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Ready to plan a cruise vacation? Start with the basics. Where do you want to go? On an epic bucket list trip to Alaska? Or an island-hopping cruise in the Caribbean? Which cruise line will work best for your family – Disney, Norwegian, Princess? And then there are the many, many packing questions. Relax and read on. Here’s the info you need to know to plan a cruise for your family cruise in 2023.
Read More: Ultimate Family Cruise Packing List
How to Plan A Cruise in 2023: Perfect Family Cruises for Every Age
Cruises offer a slice of the planet you don’t get to see every day. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Glaciers in Alaska. The exotic Western Mediterranean and everywhere in between. This is definitely an upgrade from piling in the van and going to visit grandma. Although if you want to visit grandma, invite her on the family cruise. A family cruise is a vacation with something to please everyone. From 8 to 88, cruises are great for people of all ages.
Family cruises are generally low cost in comparison to other vacations. Your cruise includes accommodations, food and entertainment. Plus, you can see multiple destinations without dragging your bags in and out of a new hotel room every day.
Want to be on the go sunrise to sunset? It’s possible. Want to gamble? Most cruise ships have casinos. Want to park yourself in a deck chair and sip fruity drinks while you stare at the ocean? Check. If you raised your hand to that last one, you’re my people and we should go on a cruise together.
Supervised Youth Activities
One of the best selling points of a family cruise for me is supervised kids activities that are included in the cost. I have no problem admitting that I like a little vacation from my kids while we’re on vacation. I enjoy family time too, but a cruise lets us do both.
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On our last cruise, I got to introduce my son to the wonderful world of snorkeling. I also had a morning to myself on an adults-only beach where no one said, “Mom, watch this.” Not one time. Truly the best of both worlds.
Why is a Family Cruise in 2023 Even Better?
Let’s face it. It’s been a long few years and as many families wade back into the waters of travel they want to do it safely. With changing rules, regulations and entry requirements in different countries, sit back and let a cruise company do all the work. They’ll let you know exactly what you need to get on and off the ship. Safety protocol will fall to them. If a country changes its requirements or has a safety concern the cruise company will change the itinerary. It’s a lot easier to let them do the mental workout of managing the paperwork. Make it a true vacation and let someone else do the heavy lifting. All you need to worry about is paying, buying travel insurance and showing up.
Plan a Cruise: What are the Best Cruises for Families?
In addition to Disney Cruises, I recommend Carnival Cruises, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises. Here’s why!
Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival Cruise Line offers “Camp Ocean” which is the kids program for ages 2-11. Kids are grouped by age and take part in fun, marine-life themed activities.
Camp Ocean offers Dr. Seuss-themed activities, games and Build-A-Bear workshops. It’s definitely more than a cruise ship babysitting service. In addition, there are other activities kids can participate in, such as a Sky Course, Thrill Theater, various sports, late night parties and an arcade. Some have an additional fee. There’s also a teen lounge.
Norwegian and Royal Caribbean
Both Norwegian’s Splash Academy and Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean are highly rated. Royal Caribbean tops the charts with space dedicated to kids activities. Their newest ship, Wonder of the Seas, has a dedicated teen hangout too. Norwegian Cruise Line offers a two-deck kids club.
Also worth a mention is Princess Cruises Camp Discovery, which has recently been rebranded and updated. Princess Cruises has a reputation of being more of a luxury cruise line than isn’t as kid friendly, but it looks like the company is taking steps to change that.
We’ve cruised with our family and sans kids and every ship we’ve been on has something kid-friendly. Luxury class cruises may be less family focused. If you have kids in the school-age range, you’re going to want to pay attention to the space and scope of the kids program.
She Buys Travel Tip: If there are kids in your travel party, look for cruises that have well-developed and fresh programs. In my opinion, no one beats Disney Cruise Line for family friendly, although there are a few that come close — at a much more affordable price point.
Read More: Bringing Grandma? The Best Multigenerational Vacation Ideas
Is a Disney Cruise Worth the Money?
My answer is yes, but.
I’ve been on two Disney Cruises with my family and we’re gearing up for number three, so obviously I’m a fan. After we boarded the ship for our first Disney Wonder Cruise, I knew we were onto something very special. I’ve bought into the mouse magic hook, line, and sinker. Maybe I shouldn’t say “sinker” when I’m talking about ships that sail on the ocean, but the point is, I think a Disney Cruise is the best cruise experience you can have with your kids, maybe even without them.
The “but” stems from the fact that a Disney Cruise is substantially more expensive than other large cruise lines that cater to families, such as Carnival or Royal Caribbean. If you price compare across different cruise lines, you’ll find that Disney is always (always, always, always) much more expensive.
