When my husband and I took our 16-month-old baby on a cruise for the first time with Disney Cruise Line in December, we thought we had everything figured out by the end of that trip. We were wrong. When we took a second voyage with baby on board—this time with Princess Cruises in February—we discovered we still had a boatload (pun very much intended) to learn.
Until that second cruise, for instance, it didn’t occur to us that from a baby’s perspective the onboard casino would look like a thrilling carnival and we would have to chase her down when she waltzed right into that adults-only, smoking-very-much-allowed area.
Much of the time, it’s fun watching a tiny tot toddling all over a vast ship and taking her to exciting ports of call. At other times, we felt like sleep-deprived bouncers trying to outwit a wily underage fun-seeker.
Overall, though, having our little one with us on the cruises was (mostly) worth it, and we’d do it again. For other parents considering taking a baby on a cruise, here’s some helpful advice to ensure (relatively) smooth sailing.
First and foremost, consider your little one’s health.
How young is too young to cruise? Many major cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Disney, and Princess, stipulate that children need to be at least 6 months old in order to go on most local sailings—which for U.S. travelers means cruises in North America and the Caribbean.
For cruise lines and itineraries in more far-flung destinations, such as South America, Hawaii, and Europe, kids often need to be at least 12 months.
Remember that a newborn's immune system needs time to develop, and travel provides many chances to come into contact with harmful viruses and bacteria.
That's why parents of babies who were born prematurely or have compromised immune systems may want to wait even longer before taking their kiddos on a cruise—perhaps after they've received all the necessary vaccines.
“This should definitely be kept in mind when considering a cruise for anyone at higher risk for severe illness or hospitalization from infection, and very small infants should probably be considered to fall within that category,” according to our family physician, Dr. David M. Silver of Generations Family Health Centre in Toronto.
It might be a good idea to take your child to get a checkup with your pediatrician prior to booking a cruise. In my family’s wanderlusting haste, we didn’t schedule a checkup for our baby before the Disney cruise—and as karma would have it, we all ended up with colds and runny noses.
We did make sure to see our physician prior to going on the Princess trip. Dr. Silver reminded us to be careful of being in close quarters and shared spaces on any ship. “The main thing to be conscious of with regard to cruises is that infectious diseases—i.e., respiratory viruses, influenza, gastroenteritis, etc.—are more common and spread quicker than in comparison to other vacation options.”
Keep in mind that although you and your family may be germ-conscious, your fellow passengers on the ship may not exercise the same level of caution. As a matter of fact, we observed numerous people ignoring the hand-washing stations and hand sanitizers located near ships’ high-traffic eateries (read: buffets).
To help battle germs, I recommend parents tote around a kit of essentials that includes antibacterial hand wipes (the ones made by Boogie Hands are designed to be gentle on young skin) and hand sanitizer (such as this spray from Baby Bum).
With some extra discipline and care, we managed to have a snuffles-free voyage the second time around.
One last thing to keep in mind on the health front: Don’t expect there to be extensive medical services on the ship. There is always an onboard infirmary, but it can be rudimentary.
As Dr. Silver explained, “Access to medical care might be somewhat more delayed on a cruise ship, particularly if more specialized pediatric care is needed at any point.”
As always, it helps to be prepared. On our first cruise with Disney, we ended up paying an arm and a leg for Infants’ Tylenol in the gift shop. For our second cruise, we did not make the same mistake. We not only brought along any essential medicines but also our baby’s Munchkin nasal aspirator just in case.
[Related: How Soon Can You Fly with a Baby on an Airplane?]
(Checking out Princess Cruises' Camp Discovery kids center | Photo credit: Tiffany Leigh)
“Kid-friendly” doesn’t necessarily mean baby-friendly.
Unless they’re explicitly for adults only, most mainstream cruise lines promote themselves as family-friendly. But ships’ offerings for kids sometimes stop short of including infants.
Disney, for instance, is famously family-oriented, but we found Disney Cruise Line lacking in baby-specific activities. By and large, our tot was simply too young to enjoy most amenities and activities available both on and off the ship. She couldn’t participate in shore excursions like a dolphin encounter, and day camps like the Oceaneer Club are for ages 3 through 12.
Granted, there’s the It’s A Small World Nursery for pint-size cruisers ages 6 months to 3 years, and there’s also a babysitting service—but on our cruise, it was one of the rare services not included in the cost of the cruise. We only relied on the babysitting service for one adults-only shore excursion. Other families opted for the service to have a much-needed date night.
Somewhat surprisingly given Disney’s reputation, we found that the crew on our Princess cruise were far more thoughtful and attentive. Though the ship’s Camp Discovery program was too old for our baby, the staff allowed us access to Camp Discovery spaces when they weren’t busy (and as long as my husband or I was present). And at one point staffers even let us participate in baby-friendly structured programming such as singing songs, doing arts and crafts, and sitting in on storytime with Stanley, the cruise line’s bear mascot.
