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Remember when a week at the Holiday Inn and dinner at Pizza Hut every night was the vacation splurge we looked forward to as kids?

Kids are way more traveled than they used to be. Now cruises are one of the many must-do family vacations, along with trips to Orlando and jaunts to Europe.

In fact, about one million of the nearly nine million North Americans who took a cruise in 2004 were passengers under 17. If you've got kids of your own, this is great news (now that I'm traveling with my little tykes, the more kids on board, the better mine can blend in). On the biggest ships, 1,000 to 1,200 kids and teens are typical, especially during summer vacation and holiday times. If you don't plan on traveling with kids, well, sure hope you like the little buggers (otherwise, you may want to consider a small ship instead, where there tend to be far fewer tots in tow).

That said, because most kids on a cruise are happy as clams in the children's areas, you won't see them running around the rest of the ship as much as you might expect.

The newer ships of the mass-market lines, including Disney (surprise surprise), Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian and Princess go all out with facilities and supervised activities for kids of all ages, from age two or three (Disney's starts at 3 months) through 17. Holland America and Celebrity offer decent facilities too. All have playrooms; the best stocked with goodies like ball bins and climbing mazes, plus lots of games, toys and computers. Teen centers are typical and many are designed to look as stylish as adult lounges. Remember when vending machines and a swimming pools were exciting?

Now, the basics include video arcades, kids-only splash pools, and lots of kid friendly snack areas serving tasty junk food like ice-cream, pizza, burgers and chicken fingers. Kids menus are pretty standard in the main dining rooms as well, as are high chairs.

Even some of the lux lines like Cunard and Crystal do their bit to cater to families. Both lines have playrooms on the their ships along with supervised activities whenever demand warrants it.

Children's activities are included in the cruise fare, though you pay for extras like late-night baby-sitting (usually offered after 10pm) and shore excursions.

Though so many are, not all ships are kid friendly. Many times older ships (say, pre early 90s), have small, outdated playrooms. Some ships, usually the smaller adventure and luxury vessels, don't have any children's playrooms or activities, and in a few cases, disallow kids outright. For example, American Canadian Caribbean Line doesn't permit children under 14. Windjammer Barefoot has an age minimum of 6 to sail with them (on the big ultra kid-friendly ships, it's anywhere from 3 months to 6 months). And for luxury lines like Silversea and Seabourn that technically allow kids, they certainly don't cater to them, and they expect, as do the other passengers, that children who come onboard be seen and not heard.

You find the most kids on ships in the Caribbean, but other regions are gaining ground too. In Alaska, the glaciers, native culture, and wildlife are interesting and educational for kids. Europe, too, is becoming more popular with family cruisers. Aside from the port experience, kids on a cruise in Europe are often mingling with kids in the playroom that speak English only as a second language, if at all, so your kids might actually learn something about other cultures. On all itineraries, it's more and more common to see multiple generations traveling together: children, parents, and grandparents. An added bonus of course is grampy and grammy are built-in babysitters!

Cruise lines set up their programs by age, similar to a summer camp, so that children can get involved in age-appropriate activities with their peers. The programs start with children ages two or three (with the exception of Disney and Cunard, you yourself are the program for a child younger than two) and often require that toddlers are potty-trained. Keep in mind, some cruise lines require that their youth counselors have degrees in education or phys ed. Other lines don't have such high standards, though don't worry, a dishwasher from the galley won't be watching over your little tykes either. As far as figuring out the ratio of youth staff to kids, most don't have one. Typically, a cruise line looks at the passenger manifest weeks before a cruise and can assess how many counselors to have given the number of kids on board a given week.

Even so, there's no way a cruise line can guess how many of the kids on board will actually come to the playrooms and participate in the activities. (My boys have been the only ones in the playroom, with a counselor all to themselves, and they've also been two of maybe 40 or 50 kids in their age group, being supervised by 4 or 5 counselors.) Most lines have a "no turn away" policy and will accept all kids who want to participate. During busy periods, like summertime and holiday weeks, these means playrooms during supervised activity times can be crowded. To ease the congestion, smaller groups are often taken on walks around the ships or to do activities like drawing or painting elsewhere, like a quiet, unused part of the promenade deck.

The roster of kids' activities varies from line to line (and, keep in mind, age ranges and hours of operations can vary), but the pickins are better than ever. Here's a sampling of what to expect from the big cruise lines:

  • Try your hand at cool science experiments with magnets and bubbles, or make a volcano (Royal Caribbean)
  • Whip up ice-cream sundaes
  • Learn stuff about animation (Disney) and ocean and marine life (Princess)
  • Do some water coloring (Carnival)
  • Have your face painted
  • Play computer games ala Play Station 2 and Xboxes
  • Surf the Net (teens)
  • Go a back-stage tour of the theater or get a peak at the galley
  • Design your own t-shirt
  • Take dance lessons
  • Show off your acting skills in a talent show
  • Include mom and dad in special family activities like pizza making

Supervised activities may not be offered between about 5pm and 7pm each day, so that the counselors can take a break and grab dinner. They usually resume again between about 7pm and 10pm (after this the babysitting program kicks in and parents are charged an hourly rate). The exceptions to this schedule include pizza parties and special dinners the counselors host once or twice per cruise, typically around 6pm. Afterwards, the children are escorted back to the playroom for most activities. Most moms and dads (duhhh) are psyched for the break though.

Caribbean and Bahamas sailings of the mainstream cruise lines typically include visits to these lines' private beaches in the Bahamas, where there are watersports, barbeque lunch and music waiting for the passengers. Most have kids areas of some kind, sometimes with a playground or water park, and supervised activities. The best for families are Disney's Castaway Cay, Holland America's Half Moon Cay, Royal Caribbean's CocoCay, and Princess' Princess Cays.

