Troll for Deals Early
Most family discounts tend to be promotions for early bookings rather than last-minute specials. Because of the sagging economy, it's commonplace to pay about $100 per person, per day. That includes all the food you could possibly eat, accommodations, and a dizzying variety of activities. Alcohol and soda are usually extra, but iced tea, lemonade, and, of course, water are gratis. Adina Ledford, a mom of two from Charlotte, NC, recommends Cruisecompete.com, a site that lets travel agents bid for your business. "But some sneak in a room other than what you've asked for to get the lower price to pop up, so check carefully before you buy," she says.
Look into Brand-New Ships
Norwegian and Royal Caribbean International both have gargantuan, best-in-class vessels that shoved off this year, while Carnival and Disney have impressive new "cities at sea" on order for 2011. These boats are among the largest ever to set sail, with incredible innovations like Cirque Dreams and Dinner and massive water parks on the top deck. You'll also find many more family-oriented staterooms than in the past. "Typically, a group of four had to cram into a 200-square-foot cabin or pay for two cabins," says Lissa Harnish Poirot, editor of Family Vacation Critic, a partner site of Tripadvisor.com. But now cruise lines are fighting to attract families with plenty of comfortable rooms for four.
The downside of any spanking-new ship, though, is that some minor kinks may not have been identified and fully ironed out yet. Expect an occasional line for brunch or the most popular show. On the inaugural voyage of the Norwegian's Epic, some complained about the lack of true bathroom doors in the sleek staterooms.
Plan to Take Full Advantage of Kid Camps and Programs
Moms say the big plus of a cruise is freedom: plenty of downtime for you, thanks to scores of free diversions for the kids, from pie-splattering contests to souvenir-crafting sessions. Just double-check what's offered and for which of your kids before you board. Policies vary. Danielle Arcadi, a mom from Peoria, AZ, learned her lesson after taking a Royal Caribbean trip with her 2-year-old. "He was stir-crazy but couldn't get into the camp," she says. Also ask whether children need to be potty trained and whether older kids are allowed to check themselves out of the center (sometimes they are, unless you request otherwise).
Avoid Rowdy Revelers
Jennifer Norwood-Martin, a mom from gainesville, GA, found out that May is not the ideal time to take a relaxing family cruise on Carnival. "It was a party crowd, for sure," she recalls. "I just remember thinking, 'So this is why they call it the fun ship.' " Norwood-Martin, a performing arts teacher, even ran into some of her high school seniors on board. However, moms we talked to gave Carnival high marks at quieter times of the year, citing the budget-friendly pricing and the wide variety of activities. So no matter which cruise line you decide on, plan around spring break and the senior trips that typically take place in May and early June. Also, look for ships with different pools for adults only and for families.
Allow Enough Time
How long of a vacation to book? That depends on your schedule and budget, of course, but the consensus among experienced cruisers is that longer is better if you can swing it. "Seven days is how long it truly takes our family to relax," says cruise veteran Julie Beckstein, a mom of five from Lexington, SC. "Five days is too rushed." There's so much to do on a cruise vacation, a long weekend will likely leave you wanting more!
Families' Favorite Cruise Lines
Cruising is more popular than ever with families. And on any of these supremely kid-friendly lines, it's never been easier to make memories!
Families say they're well worth the money because of the extra touches: Pirates in the Caribbean night with themed menus, fireworks, life-size Toy Story characters in a re-created Andy's room, and Disney-themed shows. It's not all about Sailor Mickey, though: Hit the adults-only pools, spas, and restaurants while the kids are being enchanted. Disneycruise.com
Norwegian Cruise Lines
The concept on these classy ships is Freestyle Cruising. DH won't have to wear a tie to dinner (and you can eat anytime, without a reservation). On the newest ship, the Epic, a Nickelodeon partnership has ushered in breakfasts with SpongeBob and Dora. For you? Cirque Dreams ' Dinner and the Blue Man Group are on board. Ncl.com
Royal Caribbean International
This line already has the largest cruise ship in the world, the Oasis of the Seas. When the Allure of the Seas is unveiled in December, it will have the two largest ships. An upcoming Dreamworks partnership means your child can hang with Shrek and Kung Fu Panda at the aqua shows now, too. Royalcaribbean.com
Carnival Cruise Lines
Here, it's all about nonstop action and entertainment, and that includes programs for mates as young as 2 with standard kiddie pleasers like talent shows and face painting. You'll find good deals (like $60-per-person, per-day good!) on a wide choice of ports of call, so this is likely the best option on a tight budget. Carnival.com