Vacationing can be a lot of work with young kids in tow, but also very rewarding -- the bonding and all those frame-worthy photos are the payback. I would know: My twin boys are 7½ years old and they've already racked up 21 "research" cruises with Mom. With their first sailing at the ripe old age of 10 months, I remember how those early cruises focused on keeping them occupied when they were too young to join the kids' programs. I also remember plotting how to carve out some down time for Mom and Dad. Read on to see why certain cruises work so well for families with babies and toddlers. Tune in next week to learn about cruising with older kids from age 4 to 7.
Celebrity Zenith, Bermuda
My guys' first cruise was aboard the ex-Celebrity Zenith to Bermuda from New York in 2003. Between lugging the strollers, diapers, and 80 jars of baby food on board, my friend Beth and I had our work cut out for us. But we survived and the memories are priceless, from how darn cute the boys were in the pair of side-by-side cribs we requested for the cabin (request them when booking; supplies are limited) to the days spent on the baby-friendly sand of the Bermuda beaches. At the end of each fun but long day, we tapped into Celebrity's in-cabin babysitting. What a lifesaver. We arranged to have an off-duty cabin stewardess come to the cabin every night at 8 p.m. (after the boys were already asleep) for four hours so we could have dinner with the grown-ups. It would be an understatement to say the service was well worth the $10 an hour.
Carnival Legend, Caribbean
A month later, I took my guys on the Carnival Legend from New York to Puerto Rico. Since Carnival doesn't have private in-cabin babysitting, my friend Chrissy and I successfully tested what would become a tried-and-true evening cruise ritual for several years to come: sleeping under a stroller tent. After being fed and bathed, we put the boys to sleep in the cabin beds and then moments after the snoring started (luckily my guys have always been heavy sleepers), we transferred them to their strollers, which reclined to about 45 degrees. I put a light blanket over the top, and pushed them to dinner with us. It worked like a charm. They snoozed soundly through our appetizer, main course, bottle of wine, and dessert, and we enjoyed a much-needed break. A few nights we took the sleepers to the late-night "slumber-party" in the Camp Carnival playroom, where between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., children 6 months to age 11 can be dropped off at the rate of $6 an hour ($4 for siblings). This worked for an hour or so, but then I was beeped to retrieve them when one of the boys woke up and started crying.
Serenade of the Seas, Caribbean
When the boys were about one, Chrissy, the kids, and I flew from New York to Florida, boarding in Fort Lauderdale, just a 10-minute drive from the airport. Some embarkation ports are quite a bit farther from the nearest airports (an hour to Port Canaveral and up to 30 minutes to the Port of Miami, for instance). Royal Caribbean and Celebrity were early favorites of mine solely because they both offer private in-cabin babysitting (most cruise lines do not), a huge plus in the years before the boys were old enough to attend the drop-off kids' programs. By day, when we weren't in port taking the kids to various beaches in St. Thomas, Barbados, and St. Martin, we tired the little buggers out by letting them toddle around empty lounges, scampering up and down the aisles of the show lounge, and crawling under the pews in the ship's chapel. They were always sufficiently tired out to eat well and fall asleep each evening in time for our night out.
Caribbean Princess, Caribbean
This ship gets huge points for its outdoor play area. Though my boys were still a year and a half short of the three-year age minimum for joining the supervised drop-off kids' program, we were still free to use the facilities if I stayed there with them. The ship's huge play space at the aft of Deck 16 seemed tailored for my super active toddlers. The fully secure area sits under the shade of the upper deck. It includes one wall of ocean-view safety glass and another wall covered by floor-to-ceiling netting that lets in cool sea breezes. Outfitted with a fleet of three-wheelers and a mini basketball setup, we spent hours here.
Disney Wonder, Bahamas
When the boys were a few months shy of two, my husband finally dared to join us on a cruise. I picked an easy one for him, the Disney Wonder. What a joy to have access to the Flounder's Reef nursery to give us a break. Open for kids ages 3 months to 3 years at $6 an hour per child ($5 for siblings), we dropped the boys off there for two hours each day, grabbed the beepers we were issued (just in case) and went wild -- on the day we were in port at Castaway Cay, Disney's private Bahamian Island, my husband made a beeline for the gym while I hightailed it to Serenity Bay, the adults-only beach area. I booked a one-hour massage in a seaside cabana and let the stress melt away against a backdrop of crashing surf and sea breezes.
Norwegian Dawn, Bahamas & Florida
This was the boys' first cruise where they were old enough to join the big-boy drop-off kids' program. While 3 years old is the minimum for most lines, it's 2 years old on NCL. Our guys were 2½ and had happily gone to the playroom for several hours a day. The only downside was the crowd; we were cruising over Easter and the ship was full of families. The playrooms were packed to the gills. I had never seen so many kids in any ship playroom before (or since). Still, our guys didn't seem to mind and we'd pick them up and admire their painted faces, paper hats, and stories about the games they had played.
Queen Mary 2, transatlantic crossing
As someone with mild claustrophobic tendencies, I worried if six days at sea with no ports would do me in. To face my fears and make the experience truly challenging, I made the crossing with my sons, then 2½. Cruising with my friend Beth, the gamble paid off and we had a ball in no small part because of the QM2's awesome (believe it or not) kids' program. The Zone's all-day programming operated for kids ages 1 and up -- an extraordinarily young minimum age shared only by Disney's ships and Oasis of the Seas. The bright, cheerful space has lots of toys, arts and crafts, a play gym and ball pit, and big-screen TVs. Plus, the British nannies and counselors do change diapers. It was never crowded like most of the playrooms on mainstream big-ship lines. There's even an outdoor play gym adjacent to the playroom, along with a wading pool and a water-spray fountain for kids. Another plus was the ship's impressive medical center. Like a mini-hospital, it came in handy when one of my boys got an ear infection and needed antibiotics.
Carnival Liberty, Caribbean
As 3-year-olds, my guys could join Carnival's drop-off program, and they had a ball. Given my guys weren't yet in real school, we were able to take our cruise in early January, in the beloved off-season. Our sailing had way fewer children aboard than usual because it was right after the holidays when older kids are just heading back to school. During busy family times, there can easily be 1,000 children and teens aboard -- sorry, but that is not my idea of a vacation. In our case, there were just a few hundred, so the boys got more attention from the counselors and practically took over the ship's roomy Camp Carnival space. Now that's more like it.