Keep in Mind ...

Some ships offer children's programs only seasonally -- during the summer and holiday periods when most families travel. Other programs run year round, namely those of the big-ship lines. Find out if the ship offers the advertised program during the time you plan to sail.

Some ships operate programs for a specific age category only if a minimum number of kids of that age are on board; this number varies, but will likely be about 10 or 20. Find out if your cruise has such restrictions to avoid a tantrum (yours) once on board.

Most programs shut down during meal times, and they may not be offered during port calls. So if you want to take a shore excursion, you may have to bring the kids along, which can get expensive because most lines don't offer substantially cheaper rates for kids' excursions.

Now Wait . . . What About Teens?

Even if your teen has vowed to shun all group activities because they're just too darn cool, they may eventually break down and want to meet the other teens. All the big-ship lines have attractive teen centers to hang out, pose and make snide remarks about each other. Activities like dances, parties, and karaoke are typically on the agenda, and give teens the green light to chill with peers and avoid mom and dad -- a bonus for all concerned.

So your angelic adolescent offspring can stay in touch with pals back home, rest assured, just about every ship that carries more than 100 or so passengers offers Internet access. On the big mega ships, there will be an Internet center with 15-plus computers, often twice that number, that operates around the clock, or nearly so. In some cases there is a private computer nook with Internet access in the teen centers.

Oh Yeh, What About the Cabin?

Obviously bigger is better. If you can afford it, opt for a suite or two connecting cabins (most ships have some) to avoid getting in each other's hair. Family togetherness is all well and good, but after 7 days in a space no bigger than your kitchen, you don't want to have to vote someone out of the cabin. Many ships now offer a handful of Family Suites, in addition to a selection of mini-suites and regular suites, which offer more space for families (but are also more expensive than standard cabins). But if you're all social butterflies flitting from one activity to another, you may only use the cabin to sleep. If that's the case, you can survive with four in a standard cabin (and save some dough to boot). At the very least, though, consider a cabin with a balcony; the extra living space can go a long way. As far as cost, typically two kids n a cabin with the parents pa about half the full fare, called the third and fourth passenger rate; a few lines have even lower rates.

If you need a crib, request one when booking your cruise, they're complimentary. Many cabins, but not all, have mini-fridges and some bathtubs, and just about all ships have 24-hour rooms for ordering cartons of milk, sandwiches and snacks.

Keeping Tabs and Keeping in Touch

Most children's programs are designed so that kids -- depending on their ages -- can come and go. Planned activities are certainly less restrictive than day-care facilities at home. Many programs require that kids under a certain age (usually somewhere between 9 and 13) must be signed in and out of the activity area or playroom by a parent, though policies on this may vary. If you grant your older kids wandering privileges, emphasize that the casino is off limits (officially, at least). Find out, too, if the ship requests that unsupervised children not visit the spa, gym, disco, or other adult-oriented areas; typically these areas do not allow children under 16 or 18 to enter. You may want to consider investing in hand-held walkie-talkies so that you and the kids can keep tabs on each other (though they're incredibly annoying to everyone else around you). More and more ships are being wired for cell phone access, though at press time, the technology and scope wasn't totally reliable. But that's just a matter of time.

Even on ships with extensive children's programs, you're still responsible for your children's safety at the pool. There are rarely lifeguards, for instance. For safety reasons, most programs don't take kids to the swimming pool.

What's up Doc?

All cruise ships carrying more than a few hundred passengers have a doctor on board, and often several nurses. Though you can visit them in the infirmary on board if need be (there is a fee), it's best to also bring any special medications your children might need. It's also smart to pack a simple first-aid kit, complete with a thermometer and basic medicines, so you don't have to bother seeing the doctor for minor ailments. Also, you may want to check your insurance to see if it covers you in the unlikely event that someone needs to be transported ashore (as in the case of appendicitis). Definitely take the time to tell your kids how important it is to wash their hands frequently; it's the best prevention against gastrointestinal problems and other diseases.

After Hours Babysitting

Though the complimentary supervised programming runs nearly all day long ....not long enough for some of us. We also want to have dinner alone and maybe hit a show or the disco without our four-year-old in tow. If this is you, read on.

A few lines offer private baby-sitting in your cabin (Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and most high-end lines), by an off-duty female crewmember (usually a cabin stewardess). Rates are generally about $10 an hour for two children, and there's usually a two-hour minimum between the hours of about 8pm and 1am or so. More common is group baby-sitting in the playroom, which runs about $8 to $10 an hour for two kids. Double check with your travel agent ahead of time to make sure your cruise line's policies haven't changed. The private sitting is offered based on availability, which means don't dawdle. I always head to the reception desk within a few seconds of boarding to make my requests. Also, with group babysitting, some ships may impose a cap on the numbers allowed into it, so inquire within a few hours of boarding if this is important to you.

Making Sure Your Kids are Safe

Ok, so a ship is only so big. It's a confined environment, so kids can get themselves into only so much trouble. Nevertheless, you still need to drill your kids on basic safety procedures before setting sail. The number one rule: Don't lean on the railings of open decks or verandas. Although most railings are high enough to not be of major concern for non-climbing little kids, make a strict rule about it to be on the safe side -- particularly if you have active kids. Better yet, never let kids out on cabin balconies unsupervised.

Another important rule is to make sure that your children don't go to the pool without telling you, because most ships don't have lifeguards. Pools with waterslides often have staff members regulating the flow of traffic, but they don't get paid to watch for little ones swimming unsupervised.

Make sure your children take the onboard safety drill seriously and that they understand the safety information you and the ship provide.

Also, check that your cabin has appropriately sized life jackets.

As on any vacation, have your children memorize the home base information -- the ship's name and their cabin and deck numbers -- in case you get separated during the voyage.

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