H is for Hand Washing and High Ropes Courses
Hand washing is key to a healthy, happy cruise. Cruise ships sometimes get a bad reputation for sickness and tummy bugs like Norovirus and when you have thousands of people in close proximity then illnesses can happen and spread quickly. That said we’ve never suffered on board and there are simple steps you can take to keep your family safe. Regular hand washing using lots of hot water and soap is the easiest way to tackle the germs, particularly after using the toilet or ahead of visiting the buffet to eat. There is also antibacterial hand gel available outside every restaurant and most bars – look out for the smiley staff shouting washy washy! Be sure to use it when it’s available but there is really no substitute for good old fashioned soap and hot water. If you do fall foul of a bug be sure to stay in your cabin and call the medical centre for advice on what to do to stay safe and avoid spreading it to others.
Feeling active and brave? Some Carnival ships feature a High Ropes Course, suspended many feet above the top deck. Guests with a head for heights can harness up and take to the ropes, traversing obstacles and balancing high above the deck below. Weve never quite been brave enough but it did look like a lot of fun!
I is for Ice Cream and Ice Skating
Ice cream is an essential ingredient to family holidays and the good news is most of the American cruise lines include free, unlimited self serve ice cream or frozen yoghurt. The dispensing machines are generally found on the pool deck. It’s also often served free of charge in the main dining room and sometimes in the buffet. If your ship doesnt offer it for free, dont worry there will be an ice cream shop on board serving high quality branded ice creams, like Ben n Jerrys for a small fee.
Several of the larger Royal Caribbean ships have ice rinks which are used for spectacular ice shows delivered by highly trained professionals performing amazing stunt-filled shows – imagine the TV show Dancing on Ice performed on a rocking ship, its quite an incredible sight. When not in use for shows the rink is often open for public skating sessions where you can take to the ice and discover your inner Torvil and Dean! Both the ice shows and skating sessions are free of charge but you often have to pick up tickets in advance once on board as capacity is limited.
J is for Jacuzzi
Jacuzzis are a feature on all cruise ships. Some have as many as 20 spread across the top decks or nestled away in a quiet zone such as the spa. They’re a bubbling, warm oasis to relax and enjoy and are particularly good with a cocktail in hand. They’re usually adult only however some of the larger family ships even have slightly cooler family jacuzzis situated around the kids pools.
K is for Kids Club, Kids Tea and Kettles
Kids Clubs are one of the highlights of family cruising! Choose your cruise line carefully and you’ll benefit from some of the best child care facilities imaginable at sea. The clubs are divided into age appropriate groups and usually have their own dedicated facilities with play areas, splash pools, sometimes even cookery clubs, science labs and theatres. The clubs open for two or three sessions a day including an evening session till approx 11pm, allowing parents to enjoy an occasional romantic meal for two while the little ones are entertained with PJ Movie nights.
It’s worth noting that very few cruise lines offer child care for under 3s or those still in nappies included in the cruise fare but some such as Royal Caribbean do offer a Royal Babies and Tots creche service at extra charge and P&O do allow 2 year olds in their kids clubs. Be sure to do your research to ensure you dont have a disappointed toddler on your hands.
Our favourite family friendly cruise lines include Royal Caribbean, NCL and Carnival. We’ve not yet sailed P&O but their facilities and staff are supposed to be incredible so our 7 year old is looking forward to sampling that in a few weeks time, especially the promise of playing on a PS4! Children sail free on MSC and are heavily discounted on NCL. Most other lines offer a third and fourth person discount for children sharing your cabin.
Kids Tea is another fabulous cruise concept and is served each evening in the buffet, usually from around 5pm. It features a range of family favourites from chicken nuggets to pizza, pasta to hot dogs and jelly and ice cream along with some healthy options too. Kids Club staff take your children and supervise them so you could make the most of the opportunity and book a kid free romantic meal for two. Alternatively If you want your children to join you for dinner in the main dining room for a family meal, dont worry theres always a childrens menu featuring a range of tasty, child friendly dishes too.
