“You are so brave.” This is not a line you expect to hear from strangers for the mere effort of boarding a luxury cruise ship, but it was a sentiment repeatedly expressed by fellow passengers during a recent Regent Seven Seas sailing that I boarded with my husband and just-turned-one-year-old daughter in tow.
While it hardly feels valiant to want to be wined and dined, cleaned up after, and whisked away from one port to the next on a fancy ship, I will acknowledge that there is some level of courageousness required of parents who dare overlook the megaships of lines like Disney, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian—with all their kid-friendly trappings—in favor of something a bit more sophisticated. Indeed, luxury cruises, which lean toward a mature clientele with their more subdued air of relaxation and refinement, aren’t always attuned to the high-energy, high-pitched, high-chair wants and needs of the smallest sailors.
But just because you’re cruising with a baby doesn’t mean that you’re condemned to trade in your taste for the high seas high life for an 18-year-sentence of humdrum family beach resorts and dizzying Disney trips. Yes, traveling with babies and toddlers by land, air, or sea undoubtedly poses its challenges, but adopting some smart strategies—and a willingness to go with the flow—can help you ace your first luxury family cruise.
1. Embrace spending (a whole lot of) time with your children
One of the most glaring differences in choosing to hop on a smaller luxury ship rather than a big, flashy boat is the lack of kids’ diversions, including drop-off kids’ centers and babysitting services. Also clearly missing: actual other kids with whom your wee ones can engage. On this particular Regent sailing—an October fall foliage run from NYC to Montreal aboard the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator—there was none of the above.
While Regent does offer dedicated family-focused voyages on select summer and holiday sailing dates, which feature the pop-up Club Mariner Youth Program, they’re notably aimed at children in the five- to 17-year-old bracket, which doesn’t help much for the baby and toddler set. Some other luxury lines, like Crystal, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Paul Gauguin, and Seabourn, plus a few river cruise companies, also court parents with limited kids’ programming, but they’re likewise geared toward children that are at least two or three years old. Cunard offers a rare night nursery for babies under two, while Crystal and Hapag-Lloyd also tout in-cabin babysitting services.
And while a friend joked that Regent’s older clientele would ensure me a ship with “500 grandparents” eager to cuddle a one-year-old, as friendly as fellow passengers were, nobody was flat-out offering up their sitting services.
Ultimately, if your idea of decompressing is ditching your kids for a spell, a luxury cruise without some age-appropriate child care in place probably isn’t the right choice. However, if you look at your cruise as a chance to spend quality time with your child—to enjoy each other in a variety of new places and spaces, far removed from the routine of work and day care—read on.
While you and your partner won’t be privy to any shared adult time between you, you can always take turns on kid duty to grab some alone time, like a dip into the spa or an hour of slots. And if you have family members willing to tag along as de facto babysitters, well, that’s a jackpot all its own.
2. If you don’t want to be in bed by 8 p.m., choose your cabin carefully
On most luxury lines, it just doesn’t make sense to shell out for a second cabin for kids (not to mention that many lines, including Regent, have restrictions about children under 16 sailing in their own room without an adult). Plus, you can often snag deeply discounted (or even free) rates for kids in third berths (in the form of pullout couches or cribs) when they accompany two full-fare-paying adults.
Happily, many luxury cruise lines feature spacious, balcony-trimmed suites as their entry-point accommodations, some of which come with third (and, more rarely, fourth) berths. Our 356-square-foot deluxe veranda suite, set up for us with a lovely wooden crib on wheels, delivered all the essentials to make it work: a dividing curtain between the sleeping and living areas (because nothing says vacation buzzkill like lights out at 8 p.m.); a balcony; and even a full bathtub, which made giving our daughter her baths infinitely easier.
3. Get good at speed-eating
’Tis a pity when sailing with a line known for its culinary chops, but a magic trick that any parent must learn is how to make their food disappear, fast. My husband and I painfully whittled down what would have been lavish multicourse dinners into fast-food frenzies, knowing that our 12-month-old had a tendency to go off after 30 minutes or so of sitting still.
Out of respect to our fellow guests, our dining room survival guide was this: (1) Put our order in immediately; (2) request a table as far away from other diners as possible; (3) have an escape plan, when all else failed. Luckily, the days of set dining times and shared seating are a thing of the past in the luxe cruising world, meaning we didn’t have to (closely) subject any poor strangers to Madeleine’s uncouth dining whims du jour.
