Are you considering taking a cruise for your next family vacation? Great idea! Cruises offer some amazing value and choice for family vacations.
Although, deciding to take a cruise is only the tip of the iceberg. With so many options, you will want to make sure you pick the perfect cruise for you and your family. So getting everyone involved in the planning process is key. But, where do you begin?
Hopefully, our six simple steps on how to pick the perfect cruise ship for your next family vacation will help.
1. Decide on a Location
Most likely you are thinking of cruising to a tropical destination like the Bahamas or the Caribbean. While about a third of all cruise travel does occur in this region, cruise ships sail to destinations all over the globe, including Europe, Asia, and Australia. So, don’t limit your options just yet.
If you already know WHEN you want to cruise (e.g., in the summer), you can use that information to narrow down your destination as some areas of the world only offer cruises during specific months of the year. If you can travel any time of the year, you will have more flexibility on location.
Is your family looking for some sun and relaxation? Do you want to see some humpback whales and bald eagles? Would you love to traverse the cities of Rome and Barcelona? Once your family has come to a consensus on a location, you can start researching which ships sail in that region.
2. Set a Budget- Be sure to include ALL potential costs
Before you begin to compare cruise ships that sail to your geographic location of choice, you will need to set a budget. Cruises are a great value as many amenities are included in the cruise fare-most meals, entertainment, and onboard programs, but there are some additional costs that you should factor in when determining total vacation costs:
- Air transportation and Transfers/Travel to and from the Cruise Port
- Shore Excursions/Activities While at Ports of Call
- Specialty Dining Onboard the Ship
- Shopping/Souvenirs/Spending Money
- Alcoholic Beverages (for mom and dad of course)
- Gratuities: Most cruise lines now charge passengers a service fee which is around $12-$15 dollars a day, per person.
In 2014, the average cruise fare paid by travelers was about $1,600. A good rule of thumb is to budget an additional 50% of the cruise fare to cover the additional costs outlined above.
Don’t let those numbers scare you though as prices do vary greatly between cruise lines, and there are ships at multiple price points even within the same cruise line. Often, companies will run promotions for reduced fares or even better-“kids sail free”, for children staying in the say room as adults. So be on the lookout for these promotions as you can save quite a bit of money by taking advantage of these sales.
3. Understand the Different Types of Cruise Lines
Once you have decided on a location and have a budget in place, you can begin to explore the ships that match these criteria. It is important to know that there are several different styles of cruise lines that may (or may not) appeal to your family.
In general, contemporary cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and Disney Cruise Lines are the bulk of the brands you have probably heard of and are considering for your cruise.
Do not let any advertising fool you, all contemporary cruise lines are family friendly offering similar onboard amenities, with each line having their own exclusive features and restaurants. While each company does have a general “style” of cruising, it is really the individual ship and the amenities that will have the greatest impact on your cruise.
4. Find the Onboard Amenities That Will Please the Entire Family
Now that you know where you will GO, you need to focus on what you will DO.
Some questions you can ask include:
- How active is my family?
- What activities do we like to do when we are “on land’?
- Will my kids make use of the onboard youth programs?
Begin by browsing the cruise lines’ websites to see what they offer on their different classes of ships.
Make a list of specific amenities and onboard activities that appeal to each family member. For example, do your kids want to experience the thrills of five different waterslides? Do they love characters from Dreamworks or Disney? Perhaps, your kids are a bit older and would enjoy a surf simulator, rock climbing wall, or ropes course? Answering these questions will help you narrow down cruise lines, as well as some specific ships.
5. Decide on the Dining Options that Match Your Family’s Needs
Does your family like to stick to a game plan or are you more interested in having a carefree dining experience? Cruising is as much about food and dining as it is about the activities on the ship!
With that being said, most modern cruise ships offer a variety of dining, with some having up to 20 different dining venues.
Of the contemporary cruise lines, Norwegian Cruise Lines offers the most flexible dining options pioneering this “Free-Style Approach”, meaning you can board the ship with no set dining times and eat wherever you want, whenever you want (some restaurants do have additional charges).
Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines offer flexible dining options as well as set dining times at the Main Dining room, meaning you can either choose a more freestyle approach or opt for a consistent early or late dining. Both cruise lines also have a variety of casual dining options beyond just a buffet and many ships also offer specialty restaurants for a fee.
Disney Cruise Lines maintains a more traditional dining approach, with a main dining room and set dining time; although, they do offer some casual dining options too. However, dining is a special treat on
Disney with a set rotation through various themed dining rooms, so we highly recommend experiencing each of their dining rooms.
6. Putting It All Together (and a Note on Ship Size)
You now have the tools you need to make an informed decision on which cruise ship will deliver the best family vacation.
With your location and budget determined and your list of top amenities and dining preferences compiled, hopefully you can narrow down your results to a few ships or at least a particular cruise line.
Now you ask, “What about cruise ship size?” While we prefer larger ships, you may not want to be stuck onboard with 3,000+ other passengers. This is again a personal preference; however, the larger ships do tend to be the newer ships offering the latest and greatest. But, these ships also tend to be more expensive when compared to other ships in a cruise line’s fleet.
Cruise lines do regularly update older ships during “dry dock” adding select new features that are found on newer ships, so you could certainly find all your preferences on an older ship at a better price point.
It is also important to note that all ships will be busiest/at capacity during peak travel times, including the summer months and school breaks. If you have the flexibility of travel or don’t like crowds, you might want to avoid these peak times regardless of the size of ship you choose.
When it comes down to making the final decision, we recommend that you don’t pit more than three ships against each other. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many choices. Remember, planning your vacation should be fun!
Jump Start the Search
If this sounds like too much work, then you can jump start your cruise ship search using the new Cruiseable.com website’s “Bliss Features”. Using a series of sliders, this system allows you to adjust the importance of different features that you are looking for on a ship (e.g., size, atmosphere, activity level, dining, etc.). Once you start customizing these features, the site provides suggestions for cruises and cruise ships. You can also visit CruiseCritic.com website’s message boards for fellow cruisers’ opinions.
This might be a great place to start if you have no idea where to begin!
Having a Great Vacation
Now the stage is set for you and your family to have an amazing vacation. You will not have to worry about whether or not the kids will have a good time, and you will know that there are features that you and your significant other can enjoy as well. Once you have picked the perfect cruise ship, you can just sit back and enjoy the vacation. After all, you have worked hard planning it!
Want to do a little more reading before you cruise? The book 101 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Cruise has good reviews to help first time cruisers know what to expect. You might also like my cruising post on 28 Tips to Keep Money in YOUR Pocket.
Don & Heidi Bucolo are the editors of EatSleepCruise.com, a blog that focuses on the fun and exciting world of cruise vacations. The only thing they love more than planning a cruise is actually being on a cruise ship! Their website offers valuable planning advice and cruise ship and shore excursion reviews to help you “sea the world one port at a time.”
Photo Credit: EatSleepCruise.com