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January 28, 2004 -- It's no secret that more and more families are taking cruises. Of the 8 million or so people who went on a cruise in 2003, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry trade organization, estimates that about a quarter were families traveling with kids. Last year, Carnival Cruise Lines, for instance, had some 400,000 children under 18 sail with them, and expects 450,000 kids in 2004 -- a 350% percent increase from 10 years ago.

And it's not just older kids, big ships routinely sail with 20 or 30 infants per cruise. And that's year-round, since there's no need to wait for school vacations or holidays. No longer left at home with grandma, these days babies are getting their sea legs before they can even walk.

I should know, I've got 15-month-old twin boys and we've been on three cruises together already.

[Editor's Note: Click here to see the author and family at sea in the Frommer's Photo Center at Snapfish.com. A free registration is required to view.]

Though a cruise can be among the most convenient vacations for families with kids under two, before you take the plunge, be sure to choose a baby-friendly ship.

Most lines, including Disney, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, and Norwegian, have portable cribs for loan. Request one when you make your booking. Many also have mini-fridges in some or all cabins for storing milk and snacks. If you can, book a cabin with a balcony, most ships built since the mid to late 90s have hundreds of them. Balconies come in real handy as a spare room. It's a perfect place to regroup and relax while baby naps inside, an ideal spot for storing a stroller, and yet another area for your toddler to explore (supervised of course!).

Booking a roomy cabin is obviously another plus, but you don't have to spring for a suite. Disney's standard cabins are the largest out there, and they even come with two bathrooms. The standard cabins on the Carnival and Celebrity fleets and on Royal Caribbean's newest ships are also a decent size. Anything smaller than 160 to 170 square feet will be a tight squeeze when you consider a crib will also have to fit. In some cases a table or chair will have to be removed from your cabin to make room.

Perhaps what trumps all else, though, in my humble motherly opinion, is a ship that offers in-cabin babysitting for infants. While lots of vessels have supervised group activities and babysitting for the potty-trained set (ages 2 or 3 on up), far fewer offer any kind of care for younger children. For those that do, your choices are private babysitting in the cabin and/or group babysitting in the playroom.

Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and high-end lines like Crystal and Radisson Seven Seas offer in-cabin sitting for about $8 to $10 an hour and sometimes more, for babies as young as 6 to 12 months. After requesting a sitter at the guest relations desk (ideally at least 24 hours in advance), an available crewmember, often a female cabin stewardess, comes to your stateroom to watch over your little ones while you head out for a much needed adults-only break. Generally, private in-cabin sitting is offered from about 8pm through 2am, with a two-hour minimum.

Though less convenient, a handful of lines -- including Carnival, Disney and Cunard -- offer group sitting for infants. Babies are in the care of the ships' official kids' counselors in a playroom set up with cribs and often with videos for older kids. And therein lies the downside: the group environment can be noisy and disturb junior's peaceful slumber. Also, with Carnival for instance, the service only starts at 10pm, so you'll have to take your little bundle of joy to dinner with you first. The plus side with Carnival's program, on the other hand, is that babies as young as four months are welcome. Disney's nursery program is more impressive, starting at 3 months and operating from 6pm till midnight daily. Cunard's new luxury liner, Queen Mary 2, has group sitting for children as young as age one. Rates for group sitting average $5 to $8 an hour.

No matter which ship you choose for your family, it's vital to pack smart to stay as organized (and sane) as possible. Be sure to bring:

  • Disposal bibs
  • Scented plastic bags for dirty diapers
  • Swim diapers (though keep in mind, children wearing diapers of any kind are not officially allowed in ships' pools; in port, though, the ocean is fair game)
  • Inflatable toys like beach balls (they're space savers and quiet -- remember, cabin walls are not 100% soundproof)
  • Liquid formula (easier than mixing the messy powdered stuff with the ships' expensive bottled water)
  • Reclining stroller (to encourage sleeping if taking baby to dinner)
  • Winter PJs (even in the hot Caribbean, cabins are chilly because of air-conditioning)
  • Diapers and baby food (ships don't provide either)

Other tips include choosing a port-packed itinerary. I've found that having the option of getting off the ship and strolling around town or heading for a local beach beats being bound to the ship for several days on end. In the Caribbean, for instance, a week-long cruise could include as many as five ports and one day at sea, or as few as three ports and three or four days at sea. Depends which ship and itinerary you book. Also, if you can avoid flying to the port of embarkation, you'll save a few thousand brain cells and cut down on the day's stress. More ships than ever are cruising to the Caribbean and other destinations from U.S. embarkation ports, including New York, New Orleans, Charleston, Baltimore, Galveston and Jacksonville, FL, to name a few.

Now that you're prepared, take the plunge and push that stroller up that gangway. And remember, though you may not come home completely rested, you'll come home with a sea of priceless memories.

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