In fairness to Disney, it’s possible that staff members weren’t as available because they had way more kids to deal with—anywhere from 20 to 30 at all times, compared to the 10 or so youngsters aboard the Princess cruise.
So while the self-described family-friendly brands might be a strong choice for kids past the infant stage, don’t assume there will be tons of options for babies.
(Disney Cruise Line beach time | Photo credit: Tiffany Leigh)
To avoid overpacking, reach out to the cruise line ahead of time to find out what free resources are available.
I used to think you can never overpack with a baby, but trust me: You can, especially if you want to live comfortably in a standard-sized cabin that can be as small as 120 square feet.
In fact, I wish I had taken the advice of fellow mother and travel journalist Natalie Preddie, who advises parents to call or email the cruise line in advance to learn about all the free items available for your little one’s use.
For instance, we found out (too late) that Princess had complimentary changing facilities at the Camp Discovery center stockpiled with diapers and wipes. Knowing this beforehand would have saved precious luggage space.
Additionally, you probably don’t need to lug around a heavy mobile crib or pack-and-play. You can reserve one of those in advance for free with many cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Princess, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney, and Carnival.
It was also unnecessary for us to haul all our baby food onto the ship. A quick perusal of the cruise line’s FAQ page or a chat with customer service would have revealed the ship’s preset kiddie menu. If your baby doesn’t have teeth yet, you can even check with the line to see if jarred Stage 1 and 2 baby foods are available or if the ship can make you some fresh purees. In my experience, lines have always been happy to accommodate these requests.
Relying on the free resources available on the ship saves room for other essentials in your luggage. Among the gear I’m grateful for bringing on board: our Nanit travel baby monitor with built-in noise machine and breathing sensor, Bombi’s handy lightweight foldable stroller (though you can check in advance to see if the ship has loaner strollers), and Colugo’s ingeniously designed three-way baby carrier.
Get ready to bring new meaning to the term “poop deck.”
Okay, let’s talk bathrooms.
First, keep in mind that the bathroom in your stateroom is likely to have a phone booth–sized shower with standing room only. Obviously, it’s tricky to bathe a baby in those circumstances.
While we were lucky that Disney had built-in tubs as a standard shower feature, on the Princess trip we had to transform the bathroom sink into a makeshift tub for our daughter. While that solution worked in a pinch, it would have been better if we had brought along a collapsible tub (like this inflatable option).
To be extra prepared, consider doing an internet image search and looking up YouTube videos of the stateroom you’ve been assigned so you can see what you’re working with.
(Sink bath aboard a Princess Cruises ship | Photo credit: Tiffany Leigh)
And speaking of the challenges of staying in small quarters with an infant, smelly diapers can become a big problem when you’re in a tiny cabin with no odor-absorbing diaper pail. Add that to your list of things to ask the cruise line about when you book.
Disney supplied us with a Diaper Genie as a matter of course, but my research suggests that in-room disposal units are not the norm; Princess, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian are among the lines that don’t offer Diaper Genies in staterooms.
Ultimately, your best bet here is to bring a stash of disposable diaper bags (similar to the bags used to deal with dog poo) and become BFFs with your stateroom attendant so that you’ll have some help disposing of said noxious bum-bombs on a daily basis. Don’t forget to tip the attendant generously at the end of your cruise.
Know your limits for shore excursions.
All of us want to make the most of a cruise, and shore excursions are a key part of that. However, your tiny human can only do so much.
Before our baby turned 1, we took for granted being able to take her everywhere for long stretches of time because she could easily nap on the go. But now she’s an almost-toddler and we’re contending with a little person who can be charming in one moment and have a meltdown the next.
Considering her nap schedule, finite amount of patience, and varying energy levels, we learned it was important not to overdo. We discovered that our sweet spot for shore excursions was about 3 hours for tours. We’d always book excursions that started right after breakfast (8am–9am) and ended right around noon (naptime).
If we timed it well, the moment she hit the crib she’d be out for a solid 3 hours. Any excursions lasting longer would be tempting fate and risking the wrath of our overextended tyke.
(Cruise shore excursions with a baby | Photo credit: Tiffany Leigh)
You don’t have to be loyal to save money.
Cruise lines will try to get you to avoid the competition by letting you build up loyalty status. But if your schedule is flexible and you like to shop around, you can save money without having to cruise with the same company every time.
Looking for kids-sail-free promos, booking discounted cruises during the slow season, and sometimes even just signing up for the cruise line’s newsletter will go a long way toward improving the bottom line for you.
As every new parent quickly discovers, babies are expensive. You can use all the help you can get.