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The Best Cruise Ships for Families with Children

Take it from the mouth of babes -- in this case, my almost four-year-old twin boys. They've been on 12 cruises and counting, the first at the ripe old age of nine months. Between us, we know a good family ship when we see one.

I sometimes fantasize about how it used to be. Packing for one. Reading books. Getting a tan. Working out.

For years, a cruise was all about me. My dining preferences. My spa treatments. My half-hour showers. Sleeping in, skipping breakfast, dancing till to 2am. Bicycle rides, kayak excursions, river tubing -- whatever I felt like doing in port was entirely up to me.

Then four years ago my life changed forever. Me me me was replaced with we we we when my twin sons Kavi and Tejas popped into the picture. Where I travel, they travel, and we move about like a giant squid, all arms and legs grabbing, pulling and schlepping.

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The days of packing the luggage in an hour the night before have been replaced with a full-scale, multi-day production. On those first cruises with the boys, I routinely pushed the limits of physics, jamming a suitcase with twice its volume in diapers, bibs, clothes, blankies, toys and just-in-case medicines. I was a pack mule, strapping on giant duffel bags stuffed with jars of baby food. Now, at three, they're off the Gerber's and out of diapers, but there's still a whole lot of schlepping going on.

And not a lot of time or space for my stuff. I squeeze in a few small, easily scrunchable Lyrca numbers where I can, under stuffed bears and in between stacks of dinosaur pajamas. I am lucky if I can make room for an extra pair of flip-flops. I no longer have issues with wearing something more than once. Black is black -- who's going to really know? I don't carry my own shampoo -- I use theirs -- and a curling iron? Who has the time?

On that first cruise out of New York, the taxi dropped us off a block from the nearest porter, so a friend and I shuffled along each pushing a stroller and pulling a suitcase, and crippling our bodies from overloaded backpacks. I literally had flesh wounds by the time we got to the cabin. But no time for a rest, the workweek was just starting.

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The first moments in the cabin are spent stowing all our stuff in every nook and cranny that's out of the boys' reach. As I stow, I'm simultaneously child proofing, moving glasses and ice buckets to higher ground. Meanwhile, Kavi and Tejas are test-jumping the couch, nosing around the bathroom and hiding in the closets.

This circus is a far cry from the old days, when I'd leisurely poke around the cabin, pop some champagne and flop on the bed to unwind. Each of my outfits would get its own hanger in the closet. A refreshing shower before heading out to explore the ship was hardly a luxury.

Today, each hour is planned. I memorize the playroom and babysitting hours and plot the times I'll drop off my boys. In those sacred free hours, I squeeze in a little of the old me, booking a massage, taking a spinning class or winding down with a wine-tasting seminar. If we're lucky, hubby and I will be able to enjoy dinner alone, after putting the boys to sleep and calling in a babysitter or strolling them back to the playroom to snooze there.

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In those pre-kid days, I really enjoyed the sociability of a cruise, chatting to fellow passengers at dinner, in bars and lounges and on shore excursions. Now, I do most of my bonding at the kiddy pool, in the buffet restaurant and anywhere parents tend to gather. I connect with the crew in ways I never had before. The restaurant staff is particularly doting, fetching extra milk and napkins, and fussing over the boys, who probably remind them of their own kids back home.

Though traveling with young children is never easy, it's clear that cruise ships are among the most welcoming vacation options for families. The impressive playrooms and roster of activities rival what's offered for adults. My guys sure had a blast crawling around the balls pits on the Norwegian Dawn and QM2, and I was brought close to motherly tears of joy recently when I picked up my sons from the playroom one evening on the SuperStar Virgo, to find them wearing cute little paper crowns and painted up with a mustache and red apple cheeks.

As a writer, I cruise with my kids for a living, but plenty of real people are doing it too. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) pegs the annual number of kids and teens cruising with their parents at about one million of the nearly nine million passengers from North American.

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Challenges aside, I can see why.

