Some of the Best Cruises for Families Aren’t on Mega-Ships

A cruise doesn’t need to be a floating theme park for kids to have fun. From sailing ships to river cruises, luxury yachts to larger ships with an international clientele, these cruises will delight passengers of every age.

Three people sitting on a net suspended alongside a Star Clipper sailing ship

Surprise the kids with something really different, like a sailing ship adventure.

Courtesy of Star Clippers

Don’t get me wrong, I love my children, but family travel can pose some unique challenges. A younger tot might revel in playing in a pool for hours, while older teens might be more interested in culinary exploits. The parents may just want to relax, and if grandparents or other older family members are coming along, they could have different desires as well. A great way to satisfy a wide range of tastes and interests across ages and life stages is on a cruise ship.

The best cruises for families will allow you to travel in a different way from land-based adventures, with the ship itself serving as an essential part of the journey. These sailings will provide high-quality experiences for a variety of interests that highlight the port destinations being visited. These are our top picks for worldwide cruises that combine engaging encounters with luxury services, and that are bound to foster moments of connection and transformation to create lasting memories.

Maple Leaf Adventures' 12-person tugboat in calm water with a small island nearby

Maple Leaf Adventures’ 12-person tugboat is small enough that some families could book the entire vessel for a reunion.

Courtesy of Maple Leaf Adventures

An Alaskan voyage on a luxury expedition tugboat

Best for: Families with older children and young adults who yearn for some time together in close (but comfortable) quarters with opportunities for abundant wildlife watching
To book: 11-night Alaska Voyage from Petersburg to Ketchikan from $12,600 per person.

Recommended for kids old enough to be able to handle themselves around wildlife such as bears, this intimate, magical journey explores Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area, at the center of southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, with the opportunity to see humpback whales and a tidal glacier. The 12-passenger Swell is a converted tugboat with six cozy cabins. The ship has an on-deck hot tub, indoor, outdoor, and protected outdoor lounge/seating areas, and a dining lounge. Future scientists will enjoy the open wheelhouse policy where guests are invited in anytime to be with the navigators. Kayaks are available for passengers, and naturalist tools include a hydrophone for listening to whales, a flat screen with charts for presentations, an aquarium showcasing intertidal life, a microscope with a projector, and a spotting scope.

Exterior view of the Delfin II, a small river cruise ship, on Peru's Upper Amazon at sunset

For older children, an Amazon adventure aboard the Delfin II is sure to be an unforgettable one.

Photo by David Vargas

Exploring the Upper Amazon aboard a custom-built river cruise ship

Best for: Families with children age five and up who are interested in exploring the rich flora and fauna of the Amazon
To book: 10-night Upper Amazon Aboard the Delfin II, round-trip from Lima, from $8,865 per person (with discounted rates for children)

Journey with Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic into the remarkable wilderness of Peru’s Upper Amazon River. Enjoy meals enhanced by tropical fruits and vegetables, suites with hardwood floors and palm ceilings, and common spaces featuring handcrafted lanterns. Venture into the jungle on a fleet of kayaks to seek sloths, monkeys, and rare pink dolphins with expert naturalists, who offer a meaningful connections to the ribereño communities visited along the way.

Sailing on Star Clippers’ tall ships in Central America

Best for: Children over eight years old who yearn to be pirates
To book: 7-night Central American sailings, round-trip from Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, from $4,680 (with discounted rates for children)

Star Clippers’ small ships allow travelers to visit Isla San Jose in Panama’s Pearl Island and the uninhabited Isla Iguana to take in frigate birds, coral reefs, and iguanas. Thrill-seeking teens can climb the masts (in harnesses) to reach the crow’s nest nearly 65 above the deck.

A family of four looks out from the top deck of a river cruise ship at a castle-like building in the distance

Your kids will enjoy learning about European castles and history thanks to Disney’s well-trained adventure guides.

Courtesy of Adventures by Disney

Gliding along the Rhine River with Adventures by Disney

Best for: Enjoying European destinations while Disney-trained Adventure Guides entertain the whole family
To book: 8-night Rhine river cruise from Basel to Amsterdam, from $6,500 per person (with discounted rates for children)

Adventures by Disney sails Europe’s rivers on AmaWaterways’ luxe ships, which offer kid-friendly amenities like connecting staterooms, heated pools, and complimentary bikes (including kid sizes) and helmets onboard so you can explore port destinations on your own. Or families can take advantage of included excursions like zip lining in the Black Forest (followed by Black Forest cake), canoeing through Strasbourg, and castle tours with magnificent Disney Adventure Guides, who can entertain all ages, a priceless addition for parental serenity.

Ultimate luxury in the Galápagos with Ecoventura

Best for: Feeling as if you are the only visitors to one of the most fascinating places on Earth
To book: 7-night Volcanic Wonders itinerary, round-trip from San Cristobal, from $9,750 per person

The Relais & Châteaux brand Ecoventura luxury expedition yacht offers interconnecting suites, some with triple accommodations that includes a Pullman berth bunk bed that can be lowered above one of the twin beds or over a king to accommodate different family sizes. Ecoventura has a local naturalist for every four guests, which means that you are often the only group touring an island at a time, walking so close to blue-footed boobies that you can leave binoculars behind. (Although on a recent sailing when I wanted mine, a staff member zoomed our Zodiac boat back to the yacht to retrieve them from my stateroom in minutes.) The ship boasts a hot tub, library, and a roomy upper deck and lounge with board games and movies for families to enjoy while sailing.