The majority of ships sailing from the UK now have tea and coffee making facilities in their cabins and the kettle also comes in handy handy if you are heating bottles etc. On some American and European fly cruises you may find there isnt a kettle in the room but you can always order room service tea / coffee for the morning to save heading to the buffet for your caffeine fix.
L is for Laundry and Luggage
All parents know just how many clothes a small child can get through, particularly on holiday. Many of the larger ships have a laundry where you can wash your own clothes, alternatively they will offer a laundry service where you fill a bag and leave it with your state room attendant. For a modest fee your clothes will be returned the following day, washed and ironed. Look out for mid cruise laundry specials and discount deals which will be listed in the daily newsletter. Failing that do what we did in Gibraltar and visit M&S and buy more smalls, it was cheaper than the laundry!
Packing cases means your holiday is almost here, but firstly dont forget to download your luggage labels from the cruise line website check in section. Youll need to print them and then fold and staple them around the handle so the staff know which cabin to deliver your cases to. Also be sure to add your own identifiable label with your name and phone number as the paper ones are a bit flimsy.
When travelling from Southampton or any other UK port there are no luggage allowance restrictions, which is heaven when travelling with small children. You simply arrive in the car park and waiting porters whisk your cases away. The next time you see them will be outside your cabin. They do occasionally take a little while to arrive so you may want to pack a carry on with sun tan lotion, swimsuits etc. so you can get straight into the holiday mood when you board. Disembarking isnt quite so straight forward. You have two options, firstly self assist where you basically carry your own luggage off the ship, usually first thing, which can be challenging with lots of cases and kids. The second option is where you request a disembarkation time and are given coloured time specific labels. You’ll need to pack your cases and put them outside your cabin around midnight on the night before you leave. I always find this a challenge as I need things in the morning so be sure to take a large carry on to keep back your essentials. You then disembark at the allotted time and your case will be waiting in the terminal for collection. Do remember If you are on a fly cruise then youll be restricted to the usual flight weight restrictions of around 20kg per case so be sure to check before you travel.
One word of caution, cruise lines do randomly scan luggage so be careful that you arent taking anything untoward on board. For example you arent allowed to bring irons or knives onboard for health and safety reasons. Some cruise lines dont allow you to take alcohol on board so check with your cruise line before you travel to avoid an embarrassing trip to security.
M is for Muster and Medical Centre
A muster is the name for the safety drill. It’s maritime law that this has to happen ahead of sailing and all passengers must attend, if you board late then youll be required to attend a second muster the following day, quite rightly there is no dodging it. The muster will usually happen around 4 or 5pm after boarding. On some ships you need to take your life jackets (which will be stored in your cabin) but tannoy messages will let you know if this is necessary and these are piped into all cabins. Further announcements will be made asking you to make your way to your muster point, this is the point you would go to in a real emergency and where you would go to get in a life boat if that was required. Your muster point is marked on your cruise card and staff will direct you and tick you off a list on arrival. It’s usually fairly quick, the captain says a few words, they demonstrate how to put a life jacket on then sound the emergency signal so you know what it sounds like and then before you know it, its all over and you can start to enjoy your holiday.
Medical Centre Nobody wants to get sick on holiday but if you are a cruise ship is probably one of the safer places for it to happen. All ships have modern, fully equipped medical centres with nurses and doctors on board. Just be sure you have travel insurance as medical care is not included in the cost of a cruise and medical bills can soon rack up. That said we did visit once when my little boy cut his toe on a beach in St Maarten. It wasnt serious but a friendly doctor cleaned it up, put a plaster on and sent us on our way without charge.
