12 tips for surviving a luxury cruise with kids

12 tips for surviving a luxury cruise with kids

Take the kids on a luxury cruise — how dare you? Luxury cruises are the domain of well-heeled, mature couples looking for fine dining, personal service, elegant suites and onboard spaces free of loud, energetic children. Or so say luxury cruise fans on online forums whenever someone floats the idea of treating their family to an upscale cruise.

Ignore them. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your preferred luxury standards just because you’re cruising as a foursome (or more) rather than a twosome. And unless your cruise line expressly prohibits children under a certain age, there’s no reason why you can’t bring the younger members of your family along.

The key to luxury cruising with kids is to know what to expect from the ship and what to expect from your kids, and then plan accordingly. If you’re ready to ditch Disney’s jungle cruise ride for a week or more in favor of an upscale cruise ship, follow these 12 tips for a successful luxury sailing with your junior cruisers.

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Take a hard look at your kids

Is your child well behaved and polite, or do they throw massive tantrums routinely at dinner? Does your teen prefer to make friends on vacation or hang out with her family? Does your middle-schooler get easily bored without nonstop activities or can he find his own fun anywhere?

The answers to these questions will help you decide if an adult-focused, luxury cruise vacation is right for your family. If your child can’t handle long dinners, a ship without water slides and rock-climbing walls, and minimal to no other kids on board, now might not be the right time to splurge on that dream luxury cruise. You can always wait a few years and try again.

Then again, if your budding foodies love to try new cuisines, earned airline elite status as a toddler and are on first-name basis with the staff at the Ritz, they will fit in just fine.

Choose ships with kids programming

Naturalist showing objects to kids on a cruise ship in French Polynesia
Paul Gauguin’s onboard naturalists run its Moana Explorer Program for children. PAUL GAUGUIN CRUISES

Some upscale cruise lines outright ban children (Viking) or have an age minimum (Windstar), but others welcome kids and offer special activities during sailings with larger-than-usual numbers of children. Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers its Club Mariner program for kids ages 5 to 17, with daily programming led by youth counselors. Paul Gauguin Cruises runs the Moana Explorer Program to introduce kids to the natural wonders of the South Pacific on summer and holiday sailings.

Other lines, such as Seabourn, might not have an official kids program but will put on activities when families are sailing in abundance. Be sure to ask your travel agent what to expect if you’re cruising with younger kids who could benefit from age-appropriate games and crafts.

Plan for family time

On a big ship, your kids could spend the entire day in the kids club or running around with a pack of teens to the sports court and water slides, leaving the adults to enjoy the spa or solarium in peace. On a luxury cruise ship, with fewer options for children, you should count on lots of family together time instead.

This is a good thing. Save your massage for a weekend at home and date night for your regular sitter. You don’t have many chances to spend whole days with your kids without work emails and chores getting in the way. Embrace this opportunity to go to shows together, laugh as your kid tries foie gras for the first time, or sip tea, nibble scones and just talk to each other. The together time is a greater luxury than you might have imagined.

Choose the right itinerary

Happy kids with mother having fun on a tropical beach

If you’re concerned that long days at sea on a luxury cruise ship won’t go over well with your kids, look for an itinerary that’s in port nearly every day. You can plan family fun off the ship, and then come back on board for gourmet dinners and an evening show or in-cabin movie before hitting the sack. Everyone wins.

Also, make sure you pick a destination that’s age appropriate. Little kids might prefer a tropical cruise with plenty of beach time versus strolling the cobblestoned streets of quaint towns in France and Italy. Active tweens and teens might relish zip-lining, hiking and kayaking in Alaska, while bookish kids might itch to see historic sites in Greece and Turkey.

Let your kids select their onboard activities

Other luxury cruisers will tell you that there are no activities for kids on fancy cruise ships, but I’ve watched plenty of kids on high-end sailings and can tell you that’s not true. Kids like all kinds of activities, not just the ones planned for them.

On one Seabourn cruise, I was on a daily trivia team with a family that included a 10-year-old girl. She was enthusiastic about the daily game and contributed several answers. Another boy and his grandmother always showed up to afternoon tea and he seemed happy as a clam. I’ve seen kids on Regent Seven Seas enjoying the pool, not to mention the ice cream. My own kids have surprised me with their interest in the captain’s Q&A or games of shuffleboard, so don’t assume that just because there isn’t specific kids programming that your kids will be bored.

Make use of room service

Luxury cruises are known for spacious cabins and complimentary in-room meal service. Make use of these perks by ordering meals to your cabin when the kids are tired or can’t sit through a leisurely dinner. They can eat chicken fingers while watching cartoons, and you don’t have to miss out on the evening’s culinary selections. You can even ask for dinner to be served course by course from the main restaurant.