Whenever I find myself day dreaming about the old days, I remember what I like so much about now. My boys squealing with delight when they see the Statue of Liberty float by from the cabin balcony or when they hear the ship's horn. The smiles when they're splashing away in the wading pool, diving into some ice cream or waving to uncle Captain. The appealing balance the cozy, nest-like cruise ship environment offers between quality time together and quality time a part.

Truth is, I don't really miss those me me me days all that much after all.

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Best Ships for Families with Kids

Take it from the mouth of babes -- in this case, my almost four-year-old twin boys. They've been on 12 cruises and counting, the first at the ripe old age of nine months. Between us, we know a good family ship when we see one. The best ones offer:

  • a full day of supervised activities on sea and port days
  • spacious and bright playrooms
  • after-hours group and private babysitting (preferably both options)
  • outdoor play space
  • mini fridges in all cabins
  • children's menus
  • evenings when kids are invited to dine with the youth counselors so mom and dad get a break
  • activities that range from arts and crafts, to basic science projects, free play, computer games, karaoke and pizza parties, story and movie time, and more.
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Here are my family favorites that offer these perks and more.

Disney

Disney Wonder and Disney Magic

The best of the bunch, these twins offer the biggest play rooms and most extensive teen hangout areas at sea. Supervised activities are free until midnight or 1am. Better yet, they're the only ships having special wading pools for diaper-wearing toddlers and a dock at their private island Castaway Cay in the Bahamas (eliminating the hassle of tendering back and forth). Castaway also boasts perks like bike rentals for the whole family and a great adult's only beach, complete with bar and massage cabanas. Disney Cruise Lines (tel. 800/951-3532; www.disneycruise.com)

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Stats:

  • Supervised activities for ages 3 to 17, divided into five age groups
  • Group babysitting for ages 3 months to 3 years ($6 per hour per child)
  • Split bath in each cabin, all include a bathtub
  • free unlimited fountain sodas
  • kids fares are $149 for a 3- or 4-night cruise; $169 for a 7-night cruise; $259 for 10- and 11-night cruise
  • 3- to 12-night Bahamas, Caribbean and Europe cruises

Royal Caribbean

Freedom Class: Freedom of the Seas

It's no surprise the biggest cruise ship in the world is truly a floating theme park. What kid wouldn't go ape over the sprawling top-deck water park and the Flowrider surfing machine? Other cool diversions include a rock climbing wall, ice-skating rink, a huge play room, enormous video arcade and impressive teen complex that includes a private sundeck. Royal Caribbean International (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com)

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Stats:

  • Activities for ages 3 and 17 in five age groupings
  • Supervised daily 45-minute playgroups for parents and babies/toddlers between 6 months and 3 years
  • Group babysitting, 10pm to 1am nightly for ages 3 to 12 ($5 an hour per child)
  • Private in-cabin sitting, 8pm and 1am for children age 1 to12 years ($8 an hour for up to two children)
  • 7-night Caribbean cruises

NCL

Norwegian Dawn, Star and Spirit

The best part? Outdoors, a cool kids' pool area is tucked away at the stern, far away from the hubbub. Giant cartoony figures ala polka-dotted dinosaurs, pirates or rockets, set the theme for this Mecca of wading pools and sliding boards. Inside, kids will flip over the giant climbing maze and ball bin combo in the playroom. Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com)

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Stats

  • Supervised activities for four age groups between 2 to 17
  • Group babysitting only, 10pm - 1am for ages 2 to 12 ($5 an hour, $3 for siblings)
  • Separate section of buffet restaurant with pint sized tables, chairs and kiddy buffet line
  • children under two sail free
  • 7- to 11-night Florida, Bahamas, Caribbean, Bermuda, Canada and New England, Alaska and Mexican Riviera cruises

Carnival

Conquest Class: Liberty, Valor, Glory and Conquest

Though you won't find as many bells and whistles as Disney and Royal Caribbean, aboard Carnival's newest class of ships, playrooms are ultra-large and bright. You'll also find a giant video arcade with air hockey tables and an adjacent ultra-stylish teen club. Out on deck there's a ho hum kids wading pool; better yet, is the giant corkscrew waterslide at the main pool. Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/327-9501; www.carnival.com)

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Stats:

