Sure, there are boatloads of family-friendly cruise options these days, but with kids spanning so many ages and stages—from needy wee babes to hard-to-please teens—pinning down the perfect family cruise vacation can be an elusive task. To ensure the very best bets for cruisers just cutting their teeth, we’ve waded through the ample industry offerings—checking off kid-friendly amenities and activities, from kids’ clubs to family-ready cabins to dining venues aimed at pleasing pint-sized palates—to help you make the maritime match that best fits your family’s needs.
Whether it’s doting nannies, costumed characters, elaborate water parks, teen dance parties—or something else entirely—that floats your youngsters’ boat, these five picks for age-appropriate cruise lines will help ensure that your kids are entirely onboard with your next family vacation at sea.
Best Cruise Lines for Babies & Toddlers: Cunard Line
While Cunard’s elegant trio of ships (Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, and Queen Mary 2), known for their fine trimmings and white-glove service, don’t suggest kids at the surface, the line actually excels at diversions and accommodations for the smallest sailors. Indeed, the company positively trumps the competition for the baby and toddler set, thanks in large part to its complimentary night nursery, a place where young babes—ages six to 24 months—can snooze each evening (from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.) in cots or cribs, all under the watchful eye of trained British nannies (parents receive a pager in case the child awakes). It’s a rare and most welcomed industry offering, affording parents the chance to indulge in some evening-time wining, dining, and entertainment. Daytime diversions abound, too, thanks to the line’s free drop-off kids’ programming for tots ages two to seven: The Play Zone comes chockablock with activities like sports competitions, arts and crafts, and storytime (with other designated kids’ zones for ages eight to 17, as well).
Onboard restaurants boast baby food, kids’ menus, and loaner high chairs, while bottle warmers and sterilizers are available upon request. Bunk comfortably with babes thanks to complimentary cribs and cots and even loaner baby baths—infants under two sail free (while ages two and up are half-fare when sailing as a third or fourth passenger in a cabin with two paying adults).
Go ahead and get baby on board on the line’s summer Alaska runs out of Vancouver on the 2,081-passenger Queen Elizabeth, with plenty of toddler-friendly outings in port like whale- and wildlife-watching tours or visits to dog kennels. The 10-night voyages, which include four days at sea, are an especially good fit. Two of the sailing days take in the scenic landscapes of the Inside Passage and Hubbard Glacier—a perfect opportunity for comfortably sightseeing with babies or tots from the comfort of the ship, whether you push a stroller around on deck or watch the passing landscapes from your balcony while they squeeze in a midday nap. (Note that infants must be six to 12 months old to set sail with Cunard, depending upon the destination.)
Best Cruise Line for Small Children: Disney Cruise Line
What Disney does so well on land doesn’t skip a beat at sea, with its special brand of maritime-flavored magic scoring especially high points with younger kids (that broad swath of youth falling between toddler and tween). On any of the line’s quartet of ships, tiny sailors can hobnob with a range of Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars characters via meet-and-greets, princess tea parties, and deck parties in places like the Bahamas or on the Mediterranean. Plus, their age-appropriate, counselor-helmed kids’ clubs are unsurpassed: Those ages three to 12 can fill their days with toys, tales, crafts, dress-up, sing-alongs, sports challenges, science activities, and more, at the complimentary and connecting Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab (the lab tends to attract older kids, while the club is more geared toward younger ones). For family time, the ships’ upper decks come with dedicated (and lifeguard-helmed) kids’ pools with features like spiral slides and a giant LED screen for showing first-run Disney films, while extras like stage shows (like Frozen, the Musical) and fireworks-capped, pirate-themed deck parties round out the bells and whistles.
Come mealtime, look for nutritious menu options for children that get a special “Mickey Check” designation, while the kids’ zones dish out perennial favorites like pizza, mac and cheese, and chicken fingers. Restaurant dinners also factor in “Dine and Play,” which grants youngsters a speedy dinner service before being whisked away for supervised post-dinner activities, letting grown-ups linger over their own meal and enjoy the ships’ adult-exclusive nightclub and lounges. (Worriers, breathe easy: Included onboard mobile phone service allows kids and youth counselors to connect with parents in a snap.) Family-designed staterooms, meanwhile, come with well-thought-out touches like bath-and-a-halfs (one area has a toilet and sink, the other, a shower and sink), cozy bunk beds, and room-dividing curtains.
Test the waters on your kids’ capacity for cruising with one of Disney’s quickie Bahamas sailings out of Port Canaveral (near Disney-hub Orlando)—three- and four-night voyages incorporate a stop at the line’s private Bahamian island, Castaway Cay, where water play areas, beach parties, and port adventures like stingray encounters and glass-bottom boat tours ensure family fun in the sun. Or if you’re looking for full-on immersion, the line returns to Greece in 2020 with a trio of nine- to 12-night Greek Island voyages, with stops in classic isles like Santorini, Mykonos, and Crete.
Best Cruise Line for Tweens: Lindblad Expeditions
Plugged-in tweens might seem difficult to break through to, but active adventures in nature destinations like Alaska and the Galápagos are enough to entice them to put away the smartphones and gaming consoles and dive in on the destination at hand. Small-ship adventure line Lindblad Expeditions—in partnership with National Geographic—excels at inspiring a love of the wild with a portfolio of wilderness-focused cruise vacations designed to entice young minds. Days come jam-packed with naturalist-guided outings on land and on sea, whether you’re hiking past glaciers in Alaska or snorkeling with sea turtles and penguins in the Galápagos. The National Geographic Global Explorers program—on offer in Alaska and the Galápagos, and helmed by Nat Geo–certified naturalists and educators—cultivates young explorers with programmed adventures like getting a Zodiac (an inflatable boat used for excursions) “driver’s license” or keeping track of wildlife sightings in a special field notebook.