Happily, Regent’s restaurant staff were superb even when our daughter wasn’t. They made sure a high chair magically appeared wherever we did, played endless games of peekaboo behind menus, rushed to bring her food out, and didn’t bat an eye when parts of her meal lost their battle with gravity. Sometimes it worked out, and we could actually finish that glass of wine; other times . . . not so much. On our night in the specialty restaurant, the sophisticated and romantically lit Prime 7 steak house, we had to concede defeat, walking away before ever making it past the bread basket.
All in all, we felt most comfortable at the daytime buffets or beside the casual poolside grill, where we could control the pace of the meal. And at dinner, when buffet service wasn’t an option, and the reading on Madeleine’s meltdown-potential meter was especially high, we graciously accepted room service as a welcome alternative.
4. Be realistic about excursions
Pre-baby, my husband and I would plan dawn-to-dusk (and then some) power outings. With a baby, there are nap times and attention spans, car seats and strollers, to consider.
And the prospect of a group shore excursion—which Regent so conveniently bundles into its rates—being interrupted by a tantrum or the need to change a diaper on the spot seemed downright mortifying.
We planned successful days in port by respecting our kid’s three keep-the-peace priorities: sleeping, eating, and having room to blow off steam. If an excursion ran too long or conflicted with nap time, we took it off the table. We packed snacks to keep cases of the hangries at bay. We chose excursions that didn’t require long stretches of time pinned into car seats (lugging one around will be your very own albatross; mercifully, they’re not usually needed on motor coach tours). Largely, though, we most enjoyed going it alone in port or hiring a private guide/driver; there is just so much liberation in having the flexibility to follow your own family’s travel rhythm.
Importantly, we tried to incorporate things that were less stodgy museum/historic site and more family fun. We found those moments tucking into fresh gingerbread overlooking a Nova Scotian lighthouse in Peggy’s Cove; marveling at whale skeletons at the New Brunswick Museum in St. John; and setting off on a brisk walk/stroller ride along the oceanfront in Maine’s Acadia National Park. And we made sure there was always some downtime. That mix of taking in the sights and relaxing was not only necessary for Madeleine, but made this unfamiliar relaxed pace all the more enjoyable for us, too.
5. Cruise from close to home, on a sensible itinerary
The beauty of cruising in America is that there are some two dozen cruise ports from which you can set sail. If you live near the coast, do yourself a favor and avoid dragging small kids and their endless gear on long-haul flights by driving to one of them.
From there, you’ll want to find an itinerary that works for your family. Consider a shorter sailing with few (if any) sea days. Beach and nature destinations (like the Caribbean or Alaska) are always good bets for engaging young minds. And do yourself a favor and go when the weather is agreeable. I traveled to Québec in late fall so that you don’t have to; fumbling with kids’ gear in the freezing cold, tracking hats and scarfs, big and small—it’s an added travel hassle that you just don’t need.
6. On board, be ready to make your own fun
You won’t have those big-ship amenities like water parks or cartoon character encounters to fall back on, so be prepared to make your own entertainment on board. We brought a stash of toys and books, and while the Navigator wasn’t exactly overflowing with kid-friendly amenities, some dominoes from the game room, a little back-and-forth at the Ping-Pong table, and even up-and-down rides in the open-glass elevators provided amusement enough. The weather was too cold for a dip in the swimming pool, but most ships’ pools, industrywide, are restricted to kids who are potty-trained, anyhow.
The biggest onboard entertainment will inevitably come via the interactions with fellow guests and staff. With Madeleine as the only baby on our sailing, she became the unofficial mascot, endeared equally by staff (many of whom were eager to regale us with tales about their children) and cruisers nostalgic for the days with their onetime wee ones. We chatted with more folks than we ever would have under any other circumstances—which was lovely when we were feeling social, but admittedly a bit annoying when we were just running out to grab some tea. Yet our budding socialite reveled in the attention—she simply could not stop waving to everybody and loved being the star of the show.
The conclusion? Just do it: Practice makes perfect
One fellow cruiser told me his mother used to say, “If you want to take your kids to a restaurant, you need to take your kids to a restaurant.” His wise mama was right. Like anything and everything kids will learn throughout life, their experiences help guide and shape them. While good manners begin at home, if you want tots to grow up to be good travelers in the luxury realm, fold them into that world ASAP, so that the unfamiliar becomes familiar and they become more seasoned for future trips. For all of our worrying, Madeleine ultimately exceeded all expectations, and with a little common courtesy, careful planning—and luck—your little one will learn to happily lap up luxury, too. Babies must be six to 12 months old to travel on most luxury cruise lines; it’s a 12-month minimum on Regent Seven Seas.