N is for Night Nursery
If you have a toddler then the Night Nursery may well be one of the best facilities on board. It’s a night time crèche where you can leave your little one sleeping and watched over by highly trained nursery nurses while you sneak away with a pager in hand (in case they wake) and enjoy a meal of hot food, eaten with both hands and accompanied by adult conversation with your husband for just one or two hours it’s like life before kids! Ill never forget our first ever cruise on Ocean Village when we discovered this. The time difference meant that our 2 year old son Finn was flat out by 5pm so a bit later on wed pop him into a very cute cot where he was doted on by staff and return an hour or two later after wed enjoyed some quality grown up time.
Please note if you have very small children that not all cruise lines offer this facility so do your research ahead to check. P&O offer a night nursery free of charge on family friendly ships and Disney Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean have a reasonably priced evening crèche but this must be booked in advance and does get very popular.
O is for On Board Credit and On Line Check In
On Board Credit (OBC) is free spending money that is allocated to your cruise account as an incentive, and will be taken off your final bill before you disembark. Very often you can negotiate some on board credit when booking so be sure to look out for offers online or haggle with your travel agent. It’s not unusual to get up to around £200 worth OBC per cabin, sometimes more. You may also get some on board credit if fuel prices drop after you book or as a loyalty perk for returning customers. Sadly you cant cash in OBC to take it off with you so be sure to spend it when on board.
Almost all cruise lines require that you check in online ahead of arrival at the port. Youll need to go on to the cruise line website and then click the manage my booking or cruise personaliser, enter your details and booking reference and youll get through to your own personalised account. From here you can book excursions or drink packages, order special treats like champagne on arrival, book speciality restaurants or spa treatments and look at your itinerary. There’ll also be a section for you to enter all your parties passport details and then youll be able to print out our e-ticket and luggage labels. You may be asked to put in the details of a credit card which will be associated with your cabin and will be used for all your onboard spend. Id recommend you use a credit card rather than a debit card as if you use a debit card they may apply limits to your spending or request a hold on amounts in your account.
P is for Passengers, Piano Bars and Ports of Call
Before I took my first cruise I assumed that most cruise passengers would be pensioners who enjoyed fine dining and ball room dancing. This is a common misconception and these days cruise ships are packed with fun loving families, young couples and many senior citizens who are just as young at heart. All the cruise ships we have sailed with had a really diverse mix of passengers and weve always found some like minded company on board and met some really interesting people. Passengers come from all classes and walks of life so go with an open mind and dont be afraid to chat and share tips and advice. Youll have a ball and possibly make some good friends.
Piano Bars are one of our favourite ways to while away a few hours of the evening on board and nearly all cruise ships will have a dedicated piano bar. This will be home to a talented pianist and vocalist who will often take requests, provided they are written down and wrapped in a dollar or pound note. Theyll work their way through a repertoire of popular hits from The Beatles to Elton John and occasionally the theme song from Titanic – you usually tip them to stop them playing that one!. The songs often turn into mass singalongs, a little like group karaoke. We enjoyed a spectacular nightly rendition of Crocodile Rock on Carnival Breeze delivered by the hugely talented Piano Bob and his collection of sock puppets which were handed out to the audience causing much laughter and silliness. Some of the MSC ships have a fabulous Duelling Piano Bar with two back to back pianos and pianists competing against each other.
Ports of Call are the stops that your ship makes along the route and typically a cruise will stop at 2 or 3 on a 4 night cruise, 4 or 5 on a 7 night holiday and 10 or more on a two week cruise. There are hundreds of cruise ports around the word so you can pick an itinerary to suit you choosing from cultured cities or laid back beaches, Norwegian fjords or even the Arctic Circle. You can research all the ports online ahead of your cruise which will help you decide whether to take an organised excursion or DIY. You can find port guides for almost everywhere on cruisecritic.com or cruise.co.uk and do check out Toms Port Guides particularly for American and Caribbean ports if you’re heading that way but also in Europe too. Tom seems to spend his life cruising the world researching and writing port guides now that seems like my kind of job!