I have to be honest: When I take my kids on a cruise, I get a little obsessive. Not about packing or worrying if they'll get sick, but about how I can get them to go to the playroom -- as often as possible. Weeks before the cruise, I begin the sales job, tantalizing them in hushed, excited tones about how fun the ball bin will be, how they'll enjoy the arts and crafts, and what a blast it'll be playing with all of those new toys.
Don't get me wrong, I adore my 3-year-old twin boys, Kavi and Tejas, but I repeat, they're twin boys. Furthermore, when you travel for a living like I do, you need all the breaks you can get to actually do some work. (I know, I know, it's a tough job.) I spend my quality time with my kids at home, not on a cruise.
As we rack up our ocean odysseys, we learn a little more each time about works best for all of us.
My most recent cruise -- the 11th with the boys -- has been the best thus far, in no small part because the older they get, the better they "take" to playing in a room with a bunch of strangers while mommy sneaks away.
On the new Carnival Liberty (which I'm aboard right now, this week, as you're reading this), I couldn't be happier with the setup.
The playroom for 2- to 5-year-olds is big, bright, and open. My boys love the play kitchens, giant castle-building blocks, and the sea of toy boats, trucks, farms, and other kid favorites. I have been picking them up to find their little faces painted like rabbits or princes. They're often wearing paper fireman hats or bunny ears.
The hours of operation are generous (from early morning to late at night) and the program includes the option of having kids dine with the counselors on most nights. I tried this once so I could start my evening earlier and it worked great.
Sound too good to be true? Yes and no.
Tip #1: Ships with really great kids' playrooms and programming obviously attract a lot of families with kids during holidays and school breaks; cruise at other times or be prepared for some serious kiddy gridlock.
According to Youth Director Joanne Ross, my January 7 Liberty cruise had only 41 children ages 2 to 5 onboard, and there were never more than 10 to 20 in the playroom at a time. On the other hand, the cruise a week earlier, which fell over the New Year's holiday, saw 175 kids ages 2 to 5. In fact, during busy family times, there can easily be more than 1,000 children and teens under 21 aboard the ship. That's about one third of the passenger load. I know it's a lot easier on my boys (and me), if they're getting more attention from the youth counselors and are not elbow-to-elbow with hordes of other kiddies.
I booked a transatlantic crossing on the QM2 last July and was excited about it for many reasons. One, I had never done a crossing before and was eager to try it. Two, the QM2 has an excellent setup for kids as young as one, with supervised programming almost non-stop until midnight.
Tip #2: Make sure you know the minimum age for kids programming before you book a cruise, since it can be as high as three.
Still, I didn't know how we'd all fare with six whole days at sea. The worry was for naught, since it all worked pretty well. My boys had a blast flinging themselves around the ball pit in the bright, cheery playroom that was never too crowded. (A QM2 cruise rarely sees more than 250 children and teens.)
Guilt schmilt: They were happy, I was happy.
The QM2 was the boys' ninth cruise, and the first in years when I had so much free time. As cruel as it sounds, we'd feed, bathe, and get Kavi and Tejas off to sleep in the cabin, then hoist them out of their beds, plunk them into their strollers, and wheel them all the way down the long, long corridor to the playroom.
Tip #3: Ideally, book a cabin with a mini-fridge and tub, and use the 24-hour room service to order milk, breakfast, snacks, and sometimes even pizza.
The QM2 gets big points for having one of the cruise industry's only nurseries, a quiet, dark, supervised place where I could then transfer my still-sleeping angels into a cozy little crib for a few hours. For the first four nights, it worked like a charm. Then jet lag came into the picture and ruined everything.
Tip #4: Make sure you take potential time-changes into consideration before booking a cruise with young children.
All in all, though, we had a good system going on the QM2 and Liberty. But it hasn't always been so easy -- or rather, it hasn't always not been hard. If you've ever traveled with toddlers, you'll know exactly what I mean.
In the spirit of keeping up appearances as an ambitious career mom, I lugged my boys aboard their first cruise at the ripe old age of 9 months, along with a 400-pound suitcase filled with 70 little clinking jars of spinach and sweet potatoes.
Tip #5: If your kids are still in diapers, eating jar food and/or drinking formula, you gotta bring your own.
