I’m about to embark on a cruise with my mother and father in law who have never cruised before and it made me realise that for the uninitiated it can be a daunting experience so I thought it may be helpful to put together an A-Z of family cruising with some particular hints and tips for travelling with kids. As there’s so much to cover I’ll be writing it across a few posts. Heres my first covering A to G, I hope you find it useful!
A is for Aft and Art
Aft means the back of the ship and aft cabins are the ones on the very rear of the ship usually overlooking the wake behind which is a great spot to look out for dolphins. They often have bigger balconies and for me it’s one of the best positions on board although if you suffer from sea sickness or it’s your first cruise you’d be safer booking a mid ship cabin for more stability.
There’s a lot of wall space on a cruise ship and it’s generally filled with art of all kinds that has been specially commissioned for the ship. Many also have an art gallery where you can splash out if something takes your fancy. They’ll even arrange to have your purchases delivered to your home address.
B is for Breakfast
The choices on board include:
Room service – this will be continental unless you are enjoying the luxury of a suite. Room service is usually free but must be ordered the night before, just fill in the card, specify what you want, the time you want it and it’ll be delivered to your room. Just don’t forget to tip a pound or two to the person delivering it.
A la carte – an absolute must when cruising with kids, its the most relaxing way to start the day. Waiter service breakfast is a rarity even in 5 star hotels these days however it is available on almost all but the most basic cruise lines and a very welcome luxury. The choice is incredible, made to order omelettes, eggs any way you want, pastries, full English or American, piping hot coffee or tea, pancakes, French toast, waffles, juices, fruit, cereals or even a Buck’s Fizz or Bloody Mary (charged at bar charges) served at your table – absolute heaven! Yes you can have a table to yourselves but don’t be afraid to share as it often reduces any waiting time and you’ll most likely get lots of useful port advice from fellow guests about what to do ashore that day or the next.
Buffet theres always a buffet breakfast option on board, food and choice is plentiful and you can pile it high but be warned it can be busy at peak times.
One of the beauties of cruising is you can enjoy two or even all three options on the same day if you wish. I often order a light room service breakfast early so we can enjoy a lazy start to the day before heading to the a la carte just before closing for a hearty brunch.
C is for Cabins, Cruise Cards, Casinos and Celebrity Chefs
This is your room on board and there are cabins to suit all tastes and budgets. They differ slightly from ship to ship but youll usually find the following choice on board:
Inside Cabin these are the most reasonably priced accommodation on board and are situated in the interior of the ship. You wont have a window so you wont know what the weather is like when you first wake up however most ships have a channel on the TV which shows a webcam view from the top deck so you can just turn the TV on to see. If you suffer from claustrophobia or sea sicknesses then an inside cabin may not be for you but weve stayed in one several times and if Im honest you get a great nights sleep with no daylight!
Outside Cabin This is similar to the inside but with a window or porthole this gives you a view of the ocean.
Balcony This is my personal favourite, an outside room with a private balcony to sit on and enjoy the sunshine and watch the world sail by. If you have small children who like to climb you may want to avoid a balcony or ensure they are never left unsupervised.
Suite If its a special occasion or you can get a good deal you may want to upgrade to a suite. This is a larger cabin, often with a separate living room area and bedroom, a larger balcony and sometimes extra perks such as free drinks, VIP sunbathing areas, priority access to shows and a butler service.
All cabin grades have an en suite bathroom, usually with a shower rather than a bath unless you upgrade to a suite. Some family cabins have two bathrooms or a separate bathroom and toilet.
Families can also book interconnecting cabins or adjoining cabins but please note kids under 16 are not officially allowed in a cabin on their own, there must be a parent allocated to that cabin. Weve often seen parents book an outside or balcony with a further cabin across the hall. The kids seem to end up staying on the inside while the parents get the sea views!
Many cabins have 3rd or 4th beds ideal for children, these can be sofa beds or bunks that pull down from the ceiling – check the room plans in the brochure to see the exact bed layout. Your cabin steward will make the sofa bed / bunks each evening during the turn down service. Its worth noting that if you have a third or fourth bunk sometimes you cant have the main bed configured as a queen sometimes you just need to be a bit flexible on sleeping arrangements!
If you have a baby or toddler you can usually request a travel cot but they do take up valuable space so you may find a small cabin feels even smaller! Your cabin attendant will be able to provide guard rails for bunks and nets for a balcony if required.
If you are looking to book a family cruise in the school holidays then I highly recommend you book well ahead. There are very limited numbers of cabins on board that have 3rd or 4th beds and some cruise lines even limit the number of kids on board to reflect the capacity of the kids clubs. There is very rarely any last minute family cruise bargains to be had, I always book as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
Ships are a cash-less experience, you can’t pay in bars or shops with money. When you check in you have to provide a credit or debit card which is linked to your cabin. You’ll have your photo taken and be given a cruise card which doubles as your room key and account card. You use your CruiseCard to pay for anything you purchase on board and to access your room and also when exiting and entering the ship – its swiped by security so they know your off ship and more importantly back onboard. You can get the staff to punch a hole in the card enabling you to hang it around your neck on a lanyard which helps keep it safe and can be purchased on board or is sometimes given out free to the children in kids clubs.