What Makes a Disney Cruise Great?
Disney Cruises aren’t “in your face” Disney. Before our first Disney Cruise, I had this mental image of Mickey jumping out at me around every corner and saying “Hi Pal!” That couldn’t be further from the truth. You get the very best of the pixie dust without feeling like you’re at a crowded theme park.
Overall, if you have kids or love Disney (or both!) you’re going to find that the Disney Cruise Line is a good fit. That’s not to say you can’t have a good time on another cruise line because of course you can. I recently did a price comparison between Disney and Carnival cruises leaving from the same port and following similar itineraries and the difference was well over $5,000, which is a lot no matter how you look at it.
However, here’s why Disney Cruises stand out.
Memorable Character Interactions
If you’ve been to the Disney Parks, you might have noticed long waits to meet your favorite Disney characters. You’ll still find lines on board Disney Cruises, although they are not nearly as long. You’re also not standing out in the hot Florida sun. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Daisy will be dressed in nautical attire or in pirate attire, for pirate night. If you meet characters on cruises that stop at Castaway Cay (pronounced Key) which is Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, they will be dressed in swimwear. It’s so cute!
Broadway Quality Disney-themed entertainment
I’ve never seen bad entertainment on any cruise ship but the Disney shows are just…magic, as you’d expect. The Frozen show created especially for Disney Cruise Line rivals Frozen the Musical, although obviously it’s a much condensed version of the story.
Unique Onboard Dining
Your party will rotate through the on-board restaurants and your waitstaff will rotate with you. You get the opportunity to eat in different, themed restaurants with signature dishes and have your same table servers take care of you night after night. There’s also add-on, adults only dining. Your Disney Cruise ship will have Palo, Remy, or both and the additional cost is very reasonable, considering the amazing brunch or dinner service you’ll receive.
Fireworks and freebies. On board a Disney Cruise, you’ll also enjoy spectacular fireworks at sea and free fountain soft drinks. There are a few extras you’ll have to pay for – some of the concessions and some of the specialty drinks, such as smoothies and fancy coffees, come with an upcharge. Overall, though, I find Disney cruises to be the most cost inclusive, which they should be for the price. Also, if your cruise stops at Castaway Cay, food and most nonalcoholic beverages are included.
All Disney all the time (in a good way!). What I love most about Disney Cruise Line is the exquisite yet subtle Disney theming that is present everywhere. The artwork in the hallways, the music playing in the background and the mouse hands on the elevator all contribute to something that is a step above other cruises. The fun and the whimsy is everywhere, from the hidden Mickeys in the carpet and wallpaper, to the fun of seeing everyone’s Disney Cruise door magnets as you stroll through the corridor.
SheBuysTravel Tip: “Frozen” character meets and princess character meets require a reservation. These reservations are at no cost to you. Make sure you reserve prior to sailing.
Read More: How to Make Fun Disney Cruise Door Magnets!
How to Check Off Your Bucket List with a Cruise
Most of us have our bucket list of places we need to see before we die. I have been privileged to travel to the extent I have but there’s one thing I know to be true about travel – it always leaves us wanting more.
My bucket list places are Hawaii, Alaska, Norway, Kenya, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few. I’ve actually been to Northern Ireland but it was a day trip from Dublin and I want to see more.
It’s easy to visit bucket list destinations via a cruise ship. Even if you think your desired location is too far inland, there may be an option to see it as part of a shore excursion. Even the Great Wall of China is possible as a shore excursion. MSC Cruises has select sailings from Yokohama that list Tianjin as a stop. The Great Wall is about 3.5 hours from the port of Tianjin (near Beijing) and there are cruise lines that have the Great Wall listed as an excursion. You can go on a Galapagos Cruise or go Greek Island hopping as part of a cruise. The possibilities are almost limitless.
If time and money were no object, we’d probably all like to spend a week (or more!) exploring those “must do” spots on our list. A cruise offers an easy and relatively inexpensive way to explore those places that have special significance to you as part of a more structured trip.
Use Your Family Cruise Itinerary to Inspire Future Travel
Cruise excursions are also a great way to add new items to your bucket list. I went on a seven-night cruise of the Western Mediterranean with my husband and some friends in 2012. One of the port stops was Malta.
That was one terrible cruise ship excursion if there ever was one. A small group of us hadn’t planned any shore excursions so we decided to try the hop on/hop off bus. I’m not sure if this was typical but everywhere we stopped to hop off, the lines to hop on were astronomical. This resulted in no one being willing to hop off the bus.