  • Supervised activities for ages 2 to 17 in four age groups
  • Group babysitting only, 10pm to 3am nightly for 4 months to 12 years ($6 for first child, $4 for siblings)
  • Babysitting for infants 4 months to 2 years on port days at hourly rate
  • Strollers, bouncy seats, swings and Game Boys available for rent.
  • 6- and 12-night Caribbean and Europe cruises

Cunard

QM2

Though you might not expect the new queen to dole out the royal treatment for kids, in fact the ship is exceedingly friendly to families. The bright and cheery British nanny-staffed playroom has a great ball pit and just outside on deck is a climbing gym, wading pool and spray fountains. Another bonus: complimentary activities and care offered until midnight. Cunard (tel. 800/7CUNARD; www.cunard.com)

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Stats

  • Supervised activities for four age groups between 1 to 17
  • Separate nursery with cribs and cots
  • Separate dining area in buffet venue with kids menus
  • 5- to 12-night Transatlantic crossings/Europe/Caribbean/Canada-New England routes; world cruise

Princess Cruises

Grand class: Grand, Golden, Star, Caribbean and Crown Princess

The top feature is the ultra roomy fenced-in outdoor space for toddlers adjacent to the playroom and stocked with three wheelers and a mini-basketball set up. Children under 3 can use the spaces with their parents (a big plus, many lines don't allow this). Teens on the Golden and Grand get their own sunbathing deck area and hot tub. For family time, there's a miniature golf course and a giant movie screen up on deck (except on Golden), with plenty of G-rated flicks in the mix. Princess Cruises (tel. 800/774-6237; www.princess.com)

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Stats

  • Supervised activities for three age groups between 3 to 17
  • Group babysitting only, 10pm till 1am for ages 3 to 12 ($5 an hour per child)
  • 7- to 21-night cruises to the Caribbean, Europe, Canada/New England, Mexican Riviera & South America

Holland America

Vista class: Noordam, Westerdam, Oosterdam and Zuiderdam (best for under 12s)

Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Volendam, Zaandam and Statendam class (best for teens)

If you sail in the Caribbean/Bahamas, the line's private island, Half Moon Cay is an awesome place for families. A kids' aqua park on the beach is complete with slides and water cannons, plus excursions range from horseback riding to snorkeling with stingrays.

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For too cool teens, the private outdoor sun deck area called Oasis aboard the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Volendam, Zaandam and Statendam class ships has lounge chairs, a 9-foot-high waterfall, snack machines, and a music system. The playrooms for the under 12 set are biggest and best equipped aboard Vista class. Holland America Line (tel. 877/SAIL-HAL; www.hollandamerica.com)

Stats

  • Supervised activities for three age groups between 3 to 17
  • Group babysitting, 10pm till midnight for ages 3 to 12 ($5 an hour per child)
  • Private in-cabin sitting, 8pm onwards ($8 an hour per child and $5 for each additional kid)
  • 7- to 104-night cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe, Asia, South Pacific, Canada, New England, Hawaii, Mexican Riviera and South America
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Celebrity Cruises

Millennium Class: Millennium, Summit, Infinity and Constellation

A big plus is each of the Millennium class has an indoor/outdoor playroom complex that includes a fenced-in outdoor soft-surface jungle gym and a wading pool. Teens get their own separate center. For toddlers under age 3 (in or out of diapers), parents can accompany their kids to the playroom and enjoy age appropriate toys. Celebrity Cruises (tel. 800/647-2251; www.celebritycruises.com)

Stats

  • Supervised activities for four age groups between 3 to 17
  • Group babysitting, 10pm to 1am nightly for ages 3 to 12 ($6 an hour per child)
  • Private in-cabin sitting, 8pm and 1am for children at least six months old ($8 an hour for up to two children)
  • 7- to 19-night cruises to the Caribbean, Europe, Alaska, Canada, New England, Hawaii and South America
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Note: In most cases, unless stated otherwise, children are charged the third and fourth person rates when sharing a cabin with two parents. This is typically about half the adult rates.

Have some family favorites of your own? Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our Cruise Message Boards.


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