Small ships (eight in all, with capacity for 28 to 148 guests) mean few onboard frills, but there’s enough to do when back on the ship: Activities include visiting the captain on the bridge and the occasional pizza movie nights. Tweens might also enjoy hands-on lessons in knot-tying, on-deck stargazing, using the onboard video microscope to view undersea specimens, or getting a smartphone photo lesson from a Nat Geo–certified photographer. New for 2019, the line has launched a collection of 11 shorter voyages, mostly a week or less in duration, that are especially well-suited to families with less time to spare, too.
Best Cruise Line for Teens: Norwegian Cruise Line
Finding common vacation ground with teens can be tough, but Norwegian Cruise Line is well-equipped for the challenge aboard its 16-ship fleet of teen-friendly mega-ships. On board, kids ages 13 to 17 can linger in Entourage, a dedicated teen lounge—it’s complimentary, supervised, and brimming with hangout-ready diversions like gaming consoles, flat-screen TVs, and games like foosball and air hockey; it also turns into a teens-only nightclub come evening. Organized group activities, meanwhile, might include a hashtag scavenger hunt (try to turn up the #CoolestGrandma, for instance) or the exercise challenge Burn 3000, in which competing groups set out to be the first to collectively burn off a combined 3,000 calories (which might be necessary, given dining options that cater to ravenous teen appetites, like a 24-hour eatery doling out burgers, fries, sandwiches, and more).
Apart from rock-climbing, bowling alleys, mini-golf, and sports courts, the line one-ups the competition with a bevy of over-the-top ship attractions that teens can’t get enough of. On Norwegian’s Breakaway Plus-class ships, look out for teen-pleasers like go-karting along 1,100-foot-long race tracks that cantilever the ship’s side, reaching speeds of up to 30 mph. Other attractions include top-deck outdoor laser tag (which will get augmented reality features when the line’s newest Norwegian Encore vessel debuts in November 2019); the largest ropes course at sea (an outdoor activity circuit that includes “The Plank,” which extends eight feet over the ship’s edge); the waterslides-packed Aqua Park; and the 10,000-square-foot Galaxy Pavilion arcade (which will be further enhanced with an escape room and interactive theater on Encore).
Ships come filled with family-friendly accommodation options, including connecting staterooms, family suites (sleeping up to six), or budget-friendly balcony cabins where regular promos let third and fourth passengers sail free. Set out on the new Norwegian Encore when it debuts in November; on its weeklong cruises to the Eastern Caribbean, round-trip out of Miami, teens can zip-line through the rain forests of St. Thomas or go off-roading on one of Tortola’s secluded beaches.
Best Cruise Line for Kids of All Ages: Royal Caribbean International
The whiz-bang, wow-factor ships of Royal Caribbean (all 26 of them) boast almost as much energy as your kids do. The line’s found its success as the something-for-everyone, bigger-is-better brand that caters to kids of all ages and actively courts multi-generational travel. For families with children of different ages in tow, it’s a solid all-around bet. Complimentary kids’ clubs abound: Babes and toddlers (ages six months to three years old) can be attended to in the Royal Babies & Tots nursery, featuring parent-accompanied classes, activities, and play areas, as well as drop-off babysitting services (the latter, for a fee). Young kids, ages three to 11, can participate in the Adventure Ocean youth program, which offers dedicated play spaces and activities—crafts, science projects, scavenger hunts, talent shows, themed parties, and more—broken down into three age groups (ages three–five, six–eight, and nine–11). It also features My Family Time dining, which lets children join their families for a speedy 40-minute dinner, before heading off to the evening Adventure Ocean activities, leaving parents behind to dine at leisure.
Those ages 12 to 17 get a teen lounge and teen-only nightclub, with goings-on like dance parties and movie nights; plus, they’re naturally drawn to the ships’ signature high-adrenaline attractions. Varying from ship to ship, pick from skydiving or surfing simulators, rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, multistory slides (like the 10-story Ultimate Abyss, the tallest slide at sea, found on Symphony of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas), glow-in-the-dark laser tag, zip lines, bumper cars, trapeze lessons, and more. And everyone in the family will appreciate the swimming pools/water parks and all-ages entertainment, featuring family-friendly stage, aqua, aerial, and even ice shows. Note kids must be fully potty-trained to use ship pools and most splash zones (no swim diapers are permitted, with the exception of the “Baby Splash Zones,” which are installed on eight ships), and height minimums (ranging from 42 to 52 inches) are in effect for features like the Flowrider surf simulator and waterslides. (Also keep in mind that children aren’t permitted at the adults-only Solarium pool and whirlpool area, installed on most Royal Caribbean ships.)
Chow down in more than two dozen dining venues, including casual kid-pleasers like New York–style pizza joint Sorrento’s and the 1950s-inspired Johnny Rockets, known for its burger and shakes. Family-friendly accommodations are plentiful, with special family staterooms, loft suites, and the two-story Ultimate Family Suite, which accommodates as many as 11 guests and touts features like an in-suite slide and a floor-to-ceiling LEGO wall (on board Symphony of the Seas and Spectrum of the Seas). Go for a spin on one of several Royal Caribbean itineraries that incorporate a stop at the line’s freshly revamped private Bahamian island, Perfect Day at CocoCay, which reopened in May following a $250 million transformation with a slate of superlatives, including the tallest waterslide in North America and the Caribbean’s largest freshwater pool.