We rode around the city of Vallarta in the full sun for a chunk of the afternoon, afraid that we’d be put in the position of missing our boat if we got off to explore. You might be scratching your head and wondering what this has to do with bucket list travel and I’ll tell you now: The resort hotels along the ocean were so absolutely drool-worthy that I knew I’d come back one day, and I did. My daughter and I took a girls’ trip to Malta the following year. If it weren’t for the shore excursion that failed, Malta wouldn’t have been on my radar at all.
Read More: Take a Deep Breath and Smell the Lavender in France.
Alaska: The Final Frontier
As I mentioned, Alaska is one of the items on my travel bucket list. In fact, it is the top item on my travel bucket list. I’ve decided the best way for me to explore Alaska is via a cruise ship.
Alaskan cruises are very popular. If you’re looking to check the 49th state off your bucket list, and you’re not the hunting and fishing type, a cruise is the answer.
Alaska is larger than the state of Texas and has a whopping 23 cruise ports. An Alaskan cruise is just one way to explore America’s last frontier. You might just fall in love with it and return for more than a look around Alaska’s port cities.
Want to know more? Check out our Alaskan cruise tips.
Ways to Save Money on a Family Cruise in 2023
What’s the worst cruise surprise? A huge stateroom bill at the end of your vacation. Extra charges add up on a cruise. You need to stay on top of them. Here’s how to save money on your family cruise vacation.
1. Talk to a Travel Agent
First, know that planning and preparation are key. There are lots of websites out there that help you track cruise fares. If you’ve never used a travel agent, your first cruise might be a great time to start the relationship. It won’t cost you any extra money and the travel agent is the person in the know about cruise deals. If you plan to cruise in 2023 we highly recommend using an agent. If anything changes they’ll be doing the time on hold for you with the cruise company!
2. Do Your Homework
Do your homework and compare prices across different cruise lines. Scope out different itineraries, different ports of departure and different dates. You may be locked into specific times you need to vacation, but as with all travel, the more flexibility you have on when you go, the more money-saving options you will have.
3. Drive to Save Money
Sail from a port within driving distance from where you live. Whether your home is near Miami, Seattle, New York, or somewhere else, picking a cruise that is near home saves money. Cost compare on port parking and ask about applicable discounts. Military, veterans, and first responders may receive free or discounted port parking. Ask what discounts are available. Don’t forget to cost compare transportation to the port if you’re flying. Disney offers bus transportation from Orlando International Airport to nearby Port Canaveral – for a pretty penny. It’s cheaper to hire a private taxi, use a ride share service, or even rent a car. Do your homework.
4. Know Your Dining Options
Scope out the dining options on your cruise ship. Basic dining is traditionally free but there will always be up sells and add-ons. If you want to eat at the steak house or the sushi bar, budget for the cost ahead of time. Include that research on drink package options, too. Typically, coffee, tea, and juices will be included in the cost of your cruise. Bottled water, soda and alcohol will usually cost extra. If you decide a beverage package is right for you, try to buy it ahead of time. There will be plenty of options to buy beverage packages on board but these are offered when you’re already in “vacay mode” and have your guard down. Buy before you go.
5. Keep Tabs on Drinks
Know what beverages you can take on board. Most cruise lines allow specific amounts of alcohol, bottled water or soda to be carried on. If you’re driving and want to save some money on drinks, read the fine print on what you are allowed to bring on board. If you exceed the amounts, your goodies will be confiscated and you can grab them post-cruise.
6. Set a Budget for Extras
Check out add-on services you might be interested in, such as spa packages before you sail. Not only will you have a better shot at availability, you’ll be able to budget for your spend versus making an emotional, impulsive decision. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the #cruiselife atmosphere and think “Why yes, I do need a massage with a view of the ocean. Cost is unimportant. Take my money!”
Ask me how I know this, y’all.
I know it’s fun to be unstructured but planning for things that cost extra on cruises will help keep spending in check and prevent that nasty shock when you get your stateroom bill.
7. Book Your Own Excursions (if it is allowed)
I struggle with giving this piece of advice because booking through the cruise line is reliable and offers some protection. We had a six-night Western Caribbean Cruise get reduced to five nights due to weather. We spent an additional night in port and the captain made the decision to cut one of the stops. That happened to be the stop where we’d booked our big excursion and, because we’d booked through the cruise line, we were able to switch it easily. If we had booked through a third party, we wouldn’t have had that flexibility and we’d have probably been out some money. (This is also a good reason to always buy travel insurance, but especially when you book a cruise!)
When you cruise in 2023 regulations could vary. Some family cruise lines are keeping their “bubble” by only allowing excursions that they run.