Or order coffee for you and cereal for them to arrive in the morning while everyone’s getting ready, and then meander up to the buffet for a hot breakfast without anyone having a hangry meltdown.

Bring snacks — or find them on board

No matter where you travel, I’m adamant you should always bring snacks for kids. Whether you need a mid-excursion pick-me-up or an alternative to a fancy lunch, be sure to have pre-packaged bars, applesauce pouches or bags of goldfish crackers or pretzels at the ready to prevent meltdowns. Cruise ships don’t always have kid snacks available.

Even if you don’t bring your own food, remember you’re on a luxury cruise. Ask your butler to bring a selection of kid-friendly foods (cheese and crackers, grapes, popcorn, cookies) at 3 p.m. each day instead of smoked salmon finger sandwiches or bacon-wrapped dates — though you might also learn your kids have a secret appetite for blinis with caviar. If you can’t order it midday, save cereal and yogurt from breakfast to keep in your suite’s minifridge. And find the onboard cafe with all-day snacks where you can swing by for a quick bite anytime the munchies strike.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

Pack entertainment

Luxury cruises will have some planned daytime entertainment, but not as much as on the humongous cruise ships. Trivia, cooking demonstrations and guest lectures are all popular pastimes, but many luxury cruisers prefer a relaxing day of playing cards in a lounge or reading by the pool.

If your family needs more excitement, you’ll have to bring the fun. Pack those handheld video game players, tablets loaded with movies and games, a deck of cards, and maybe even some travel-sized board games. For little kids, you might want to bring a coloring pad and crayons, sticker books, dolls or toy cars — whatever keeps your lot happy on a slow day at sea.

Engage with the crew

Room steward serving in-suite breakfast on Regent Seven Seas cruise ship

If some of your shipmates are standoffish, I can bet you the crew won’t be. Many have families they’ve left behind at home, and they don’t have the chance to interact with little kids so often on the high-end ships. They will be eager to dote on your junior cruisers, bringing them special treats or making them origami animals out of daily programs. Engage with the crew members and they will help you keep the kids happy and the stress off your shoulders.

Don’t count on babysitting

Most luxury cruise lines do not offer in-room babysitting — and if they do, it’s only if there is a willing female crew member available at the time you need. It’s a courtesy, not a guaranteed service. Don’t take a luxury cruise assuming someone will be able to stay in the room with your sleeping children while you enjoy the onboard nightlife.

If you’re really intent on having adult alone time on the ship, you’ll want to bring your own nanny or babysitter for your children. That might mean booking your kids and the sitter in a room adjoining yours, or sharing a suite with your family and booking the nanny into a lower-category cabin. It will likely mean booking a second cabin, which is not cheap on a high-end line, but the expense might be worth it if everyone enjoys the trip more with an extra set of eyes and hands.

Related: 5 secrets to getting a luxury cruise for less

Ignore the sideye

Unfortunately, while many cruisers will be thrilled to see kids on board, some of your shipmates will give you the look or mutter comments about your choice to sail with children — especially in a moment when your kids aren’t being 100% perfect angels. Don’t let them yuck your yum. You have as much right as they have to bring your family on a luxurious cruise ship.

Trust me, I’ve seen plenty of adults whine and tantrum or otherwise behave in a less-than-becoming manner on upscale cruise ships. Your kids are acting their age — those folks knew better. Still, most of the kids I’ve noticed on luxury cruises were having a great time and not causing any trouble.

Take the high road, nod and smile at the naysayers, and go on enjoying your fine family getaway.

Consider a suite on a mass-market cruise

Colorful living room with couch, table and slide

If after reading these tips, you’re second-guessing your decision to take the kids on a luxury cruise, consider booking a suite on one of the big, mass-market ships. Lines like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line pamper suite guests with exclusive restaurants, lounges, pools and sun decks for that upscale experience, while still giving you access to all the kid programming, Broadway shows, laser tag games, water slides, rock-climbing walls, ropes courses, zip-lines and go-karts available on board.

You can enjoy fine dining, roomy cabins and personal service while knowing your kids have plenty of choices to keep them busy. Plus, you can send them off to the kids club to party until 10 p.m. while you get that much-needed date night.

Bottom line

Luxury cruise ships are built for grownups, but that doesn’t mean you and your kids can’t have an amazing vacation on an upscale ship. Plan for success, but leave space for surprises, and you’ll end up with a memorable family vacation that doesn’t compromise the luxury standards you prefer.

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