The family holiday is likely to be the most important purchase of the year for parents, and potentially one of the most stressful. You need to be sure to get it right -- nobody wants bored or miserable kids when trying to relax.
And while cruising is increasingly becoming a family affair, with many ships now catering for children of all ages, choosing the right cruise ship can still be tricky.
Don't be fooled into thinking kids will be content on every vessel. They won't. And they certainly won't thank for you for taking them on a two-week voyage where fun is in short supply. Happy kids make for contended parents and a happy holiday.
So here is our guide to the best cruise line offerings for families.
Royal Caribbean has a complete children's program, Adventure Ocean, that is distinctive for its offerings at all levels -- a factor that many parents appreciate. Many ships, particularly newer ones, go above and beyond by featuring science labs where experiments take place and theatres where youngsters rehearse before putting on mini-productions for their families.
The Clubs: Royal Caribbean offers an Adventure Ocean program for kids aged 3 to 17. Tots younger than 3 are also catered for.
The cruise line has five categories: Aquanauts for 3- to 5-year-olds, Explorers (6 to 8), Voyagers (9 to 11), Teens (12 to 17, split into two groups of 12 to 14 and 15 to 17).
Activities are supervised by male and female staff, all of whom must have a four-year university degree or international equivalent in education, recreation or a related field. Furthermore, all staff must have at least 3 to 5 years qualified experience working with children aged 6 months to 17 years.
On selected ships, Royal Caribbean offers childcare drop-off facilities for toddlers (6 months to 3 years) through its Royal Babies and Tots program. But there's a charge of US$6 per hour between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., rising to US$8 per child between 5 p.m. and midnight.
Group baby-sitting is available for kids aged 3 and older from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in the Adventure Ocean Centre at a cost of US$7 per hour, per child.
The cruise line also offers an in-cabin Sitters at Sea service for US$19 per hour for up to three children within the same family. On their return to the cabin, parents are presented with a log of the child's activities and what time they went to bed. This service must be booked 24 hours in advance with a 12-month minimum age requirement.
Activities: For members of the Aquanauts, there's a host of activities that include finger painting, building with blocks and an animal, colour and shape version of bingo.
Explorers have a pirate night, backstage tour and talent show, while Voyagers can while away the hours belting out a few karaoke tunes, with sports tournaments and scavenger hunts also keeping the kids entertained.
Activities for kids of ages 3 to 11 are available between 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. while at sea and in port from 30 minutes prior to the first shore excursion to 5 p.m. and again from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Younger teens, ages 12 to 14, have a variety of sports tournaments, pool parties, karaoke, themed dance parties and video games. Older teens also have pool parties, along with a casino night when they can also train to be DJs.
P&O Cruises Australia
Australia's cruising mainstay goes out of its way to court families. However, the cruise line says it limits the number of children on each cruise to ensure that 'not only are they treated like VIPs, but the adult guests are as well'.
The Clubs: P&O Cruises estimates that family and multigenerational groups represent about one-third of its passengers, so it has good experience in catering for young sailors.
P&O has lowered the entry age to its Turtle Cove club from three to two years old but children must be toilet trained. The upper age limit is six years old. Shark Shack keeps 7- to 10-year-olds entertained, and HQ and HQ+ are great for the older kids, with tailored activities for those aged 11 to 14 and teens aged 15 to 17.
For the younger children, additional evening child-minding is also available from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. for a small charge.
Cabin configurations include quad-quad, twin-quad or twin-twin bedding to suit the dynamics of different groups.
Activities: Pacific Jewel and Pacific Dawn have installed the P&O Edge Adventure Park, which features 20 activities using different parts of the ships, such as a rock climbing wall on the funnel and a 'Titanic Moment' on the bow. A kids adventure program is also available for children from ages 8 to 12.
Lego has partnered with P&O Cruises to produce giant murals in the Turtle Cove and Shark Shack clubs on all three ships to cater for everything Lego. They include specially designed tables and walls, which allow kids to turn every surface into an opportunity to create.
Racing car simulators on Pacific Pearl and Pacific Jewel are available for all ages -- provided you can touch the pedals.
Teenagers in the HQ and HQ+ clubs can also try their hand at directing movies with a film-making program based on the animation technology behind 'Wallace and Gromit' and 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits'. The program allows kids to design puppets and create a story, script and voiceover before filming it all to produce the movie.
For the real nippers, Turtle Cove youth centre features Sleepyhead Story Time with guest readings by Australian, Kiwi and international authors.