That said, booking on your own will nearly always save you money. Check out the excursions offered on your cruise and then Google the price of doing the same things on your own and compare the savings. You’ll have to do a little more thinking and planning and it won’t be as easy as just following the herd off the ship and trusting that the guide will get you where you’re supposed to be and back to the ship in time. Planning on your own eliminates the middle man and adds some money back into your wallet.
8. Beware the Dreaded “Hidden Costs”
Spend some time on the cruise line’s website looking at all the “hidden costs” for things you might not consider, such as corking fees for wine you bring on the ship. Be very careful with room service charges. You might incur service charges for “free” room service. Take a minute to learn about what internet plans are available and decide if you can handle a few days at sea without being connected. Vacations are generally a great place to unplug but there are lots of reasons why you might need to stay connected, too. Check out our post on how Disney Cruise internet works to get an idea of what’s involved in getting connected at sea.
9. Rein in Kids’ Spending
I hate to be a party pooper but I also don’t want you to have heart failure when you get your stateroom bill at the end of your cruise. Cruising is generally cashless, with all charges going to your room. I recommend having a discussion about what to charge and who can charge. Unless you have unlimited budget, you probably don’t want your kids having charging privileges. Those non-alcoholic drinks and gelatos will add up fast. Plus, anything from the gift shops, from snack food to pool apparel, is probably outrageously expensive. Establish ground rules on who can charge to your stateroom before you sail.
Read More: A Luxury Cruise Onboard the Celebrity Edge
How to Pack for a Family Cruise
Repeat after me: Less is More.
No, really, say it.
One of the most important things to remember when you’re packing for a cruise is that you don’t have that much space. Your stateroom is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 square feet, which is much smaller than your average hotel room. A typical cruise ship cabin is designed with efficiency in mind and you will have a surprising amount of storage space. There will be some places to hang your clothes and a few drawers. You can store your suitcases under the bed. That space is designed specifically for this purpose.
All that efficiency aside, you’re still going to feel like you’re short on space. Dragging your suitcase out from under the bed to dig for your clothing is going to get old and potentially cause arguments as you and your family are trying to get used to navigating and living in a teeny tiny space.
Ask me how I know this.
If you’re traveling as a twosome, this probably isn’t as big of a deal but a family of four trying not to trip over each other and locate their stuff doesn’t make your family bonding time very much fun. You can always upgrade to family suites, which have more room, but the jump in price from a regular stateroom to family suites is pretty hefty. You won’t spend that much time in your stateroom, anyway.
Plan a Cruise: Packing Tips
- Pack ONLY one outfit for each activity. Before you sail, look at everything available and see what activities you’re going to do. If you pack two backup outfits for each night’s dinner, well…you’re going to have some issues. I do recommend packing two bathing suits, though, because odds are, you’re going to be wearing that most of the cruise. You always want to have a dry one.
- Pack clothes you can wear more than once. I have some cute dresses that can double as bathing suit cover ups and dinner dresses. Swap out the flip flops for some strappy sandals and bring costume or statement jewelry. They’ll never know, and if they do, so what?
- Check out the laundry options on board before you go. Most cruise ships will offer laundry service, and although it doesn’t come cheap, it is sometimes worth the expense to help me stay in that minimal packing range. Some ships also offer self-service laundry, and while no one wants to forsake Mai Tais on the Lido Deck for hanging out in the laundry room, the room it saves in your bag may be worth doing a load at sea. Make sure you take quarters and your own laundry soap. If you have kids, just knowing you have the option to get your clothes clean mid-trip can sometimes bring peace of mind.
- Unpack. When you get into your cabin, unpack your clothes. Hang them up. Put them in drawers. Now, you know where everything is. You won’t be bumping into each other every time someone is trying to find her flip flops. You’re welcome.
Loving all these tips but need more structure? Check out our cruise packing list complete with cruise in 2023 updates.
Cruise Ship Etiquette
You didn’t know there was cruise ship etiquette? Oh, but there is! Here are just a few things you need to realize about how etiquette works at sea.
- Don’t hog the deck chairs. Deck chair hogs place their sunglasses and towel on coveted poolside chairs and then disappear for the rest of the day. Maybe they’re chillaxing in their stateroom or checking out the buffet but they’ll for sure have a great place to sit at the pool – when they decide they’re ready.
- Don’t make a ton of noise in the halls or when you’re entering or exiting your cabin.
- Be a good and considerate audience member. If you’re entering the show late, take the first seat you can find. Don’t obstruct other people’s views of the stage or talk loudly while you’re trying to situate yourself.