All ships have a casino for those who want to have a flutter and as well as numerous varieties of slot machines there are card tables and croupiers. We don’t gamble but if you’re struggling to find the casino just follow your nose as it’s one of the only places within the ship where they welcome smokers.
I’ve previously written an in depth post on celebrity chefs at sea but we’re seeing more and more household names setting up onboard and offering the kind of dining experience you’d usually need a small mortgage for at a fraction of the cost. I’d definitely recommend treating yourselves!
D is for Dining and Drinks
The food choices on board are endless. Most cruise lines have a main dining room, which will offer a la carte lunch on some days and dinner every evening. There’ll probably be a choice of set dining around 6pm or 8pm and you can usually request a table just for your party or opt to share with fellow cruisers. Alternatively many ships now also offer freedom style dining where you can just turn up at whatever time you wish. If a table is free you’ll be allocated it immediately, if not you’ll have a short wait in the bar and you’ll be seated as soon as possible. We love freedom style dining and always opt for this when we can. In my opinion the food and standard of service on board generally surpasses that of any hotel restaurant and the dining room team really do go out of their way to make your cruise special, delighting kids by remembering their names and favourite foods while delivering smiley face ketchup swirls and animals crafted from napkins on a nightly basis.
If you don’t want the formality of a sit down dinner there is always the buffet which will offer a wide selection of dishes from around the world. We adore the authentic curries served throughout the day and there is usually a section of child friendly foods from hot dogs to burgers and pizzas as well as familiar desserts.
If youre celebrating something special or just want to spoil yourselves then there is always the option to pay a supplement and visit one of the speciality restaurants on board – see S for more information!
Drinks can be expensive at sea especially when they have a captive audience. UK cruise lines are generally more reasonable than the US based lines where a glass of wine can be a painful $10 or more. If you like a drink then you may want to consider an all-inclusive package or a wine package that offers multiple discounted bottles that are available to you in the restaurants. Not all cruise lines offer them but be sure to check and see if it makes financial sense for you. Take it from me the bar bill can be quite a shock when you get your final account at the end of a two week cruise! Most ships also offer unlimited kids soda packages where they usually get a souvenir cup and they too can be great value.
E is for Entertainment and Excursions
Modern cruise ships offer everything from West End style shows such as We Will Rock You through to Cirque du Soleil style performances. We’ve enjoyed some incredible entertainment at sea including an amazing Amy Winehouse tribute act, a high diving spectacular and the Basil Brush show, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Theres usually a huge theatre on board, often a cinema too and bars are given over to bands, comedians, pianists and trivia quizzes. There really is never a dull moment and you can always find something on board to while away your time on board.
Cruises visit several ports each voyage and you have the option to take an excursion or do it yourself. All cruise lines offer a variety of escorted day trips, usually the highlights of each destination or a coach to a nearby city or attraction. They can be expensive, particularly if you are a family of 3 or more as kids prices generally aren’t hugely discounted but you don’t need to do an official excursion to get the most out of your time ashore. We regularly DIY in port and often this just involves jumping on a shuttle into town or one of the many hop on hop off buses that await cruise passengers just outside the port.
Many of the official excursion itineraries can be done by yourself for far less if you dont mind jumping a taxi or public transport and paying your own entrance fees. That said weve enjoyed some excellent excursions so sometimes its worth the investment and well always choose this option if for example the trip involves a ferry ride or transport to harder to reach locations. If youre planning to DIY please ensure you head back to the ship well ahead of the departure time as if you are late they won’t wait for you and it’ll be your responsibility to get yourself to the next port of call to rejoin the ship!
F is for Facebook, Forums and Food
The internet is an incredible resource and there’s an amazing amount of information on cruising available online. There are some fabulous Facebook groups filled with cruising enthusiasts and experts. One of my favourites is Cruiselovers, a group with over 6000 members who write reviews and blogs, answer questions, give advice, arrange meet ups on land and at sea and share lots of laughter along the way. They really are knowledgable and helpful but it’s a closed group so you’ll need to apply or get an invite to join the forum.
There are many other cruise groups too, just search cruise or a cruise line name in Facebook and you’ll get lots of suggestions. Other favourite resources include web forums such as Cruise.co.uk and CruiseCritic.co.uk Both are packed with thousands of reviews and informative ship specific sections. On the latter you can even sign up to roll calls for your forthcoming cruises so you can chat online with your fellow guests ahead of your trip and arrange to join a meet n mingle on board.
Food as you may have guessed is central to the cruise experience. Be sure to embark on a pre-cruise diet as you’ll most likely eat considerably more than you do at home or on a land based holiday. If breakfast, lunch and dinner doesn’t satisfy then there’s always afternoon tea and cakes, the midnight buffet, unlimited ice cream or a delivery pizza to take the edge off!
G is for Gangway
This is the ramp they position against the ship so you can get off and on. Rather confusingly the gangway changes deck and sides in different ports depending on the sea levels and which way the ship docks. We’ve spent a great deal of time hunting the gangway but generally these are usually well signposted. A word of advice, don’t go dashing off the minute the ship docks and the captain gives the all clear as you’ll end up queuing with half the ship. If you hang back, head up to the top deck to get your bearings and then depart 30 minutes later, you’ll skip off the ship without having to queue.