Matt: OK, it's finally happened: I have to ask you for advice.
Heidi: Oh, like you never needed my advice before? How about that time you called desperate for a hangover cure? And that other time you asked me what I thought of those out-of-date round sunglasses of yours?
Matt: I have no idea what you're talking about. But like I said: advice. Here's the situation: All of a sudden, out of the blue, I'm a dad. There's a baby lying right here next to me as I type. Am I really going to be able to keep traveling, or is it all diapers, binkies, and Boppies from here on out?
Heidi: I'm from the school of "you can do it all." And lucky for us, cruises make our job as parents and travel writers pretty darn easy. I took my boys on their first cruise when they were nine months old. They're six now and have been on 19. Proof's in the pudding.
Matt: Nineteen cruises?! That's unbelievable. But OK, my little guy is only 19 days old, but which ship or line should we do first, when he's a little older?
Heidi: For babies, the best are those that offer private in-cabin babysitting so mom and dad can have dinner with the grown-ups. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Holland America offer it and I used to book an off-duty stewardess to come in from about 8pm to midnight. My boys were asleep the whole time and of course I could come by and check on them as often as I liked. Royal Caribbean is also the only line to offer daily 45-minute playgroups for parents and their babies and toddlers. Otherwise, ships' supervised drop-off kids' programming begins at age two (NCL and Carnival) or three (all the rest), except Cunard (which welcomes kids one+ in its program) and Disney (whose ships have a nursery for kids as young as three months).
(Matt: This is a whispered aside to readers. Now, what you may or may not know is that Heidi and I share writing responsibility for most of Frommer's cruise content, and have done so for almost ten years. We co-write the guidebooks, write features and updates for the website, and generally collaborate -- but when deadline time looms, sometimes I slack off and neglect to read her contributions, just trusting that, say, the dozens of stories she's done about cruising with kids are accurate and complete. With that background, let's get back to the conversation ...)
Matt: Oh hell, I knew all that. What, you don't think I read your articles about cruising with kids?
Heidi: Sheeerrr you've read all my stories, you big fat liar! Not one to hold grudges, I'll walk you through the basics. Now, for babies, many ships will provide cribs if you request one ahead. On my boys' first cruise, on Celebrity, a pair of the cutest mini cribs were set up at the foot of the bed. They were great. Other lines offer pack-n-plays, another type of mini crib. Now, you are responsible for bringing your own baby food -- on that first cruise, when my twin boys were nine months old, my carry-on suitcase with filled with about 80 clinking jars of creamed spinach and mashed yams.
Matt: Oy. We're planning to make all our own food with a Vitamix and organic veggies. How am I going to pack all that? I'll look like Farmer Bob pulling my wagon up the gangway.
Heidi: Get used to schlepping -- it's a parent's whole reason for being. I brought a pair of strollers on board, too, for my early cruises with the boys. Carnival has them for rent on their ships, but it's first come first served, and I wouldn't want to take a chance. What else you want to know?
Matt: How about meals? Do you always have someone watch your kids during dinner, or do you ever bring them with you to the restaurant?
Heidi: In those first two years, since we had the kids allllll day (since they were too young for the drop-off program), yes: We always fed them first, put them to sleep, and waited for the angel -- er, babysitter -- to come in and relieve us for four glorious adult hours.
Matt: Oh, so you don't lug the kids to the formal restaurant. Got it. I had pictures of the kids trying to fit in at those awkward first-night dinners. "So, you're in insurance. That's got to be interesting. Me? I burp. Gurgle sometimes. Pee on myself. You know: the usual."
Heidi: Well, I'm sure your kid would be more interesting than half the strangers I've been seated next to, but that's another story. Basically, you have to know your kid. If he's well behaved and quiet, then take him with you. On several occasions when our guys were in the 1-3 age range and there was no in-cabin babysitting, we'd put them to sleep in the cabin beds, wait ten minutes, transfer them to the strollers, drape blankets over the whole thing, and push 'em on to dinner. Luckily my little logs would typically snooze there next to our chairs through the whole meal. Now, when they got to about four years old and could behave in the big-boy restaurant, we started bringing them to dinner with us. (God, a young boy in a clip-on tie is just about the cutest thing on the planet.) Sometimes they go to the playroom after dinner for an hour or two, unless of course they're begging to go to the Vegas-style show with us -- they love that stuff!
Heidi: No kidding. They were four when we last did Disney and of course they loved those production shows, considering the character themes and exciting sets. But even otherwise, they like it all, especially the illusionists and magicians, but even the song-and-dance stuff. The trios in the atrium have been a draw too, especially if you get them a good seat so they can see the violin, piano, cello, or whatever up close.
Matt: Budding musicians, huh? I like to think that's my influence -- but then, they've probably spent a lot more time on ships than they have around me.
Heidi: Yep, and see what's happened? Think of a cruise as a crazy kind of seagoing culture class for kids. Who knew! Don't get the wrong impression, though; my kids are as lowbrow as they are high. I can't drag 'em away from the men's hairy-chest contest or the cannonball competitions. My husband, on the other hand, he hides.
Matt: Ha! The lowbrow stuff must be your influence. You can take the expat out of the rust belt, but you can't take the rust belt out of the expat -- or her kids.
Heidi: What nerve!! I've got perfect brows, if the truth be told. AND I also read The New Yorker and like Chopin! Teaching kids to laugh, duhhhh, is a very important lesson. And one, I might add, that I'm very good at teaching.
Matt: Wanna come by and give my little guy some lessons? I'm such a sourpuss, y'know.
Heidi: That's right, Mr. Deadpan, pretend you're not funny. I get the joke. Well, I'm sure your little bundle has already figured out that those subtle facial adjustments of yours -- the eye thing and that grin -- really mean you're laughing hysterically inside.
Matt: I have no idea what you're talking about. Good kid advice, though. Thanks!
Matt Hannafin and Heidi Sarna have been co-authors of Frommer's cruise content since 1997, when they were both die-hard New Yorkers. Now Heidi's in Singapore and Matt's in Portland, Oregon. E-mail is a wonderful thing.