- Be on time to muster (AKA the lifeboat drill.) Once you get through it, you can commence to doing all the cruise things. If you’re late or uncooperative, you’ll hold everyone else up.
- Observe the dress code. Dress code on most cruises is fairly casual these days. There will typically be some kind of code for what to wear inside restaurants. This might be as fancy schmancy as “jackets and ties for men” or as casual as “no swimwear at the buffet.” Whatever the dress code is, it wasn’t a secret before you went on your cruise and you had ample chance to look at it before you packed your clothes. Gym shorts and a tee shirt on formal night or coming to breakfast in your pajamas is not cool.
Can You Let Your Teens Loose on a Family Cruise?
I have a 26-year-old and two 9-year-olds. I never cruised with my oldest when she was a teen and we’re not there yet with our two youngest. While I am letting you know up front where my experience on this subject lies, I have cruised with teens in my party. Our first cruise was a multi-family group of friends who spent seven nights in the Western Mediterranean and three of the five families in our group had teens. I can tell you what I think based off what I observed and the things my friends with teens shared with me. You know your children best.
I personally don’t like the idea of “letting them loose.” That said, you can give your teens more or a different level of freedom than they have at home or on a traditional vacation.
Cruise ships are like small, contained cities. There’s no place for kids to go, which is one of the reasons many families want to do a cruise with teens. Here are some tips:
Register your Kids for the Teen Club Onboard
Furthermore, most ships have teen clubs (and often tween clubs) in addition to programs for younger kids. That gives them a safe space to connect with their peers and engage in age-appropriate, non-lame fun on board. Actually, I have talked to many parents of teens who have used onboard kids clubs. I’ve gotten an across-the-board positive response. Even the teens who rejected the idea of going to an onboard teen club report enjoying it.
All onboard kids clubs have a registration process. These vary across cruise lines but most allow you to register your kids in advance. Even if you don’t think your teens will enjoy it, pre-register them anyway. After all, it will save you time once you’re onboard and your teens tell you they’ve changed their mind.
Booze and Gambling are Off Limits
While the worry of a teen getting lost or abducted might not be as present, cruise ships are places where alcohol is readily available and people don’t always have the most honorable intentions. I’ve found the “carding” process to be pretty stringent at cruise ship bars. So I wouldn’t worry about your teens being served at the bar as much as I’d probably worry about someone slipping them a drink, or worse.
Read More: The Top Places to Visit with Your Teens
If you allow your teens extra freedom, establish boundaries, curfews and check-in times. While the people who work on cruise ships are going to be the buzzkill that keep curious teens out of casinos and other adults-only venues, asking your teen to check in and be back in your stateroom at a certain time is totally reasonable.
Don’t Fight the WiFi
All ships have WiFi available for purchase. If you’re traveling with teens or a large group of people, I recommend biting the bullet and paying for the WiFi. Some cruise lines have free apps you can download prior to sailing with some sort of built-in communication system families. Most teens use social media. Having that extra layer of “tabs on you” is worth the spend.
You can also pack a small dry erase board and affix it to your stateroom door. It’s an old- school way to exchange messages but it works. This offers another way to keep track of your family’s comings and goings at sea.
Cruising with Babies and Toddlers: Can you? Should you?
My short answer is yes…and no.
Yes, you can cruise with a baby or toddler. Most cruise lines are doing all they can to make that option as easy as they can for those who chose to do so.
But the real question is should you? In my opinion, the answer is no. We didn’t book our first family cruise until our kids were in first grade. We wanted them to be old enough to enjoy the kids club.
Why? Because I wanted to be able to enjoy part of my vacation without my kids hanging on one of my legs.
I personally think it would be difficult to fully enjoy all the amenities a cruise has to offer if you’re holding a baby or are on call as a nose wiper/potty escort/food cutter. My ideal cruise experience includes taking in shows, lingering over dinner and lying on the deck with a fruity adult beverage in my hand. None of those ideals gel with 24/7 mom duty. That’s me. Your vacation vision may be quite different.
If you’ve checked out and are comfortable with the childcare facilities on board or if you are cruising with extended family who you know will shoulder some of the baby holding, then cruising with babies or toddlers starts to look different.
Research Kid-Friendly Amenities
There are cruise lines and ships that are more kid friendly than others. Ask friends and family who have experience cruising with wee ones. Ask a travel agent or a (really experienced cruiser) for recommendations. Your cruise will go a lot smoother if its a family cruise line versus an adult-oriented one.
Do you travel agents? Or can you help me find a good travel agent? Looking to book a cruise for Nov 2023 for a wedding.