Carnival Cruise Lines
The US-based cruise line, which first began cruising from Australia in 2012 with Carnival Spirit, has made a concerted effort to attract families. The arrival of Carnival Legend has added further choice.
The thrilling centrepiece of both ships is Green Thunder, billed as the steepest and fastest waterslide at sea.
The line has a marine-themed kids club called Camp Ocean with kids' club areas that are used for more than 200 activities such as sea shell craft and make-your-own sail boats.
The Clubs: There are three supervised youth programs for children, ages 2 to 11, and two teen programs for those aged 12 to 17.
Camp Carnival covers children in three age groups: 2 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 11 with Circle C catering for ages 12 to 14. Older teens from 15 to 17 can hang out at Club O2 and watch movies, listen to music, play sports and join karaoke jam sessions.
The youngest kids are in the Penguin program, Stingrays are children aged 6 to 8, and there is a Shark enclosure for the 9 to 11 age group.
Meanwhile, Camp Carnival Night Owls offers a variety of child-friendly late-night activities for all ages; baby-sitting rates apply between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Activities: Carnival boasts hundreds of activities onboard its ships. Along with Green Thunder, it features miniature golf and multipurpose sports courts.
Carnival WaterWorks features two waterslides and a dedicated SplashZone for younger children, filled with a variety of amenities, including mini racing slides and a giant tipping bucket.
Family-friendly shows include magic and comedy.
Carnival Legend features all the highlights from Carnival Spirit, with a few family-friendly additions for the Australian market, including 'Hasbro, the Game Show'. A new concept for the Australian market, this game allows participants to immerse themselves in life-size versions of old favourites, including 'Connect 4' and 'Operation'.
Also on Carnival Legend is 'Seuss at Sea', which brings Dr. Seuss to life with a range of featured activities.
Celebrity Cruises, part of the Royal Caribbean stable of brands, is making a play for the family market by offering kids facilities and entertainment on all ships (with the exception of Celebrity Xpedition).
The Clubs: Children between the ages of 3 and 17 are looked after with four age-specific clubs: Kids aged 3 to 5 have Ship Mates to keep them entertained, 6- to 8-year-olds can while away their time at Celebrity Cadets, 9- to 11-year-olds have Ensigns, and kids 12 to 17 have Admiral Teens.
For those younger than 3, Celebrity offers a program called Toddler Time, where parents can play with their babies with toys provided onboard. The sessions are unsupervised by ship staff, and times vary.
For an additional charge, baby-sitting and child-minding services are on offer for children 12 months and older. Celebrity advises passengers to consult their travel agents or the cruise line at time of booking for more details.
Activities: Activities, all of which are free, are tailored to each age group and include treasure hunts, arts and crafts, relay races, ice cream sundae making, and for the bidding pop stars out there, karaoke.
In addition to the clubs, Celebrity offers the Fun Factory, described as a 'self-contained fantasy world', for 3- to 11-year-olds. Staff supervise a range of activities that include video games, movies, hands-on activities, arts and crafts, and story time.
Meanwhile, older kids have the X Club, which features social activities, gaming consoles, sports activities and late-night dances.
Princess operates a minimum-age policy of 6 months on many of its ships and 12 months on some of its more exotic itineraries; it's worth checking with the cruise line for your particular sailing.
The Clubs: As with many cruise lines, Princess has age-specific clubs, starting with the Treehouse, which caters for 3- to 7-year-olds.
The Lodge is designed for kids 8 to 12, while teenagers up to 17 can hang out in The Beach House. All of these rooms form part of Camp Discovery, a youth program created in partnership with Discovery Channel.
While at sea, the youth and teen centres are open from 9 a.m. to noon, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., extended to 1 a.m. for the teen centre. In port, opening hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Activities: For the younger cruisers, offerings include arts and crafts, movies and cartoons, T-shirt colouring, discos, sports and games, kids-only dinners, splash pools, jukeboxes and activities such as science experiments based on the popular TV show "MythBusters" developed in association with Discovery Channel. There is also a behind-the-scenes tour of the galleys with the JnChef@Sea program.
For the teens onboard, there's a lounge, teen-only deck parties, hip-hop dance classes, karaoke, DJ workshops, hot tub parties, talent shows, pizza and mocktail social events. Evening activities include dance parties, late-night movies, teen formals and casino nights. Also featured is a Teen Makeover program, where youngsters can learn makeup and skincare techniques.
As part of the youth and teen program, two dinner evenings are created for each age group. One of the evenings for the older teens is a formal night, which includes a trip to a show.
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