by PJ Gustafson
We cruised with our 2 ½-year-old and 6-month-old daughters on the Carnival Freedom in October 2015. Following that experience, I have twelve tips that may prove useful for anyone wanting to cruise with young children. Some of this is specific to Carnival, but most should be universally applicable to just about any mainstream cruise line. This is really long, but here goes:
- Bring things to entertain the kids. We brought the 2-year-old’s backpack with us and stuffed it with some new coloring books, sticker books, crayons, pens, activity books, etc. Basically, anything we knew she’d enjoy that she could do during some down-time that she hadn’t done before.
- Bringing an umbrella or other collapsible style stroller or a baby-wearer is key. This makes it much easier to get around not just ports but the ship as well – the ship is huge and that’s a lot of walking for little legs. We stayed in a standard ocean view cabin and even with the crib for the baby (Carnival provided a crib on request), there was still space to have the stroller in the room. It was tight, but it worked, and when we needed more space, we collapsed it and shoved it under the bed. Yes, you read that right earlier – we had two kids with us. We still only brought one stroller due to concerns about space and the sheer amount of stuff we had to schlep already. We mostly let the toddler ride and then we wore or just carried the baby, but we also had times where the baby rode and we carried the toddler or made her walk.
- Your room selection doesn’t have to break the bank. While we typically prefer balcony cabins for our cruises, we did ocean view for this one, which worked out really well. The window was actually more of a deep window seat, which made an excellent extra storage space for our girls’ bags. Mommy’s and Daddy’s things went into the closets with the girls’ hanging clothes, but we just kept the rest of their clothes, diapers, etc. in their bags in the window. Knowing what I know now, it would be very helpful to bring magnetic clips or hooks – the walls are magnetic, and having a place to hang up the backpack or another lighter bag on a wall would be great. While it was tight as it always is on a cruise ship, it worked well for the four of us. Based on the interior cabins I peeked in to, I don’t know that I’d recommend that for four people, but Ocean View or Balcony should be sufficient. Of course, if you have the ability to spring for a suite, I’m sure that would be even better!
- Bring reinforcements. It was really helpful that my wife’s parents were on the cruise with us. For one, cruising is always more fun with a group that you know, but it was really helpful to have them in the adjoining room so we had a place to hang out after putting the girls to bed early or having someone to watch them if there was a night my wife and I wanted to do something on the ship. Without that, be prepared for you and your spouse to take turns alternating watching the kids and enjoying the ship. Yes, Camp Ocean (Carnival’s revamped kid’s club area) does have nighttime activities until 10:00 pm, but that was way past the toddler’s time of useful consciousness and we also had the baby with us, who we could not drop off at Camp Ocean. Besides, who are we kidding? We’re parents of two young children. With so much to do on the ship and shore, by the time their bedtime rolled around, we were just as exhausted as they were!
- Camp Ocean is great. The staff is great, the activities are great. Our 2-year-old went for a while on the first day and had a lot of fun, but then didn’t want to stay without us the rest of the week. We’d pop by and do stuff with her, but she didn’t want to stay. Also – the Carnival Freedom had the Dr. Seuss Bookville library and an outdoor playground area that were also great things for us to do with her. She loved going to “the park” on the ship! Another great thing about having a young child in Camp Ocean – when you drop them off the first time they’ll issue you a ship’s wireless phone that you can hang on to for the whole week. The primary purpose is so they can reach you in case your kid needs you, but the extension is displayed on the device and you can call it from any ship’s phone. It’s a great way for you and your spouse to stay in touch. My understanding is that Disney issues each cabin two wireless phones, so everyone has this (I don’t know for sure as I’ve not yet been on a DCL cruise), and I’m not sure whether the other mainstream cruise lines do this as well.
- Like a good Boy Scout, Be Prepared. Bring any first aid supplies and medicines you can possibly think of. We brought a temporal thermometer, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, tummy medicine, band aids, anti-bacterial ointment, you name it, for kids and adults. We’d heard that they don’t offer the kid versions of these things on board, and what they do offer is horrendously expensive. Come prepared. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. On top of that, bring hand sanitizer and sanitizing travel wipes. Wipe down EVERYTHING in the cabin as soon as you arrive.
- Meet the characters. If on a Carnival ship that offers it, attend the Dr. Seuss Parade and pay the money for the Dr. Seuss breakfast (sign up the first day as they will sell out). They’re just lots of fun and the breakfast foods they do are really cute. Royal Caribbean offers character experiences with the Dreamworks characters and Disney now has Star Wars and Marvel in addition to their own long list of characters and princesses, so wherever you go, seek this type of activity out.
- Meet new people. On a ship with 2000-4000 guests, there’s bound to be another family that brought spawn roughly around the same age as yours. Seek them out, become friends, and arrange your own play dates. If they also signed up for Camp Ocean, get their ship cell phone number. This is a great way to occupy kids on sea days.
- Be nice to your room steward and they’ll be nice to you. Ours was phenomenal and went above and beyond, and we made sure our appreciation was reflected in our tip at the end of the cruise. We asked him not to fold up the toddler’s bed back into a couch so that she could use it for nap time. He also folded up extra blankets under the sheets in the baby’s crib to make it softer and more comfortable. Have them empty the mini bar so you can use it as a fridge to store leftovers, snacks, pumped breastmilk, etc.
- Grab extra milk/juice at breakfast. Juice and milk sometimes costs extra money on board. On Carnival ships, only water, tea, lemonade, and coffee are free throughout the day. However, at breakfast, they have cartons of milk and I think juice as well (our daughter didn’t drink juice at the time) sitting on the Lido buffet near the cereal. Grab 1-2 extra cartons and chuck them into your room’s mini-bar/refrigerator so you have something besides water for your offspring to drink throughout the day. We didn’t try this, but I’ve heard you can also order milk from room service any time.
- Don’t be afraid to skip a port. Not every port is kid-friendly or has family-friendly activities. We took the girls ashore in Mahogany Bay (Roatan, Honduras) where we just booked a clamshell on the beach. We all got to swim and have fun in the sun and it was great. However, we were nervous about stepping onto a tender with the girls in Belize City (and finding something fun and safe to do there as a family) and my in-laws had reservations about bringing the girls into Cozumel (probably overly paranoid on both counts, but this made us feel better), so my wife and then my in-laws took ones for the team and stayed on the ship with the girls in those ports. It actually worked out well because my in-laws and I got to go tour Mayan ruins in Belize (something I’ve wanted to do since I was in 6th grade but my wife has little interest in), then my wife and I got to go do Snuba in Cozumel. This is another time when that backup I mentioned in number 4 comes in handy. Besides, staying on ship while in port is when the pools and buffet are far less crowded and you can actually get a lounge chair.
- Relax. You’re on a trip (a “trip” is with kids – “vacation” is without), so enjoy. It’s very difficult to try to maintain your “normal” schedule while on board and especially in port, so your kid may have to roll with the punches a little. Don’t fret or beat yourself up about it. Your kid will get cranky because they missed a nap or went to bed too late – let it roll. They might not like what’s offered in the Main Dining Room – take them on a trip up to the buffet, grab pizza from the 24-hour pizza place, or order room service. If you can remember to be flexible and come to terms with the fact that you likely won’t be able to do absolutely everything you might want to do (ship nightlife, specialty restaurants, adventurous excursions, and the like), your trip will be that much better.