Diane Powell hadn't even considered taking a cruise until her husband came home one day and announced they were all going on the Big Red Boat, even the 5-month-old.
But she was game, packing up a case of formula, 50 jars of baby food, diapers and far more clothes than the couple, their 4-year-old daughter and baby needed.
"It was so different than I expected," reports Ms. Powell, a Michigan homemaker. "I thought we'd sit by the pool all day. But there was so much to do we didn't even get to the pool until the third day."
Carolyn Harrington was another first-time family cruiser whose experience also differed from her expectations.
"It didn't even seem like we were on a ship," says Ms. Harrington, who lives in Louisiana and sailed aboard a Carnival ship with 17 members of her extended family. "I was worried I'd be bored or get seasick, but when it was over, none of us wanted to leave."
The best part: the all-inclusive price. With children along, the fact that all the food and entertainment was included was no small matter. Consider that the typical cruise vacation includes activities and supervised children's programs and offers three main meals plus three buffet meals each day and entertainment from casinos to Las Vegas-style revues.
"It's really an affordable family vacation," says Ms. Harrington, who has been urging her friends to give cruising a try ever since.
There's probably been no better time. The increased capacity afforded by new megaships, such as Carnival's 2,040-berth Imagination and Royal Caribbean's 1,800-berth Legend of the Seas, has unleashed a bevy of bargains. More than 20 new ships will debut between now and 1998, reports the Cruise Lines International Association.
"It's unbelievable what's going on this year. Prices have never been lower," says Susan Lloyd Davies of the Los Angeles-based Cruisemaster Family Cruise Club, at (800) 242-9000.
There are dozens of options designed by passenger-hungry cruise lines to entice families on board this fall. For example, Carnival is offering two-for-one deals on three-, four- and seven-day cruises to the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Baja California on a variety of sailings.
There are also deals in which the third and fourth passengers -- read "your kids" -- may sail for $99 on various cruise lines. Some of these offers are available through the Thanksgiving holiday. Holland America and Celebrity are among the lines offering two-sail-for-the-price-of-one.
"But book early," advises Mr. Fishkin. "Cabins that are designed for families are the first to go."
First-time family cruisers will find many of the passengers are just like themselves: More than 40 percent of cruisers are first-timers. And growing numbers of cruisers -- nearly 20 percent -- now are bringing along the kids.
Especially for first-timers, it's important to do some homework before booking. Remember, there's a lot more than just the base price to booking a cruise. For example, tipping should be included in the budget, typically $50 per passenger, including children, for a seven-day cruise. Port charges can average more than $100 a passenger for a weeklong cruise.
Shore excursions also can be unexpectedly pricey -- especially when the children are along.
Consider the ages of the children when choosing a ship, making sure the ship's programs will accommodate your kids. How many teens are expected on board the week you will sail with your teen-agers? What kind of sports can your 11-year-old son expect? Are there art projects for your 7-year-old daughter? Ask to speak with someone who organizes the children's programs.
Then there's the diaper set. At the very least, inquire whether baby-sitting is available on the ship. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, starts its children's programs at age 3, but will guarantee in-cabin baby-sitting much of the day and evening (for an additional fee). Princess and Premier, on the other hand, offer programming for children as young as 2, but won't promise sitters for infants. If you've got visions of moonlit romantic evenings, a sitter is a must.
That's why it's important to do your homework. For a free Family Guide to Cruising, call (800) 777-0707. Seek out a travel agent who is a cruise expert and can explain the nuances of shipboard life. For example, it's necessary to decide ahead of time whether you'd like to eat meals early or late. Consider how your family will manage in one cabin for an entire week. (Mine wouldn't do well at all.) Think about the activities. Do shipboard programs matter more than exotic ports? And if motion sickness runs in the family, talk to your doctor beforehand.