By Liz Atwood, For The Baltimore Sun
6:38 PM EST, March 7, 2013
A standup comic on a Carnival Pride cruise from Baltimore to the Bahamas recently asked his audience how many were traveling with their kids. Quite a number politely clapped in response. He then asked how many were traveling without their kids. He was answered with whoops and hollers.
"There are always fewer of you, but you seem happier," he said.
Jokes aside, family cruising is big business. Carnival reports that about 700,000 kids cruise on its ships each year.
When I set sail on my first cruise with my 15-year-old and 11-year-old boys last July, I didn't know what to expect. Fearing we would get seasick, I stocked up on Dramamine and Bonine. Fearing we would lose each other on the immense ship, I bought walkie-talkies. I booked excursions I thought they would enjoy, and hoping for a few moments to relax, I encouraged the boys to check out the kids clubs.
After a week on board, I still don't remember the name of the front of the boat or the back. But I did learn some valuable lessons about cruising with kids.
First off, let's acknowledge that almost any vacation has its trying moments¸ but taking a cruise out of Baltimore has great advantages. Traveling from our front door to our cabin took less than an hour — including the luggage check-in and document verification. And we didn't have to remove our shoes.
Carnival calls itself the Fun Ship, and there is plenty to do for all ages, including family-friendly comedy shows, trivia games, scavenger hunts and dance parties. We hadn't even left port and I was playing miniature golf with the boys.
I had never been on a cruise ship, and I was amazed at the size and grandeur of the Pride. I had seen pictures of the 11-story gilded atrium, but they didn't do it justice. As soon as we boarded, we were directed to the Mermaid Grille where we ate lunch — pizza for the boys and Chinese food for me. By the time we were finished eating, our cabin was ready.
Here are my tips so you can be ready to keep the kids afloat on a weeklong cruise:
If possible, book a room with a balcony. As a novice cruiser, I tried to make sense of the terms for the types of staterooms on the ship — interior, oceanview, extended balcony and obstructed view. I booked the best room available with a balcony, even though the Carnival website said it had an obstructed view. I feared we would be looking at a lifeboat, but it turned out our stateroom was in the back of the ship and the only thing blocking our view was a flag pole. Although Carnival advertises some of the most spacious staterooms on the sea, cabins are smaller than most hotel rooms. I was grateful for the balcony, which gave me the chance to get away for some quiet reading while the boys slept or watched TV.
When it comes to dining choices, choose the "your time" seating option. I wasn't sure what "your time" seating was, but it turned out to be the best choice for us. Some days the boys were hungry early, and other days they wanted to eat late. The "your time" option gave us flexibility to eat when we wanted. A couple times we had to wait for a dinner table, but the staff gave us a pager and the wait was certainly no longer than Applebee's on a Friday night.
Consider the soda card. On the Pride, juice, lemonade, tea, coffee and hot chocolate are complimentary, but soft drinks will cost around $2 a serving. If your child will drink more than three sodas a day, it's worth buying the soda card, which gives kids under 17 unlimited soda for $4.50 a day. I bought one for the 11-year-old, but he didn't drink three sodas a day. I would have been wiser to have skipped the card.
Put a spending limit on the kids' Sail & Sign cards. The gift shop, spa and bar accept only the Sail & Sign cards. We went three days before I decided to check the balance on my kids' cards and discovered the older one had already run up a $75 bill buying virgin strawberry daiquiris. Put a limit on the kids' spending cards before you leave the dock.
Skip the walkie-talkies; invest in waterproof watches. I had read that some families keep track of each other with walkie-talkies while on board. Because cellphone charges are so high at sea, it seemed like a good idea. But it had its problems. At first, we couldn't find a channel other families weren't using. Then it was hard to keep the walkie-talkies charged because our cabin had just one electrical outlet. The older boy soon gave up using the walkie-talkie because he thought it looked geeky. By the end of the week, the younger one had lost interest in the novelty of paging me all over the ship. Once the boys learned their way around, they preferred to go off on their own. Rather than walkie-talkies, we should have taken watches so we could make arrangements to rendezvous for dinner.
Kids clubs aren't a fool-proof way to occupy the kids. My 15-year-old had no interest in going to the kids club before we set sail, and he told me not to sign him up for it. The younger one was looking forward to kids club so he could play video games with others his age. But as it turned out, the 15-year-old discovered he liked the activities of the teen club. They had dances, sports competitions and trivia contests, and they went to shows together.
By the end of the week, I saw him only at dinner time. I allowed him to stay up late because I knew he wasn't allowed to go in the adult clubs or gamble in the casino. On the last night, I found him sitting in the card room talking with other teens at 3 a.m. Relieved that he hadn't fell overboard, I allowed him to stay up, and I went back to bed.
The younger one, however, didn't like the kids club. At 11, he was too young for Circle C, which is for kids 12 to 14, but he seemed too old for Camp Carnival, which is for kids 2-11. Although the camp divides kids into several age groups, he found the activities of his 9-11 age group too young.
On the first day he went to kids club, he found the kids sitting in a room coloring pictures of ships. He tried it one more time when they were playing video games, but he said the games were lame. He never went back.
Although at times he complained of being bored, we hung out together. We played Battleship in the card room and went to family-friendly comedy shows. When he got tired of spending time with me, he swam in the pools or stayed in his cabin watching TV and relishing the free room service, which is available 24 hours a day.
Book excursions, but be prepared for a change of plans. Our day in Atlantis in the Bahamas got off to a rocky start when the popular water park ran out of lockers. I didn't want to leave my money, identification and credit card unattended, so I spent an hour waiting for a locker while the kids went off to play. Then I spent another two hours waiting for them to come back to where I was sitting because I had no idea where to find them. We should have made plans for a meeting point, or I should have taken a waterproof pouch and skipped the locker.
Our excursion in Freeport didn't go quite as planned, either. My older son, a certified diver, went on a scuba dive, which he loved. But the snorkeling trip my younger son and I were to do was canceled because of rough seas. We walked down the beach and found an outfit offering parasailing. We ended up having just as much fun, although it wasn't what we expected.
Kids and cruising might be the fodder for jokes, but with a bit of planning and tolerance for the unexpected, it can be a boatload of fun.
If you go
Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer programs for kids onboard. Both cruise lines sail from Baltimore. For more information, go to cruise.maryland.gov.
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