The Mini Club Lego kids club on the 'MSC Bellissima' featuring colorful cooking- and Lego-themed play stations

For families who like the idea of big-ship amenities but with a mix of international kids onboard, book a sailing on the MSC Bellissima, where kids will converge in the Mini Club Lego.

Courtesy of Ivan Sarfatti/MSC Cruises

A thrilling Japanese journey aboard the MSC Belissima

Best for: Families with kids of all ages (including babies and toddlers) who want to mix and mingle with passengers from all over the world with the added bonus of Cirque de Soleil–style entertainment
To book: 5-night Tokyo to Okinawa, from $1,970 per person for a Yacht Club suite (with discounted rates for children)

In 2024, Geneva-based MSC Cruises returned to Asia after a four-year hiatus. The Yacht Club offers a small-ship experience with the larger cruise ship, with an exclusive and private dining area, lounge, pool, and butler service. Yet the 4,500-passenger MSC Bellisima also includes the bells and whistles (like kids clubs and huge waterslides) of a larger ship. Offboard, dedicated excursions and concierge disembarkation make the Yacht Club a perfect experience for multigenerational travel.

Dynjandi waterfalls in Iceland, a long, multi-tiered waterfall surrounded by dark moss-covered rocks

The entire family will be entranced by the sights and sounds of Iceland.

Photo by Kyle Anthony Photography/Shutterstock

Circumnavigating Iceland with HX (formerly Hurtigruten Expeditions)

Best for: Adventurous families with children age five and up
To book: 11-night the Land of Elves, Sagas & Volcanoes, round-trip from Reykjavík, from $6,128 per person (with discounted rates for children)

Traveling with an expedition team allows the itinerary to change depending on conditions as you cross the Arctic Circle and cruise along Eyjafjörður, Iceland’s longest fjord. This flexibility also grants families the chance to request specific expeditions, including hikes tailored to novice or experienced hikers and the ability to have a shorter adventure for family members who might prefer an afternoon nap.

The pool area on the "Explora I" featuring an infinity pool overlooking the sea, with lounge mats on one side

There’s a fancy and kid-friendly way to sail in the Caribbean: It’s called Explora Journeys.

Courtesy of Ivan Sarfatti/Explora Journeys

Design-centric luxury in the Caribbean with Explora Journeys

Best for: Families with kids as young as six months who are cruising for the first time and appreciate art, design, and elevated culinary offerings
To book: A Journey to Rum-Soaked Isles and Castaway Bliss, 7 nights from Bridgetown to Miami, from $4,050 per person (with discounted rates for children)

Explora ships, where every guest room is an oceanfront suite, were specifically designed to appeal to travelers who might be more drawn to a yacht or boutique hotel but are intrigued by kids clubs, onboard activities, and not packing and unpacking nightly. Family-friendly amenities include smaller bathrobes for kids, cribs and toys upon request, interconnecting family suites, and a Young Explorers enrichment program of activities designed around protecting the ocean that is offered during school holidays.

A worry-free long weekend in the Caribbean aboard Celebrity

Best for: Families traveling with active, small children who seek a restorative, classy getaway
To book: 3-night Bahamas and Perfect Day, round-trip from Fort Lauderdale, from $845 per person for a Retreat Suite (with discounted rates for children)

The private island, Coco Cay, allows very young families and those with special needs, like those who need to be near a medical facility or require special diets, ADA compliances, or medication, to relax without anxiety both on and offboard. Celebrity ships, while smaller than the massive mega-liners, are still packed with activities, a complimentary kids club for ages 0–17, and a variety of dining options. A booking in one of the Retreat area suites includes a private restaurant and exclusive lounge. Multi-room and two-story suites with terraces, whirlpool tubs, and family configurations are also available.

Ancient Egyptian site flanked by two statues of people

By the end of this Nile sailing, your kids will be experts in ancient Egyptian history.

Courtesy of Getty Images/Unsplash

Cultural immersion on Egypt’s Nile River with Uniworld

Best for: Families with budding Egyptologists
To book: Splendors of Egypt and the Nile, 12 nights round-trip from Cairo, from $5,000 per person (with discounted rates for children)

This itinerary on Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ 84-passenger S.S. Sphinx includes two full days and nights in bustling Cairo (with a visit to the Great Pyramids, of course) and a flight to Luxor to continue the once-in-a-lifetime journey. Select sailings boast Uniworld’s Generations Family Program, which features unique, fun-filled adventures for children, including meeting with Egyptian youngsters, plus culturally and historically significant experiences.

Whale watching with National Geographic in Baja California

Best for: Families who love nature and science
To book: 7-night Among the Great Whales, round-trip from Loreto, Mexico, from $7,000 per person (with discounted rates for children)

With naturalists alongside, guests will visit Bahía Magdalena to look for California gray whales and their calves. On a ship hydrophone, families can listen to eerily beautiful whale songs. Snorkel among bright blue damselfish and sea lions and experience guided hikes on deserted islands. Children age five and up can participate in the hands-on, interactive National Geographic Global Explorers program, which teaches kids how to develop the attitudes, skills, and knowledge of explorers while enjoying activities like recording wildlife sightings in field notebooks, observing plankton fresh from the oceans, and taking photographs, videos, and creating maps.

Amanda Eyre Ward is a New York Times bestselling novelist. Amanda’s work has been optioned for film and television and published in fifteen languages. She lives with her family in Austin, TX. Her novel, Lovers And Liars, was published in May by Random House.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR