re traveling with your family. My kids are 4 and 8, so it was super important to choose a cruise that they would enjoy just as much as we would. The MSC Seaside had a LEGO club with tons of activities plus a huge multistory water park, several swimming pools and more.
Even if you’re going on a short cruise and plan to spend most of your time visiting the islands, remember that you’ll have at least a couple of days at sea. If the ship isn’t really kid-friendly, you’ll wind up with a bored and grumpy family by the time you arrive back home.
2. Pack well but don’t overdo it!
You want to pack everything you could possibly need for a trip to the middle of the ocean (okay, not quite middle, but still) yet at the same time not overdo it! It’s kind of a balancing act.
I packed way too many clothes. I got excited about dressing up for dinner but in reality, there is only one “Captain’s Night” (2 tops) where you get to dress “fancy” and take pictures. A cocktail dress is just fine for formal night. You may also want to pack one or two extra formal outfits (in case you spill something on one).
For the rest of your clothes, keep it simple and stick to comfortable “beachy” stuff, like shorts, t-shirts and swimwear. In fact, if there’s one thing you may want to go a little overboard with, it’s bathing suits since you’ll be using them every day (and sometimes more than once a day). You may also want to bring a sweatshirt for cooler nights, depending on where you’re going.
Remember, rooms are small so avoid taking things that you don’t really need. For example, most cruise ships provide bath and beach towels that you can take with you when visiting the islands. Also, unless your kids (or you!) are super attached to a particular pillow or blanket, leave those things at home, too.
3. Find out what’s included and what’s not
A lot of people think of cruises as “all-inclusive” vacations but in reality, there’s quite a bit that isn’t included. The good thing is you can totally do without most of those extras.
As far as food goes, a typical cruise fare includes buffet meals, unlimited basic drinks (tea, water, coffee, iced-tea, some juices, etc.), some snack options and 24-hour room service (usually with a limited menu). Nearly all on-ship activities are part of your fare, like shows & nightclubs. The LEGO club was also included, which was a huge plus!
On our cruise, things like a chocolate bar or ice cream place weren’t included. Soda and alcoholic drinks are not included but you can typically buy a drink package if you want. We didn’t do that. My husband and I bought a bottle a wine to share at dinner on some days. Other days I was happy with a margarita or a gin and tonic.
If you’re just going to enjoy a drink or two a day, it’s not worth spending the extra money. Drink packages usually start at $35 per person per day and go up to $80 per person per day for premium cocktails. Think of it this way: on a 7-day cruise, the basic package alone will run you an extra $245 per person! Water is so much better for you than soda anyway!
4. Stick with the buffet or main ship restaurant
Most ships give you two main options for dining: the buffet and an a la carte restaurant (typically with just a few options each night). Our ship was HUGE and had two main buffets! It also had specialty restaurants for an extra fee. We skipped those because we were more than pleased with the included dining options.
While you’ll definitely want to dine at the main restaurant a couple of times (especially on Captain’s Night), the buffet is a great choice for families with kids. First, you don’t have to sit and wait for food to arrive. Second (and even better), the buffet is an awesome opportunity for kids to try new foods. My kids tried so many new foods from both the restaurant and the buffet, but the nice thing about a buffet is that they can see things that might appeal to them better than they can on a menu.
5. Don’t over-schedule your port of call activities
It’s tempting to plan a specific excursion for every stop on your trip, but you’ll miss out on the opportunity to explore on your own. Most islands in the Caribbean have beautiful white sand beaches and brilliant blue water. Just spending the day there is more than enough and won’t cost a thing except the transportation! Take advantage of the opportunity to get a nice family pic.
If you do plan an excursion, do it either early during your stop or towards the end of the day. That way you have a good chunk of time at the beginning or end for your own exploration.
6. Save money by using local tour groups vs. ship excursions
One of the best money-saving cruise tips: don’t assume that you have to go with an excursion offered by your cruise line. Along with just exploring on our own, we also took several kid-friendly tours when visiting the islands. My family really enjoyed them! However, we didn’t plan any of them ahead of time or book them through the ship. We found plenty of certified tours available at each location that were cheaper than those offered through the cruise line.
7. Splurge on a room with a balcony
Balcony rooms cost a bit more than other rooms but they’re definitely worth it. Our cabin had a small balcony, which was so nice because it is pretty crowded inside the room with 4 people. If you can’t swing the extra cost, try to at least get a room with a window. Interior rooms can feel pretty claustrophobic even if you’re just traveling with one other person, let along your entire family.
8. Pack a carry on for the first and last day
Keep in mind that you’ll have to check your luggage in before you get on the ship and may not see it again for hours. In fact, you won’t even see your room until later in the day. Basically, what you carry on is all you have for most of the first day.
The same goes for the last day. Usually, you put your luggage out the night before you dock at home and don’t see it again until you get off the ship.
Plus, in rare cases, the ship loses track of your luggage (not loses it entirely, just takes longer to find it and get it to you) or delivers the wrong luggage to your room. You’ll be really grateful for your carry on if that happens!
Make sure you pack a change of clothes per person, extra swimsuits, and any necessary medications in your carry on.
9. Take some time for yourself & your partner
Remember that kids club I mentioned above? Don’t feel bad about using it every now and then so that you and your partner can spend some time together. At night after dinner, we left the kids for a couple of hours (not every day of the cruise) and one night we went to the casino, another night to the hot tub to enjoy a drink while looking at the ocean. It was nice to have some alone time with my husband. 🙂
10. Skip the Wi-Fi and just spend time bonding with your family
Make sure you schedule in some bonding time with the family. Play board games or participate in one of the ship’s activities. Go to a show. Most shows were also for kids, so we were able to enjoy them.
Another wonderful thing that happened to us: We did not purchase WI-FI. We disconnected from electronics for a week! My kids did not use iPads or phones. Instead, they got to play board games, get creative and play with each other, which my husband and I thought was priceless. We were so happy to see our kids playing without using electronics.
Follow these cruise tips for families and your first experience cruising will be such a huge success that you’ll want to book your next cruise as soon as you hit land!