The toughest part was lining up a friend to go with me. My husband Arun had conveniently used up all of his vacation time for the year, or so he said. Pre-kids, I had friends and relatives (and even strangers) lining up to travel with me. Suddenly everyone stopped answering their phones . . . or almost everyone.
My friend Beth stepped up to the plate and signed up for the first one. In those early days, before the boys were old enough to participate in any supervised activities, it was the boys and us all day long. To cope, it was essential we had a break come evening to re-group, re-cap, and drink a lot. To this end, I always made sure I booked a cruise where private, in-cabin babysitting was available.
Tip #6: Private babysitting works great for young children who are predictable sleepers.
On that first cruise, on Celebrity's Zenith from New York to Bermuda, my routine was getting the boys to sleep in their cribs by 8pm.
Tip #7: Avoid the cost and hassles of flying with kids and cruise from a homeport near your home.
Tip #8: Most ships have cribs, but you've got to request one when you book.
The sitter I had arranged at the front desk, a sweet off-duty room stewardess from Romania, came at 8:15 sharp so we could make the 8:30 late-seating dinner. It was the best $8 an hour I had ever spent.
A few cruises later on Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas out of San Juan, it was a similar setup, though at 14 months my boys were now walking . . . and running. My friend Chrissy and I schlepped them to beach nearly every day, so they were exhausted and asleep by the time the sitter arrived at 8:15 each night.
Tip #9: The more ports, the better, and make sure they're warm and sunny ones . . . trust me.
Still, it was long week with a squirmy set of toddlers, and unfortunately it all ended with a nasty little fight. Chrissy accused me of being a slave driver -- who me? -- but we've since reconciled.
When the boys were 17 months, we spent a week on Princess's Caribbean Princess, in the Caribbean of course. But what was I thinking? The minimum age for group activities or any kind of babysitting was three, though we were allowed to use the ship's great fenced-in outdoor play area. What really saved this trip was some smart pre-planning. I brought along a babysitter! Between her, me, and my friend Sheila, caring for the boys was almost a breeze. Too bad it cost too much to ever consider again -- a second cabin, plus her airfare and salary. Ka-ching Ka-ching.
Tip #10: If your mother or Aunt Shirley are hankering to spend some quality time with your kids, think: free built-in babysitter!
The next cruise was a 3-night Bahamas trip on the Disney Wonder out of Port Canaveral. My husband Arun was suspiciously available for this one, probably because the ship has a nursery for little kids. At 21 months, the boys had a blast the first time we left them there, enjoying all the new toys and a little sliding board. The novelty wore off by the next visit and they bawled like we were giving them up for adoption. Still, we persevered and pried them off and handed them over to the sweet martyrs . . . err, youth counselors. Later I'd come and peek at the boys through a one-way porthole. One pathetic evening they sat together on a big Lilly-Tomlin chair staring at a television like shell-shocked little puppies. Undeterred, we tried again the next morning for two hours -- all in the name of research. Arun ran to the gym and I headed to the adult beach on Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas. One frosty piÂ¿a colada and a deep-tissue massage later, I was back aboard to fetch my little cuties and enjoy some togetherness.
Tip #11: Don't assume your little ones will be happy about being dropped off at the nursery or playroom. If there's too much crying, you'll be asked to take them out.
Finally, after a few more cruises, the boys had turned two and doors really began to open. We booked passage on NCL's Norwegian Dawn, whose kids program included ages 2 to 17. Yippee! Arun was available -- big surprise -- and the four of us set off on a 7-night Bahamas and Florida cruise round-trip from New York, our home base. During the day, we could usually get the boys to spend a few hours in the playroom, directly due to its huge climbing maze and ball bin. We tried several times to drop them off at 7pm for the evening program, but they wouldn't have it. Oh well, we'd have to resort once again to putting them to sleep in the cabin first and then into the strollers and off to dinner with us, as they snoozed away like little drunken sailors.
With each subsequent cruise, my boys have been more comfortable in the playrooms and now seem to really understand my explanation for putting them there. "Honeys, you play here for a bit, mama has to go and talk with Uncle Captain for a few minutes."
Hey, whatever works.
Soon enough they'll be smart-alecky teens and I'll be begging them to spend a little time with me. I can see it now. "Maahhhhuummm, we want to go and hang out with our friends in the teen club on deck 12. Can't you and pops just go have dinner without us?"
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