The A-Z of family cruise holidays

Think cruises are just for the old folk? Think again – they are now the perfect vessel for a fun-filled family holiday says writer Sue Bryant

The A-Z of family cruise holidays

For children over six, Alaska is a fantastic destination where they can learn about glaciers, whales and dolphins, kayak with sea otters, see husky dogs and go on bear-watching safaris. Holland America Line is one of the biggest Alaskan operators, with elegant ships renowned for their excellent food. Children’s clubs operate from June to September.


Cruise ships sail from Dover, Amsterdam or Copenhagen all summer long to the Baltic – a great choice for families who want to instil a bit of culture into slightly older children. You can take in the fantastic sandy beach in Germany’s Warnemünde, the zoo and a boat ride in Helsinki to see the bears and snow leopards, and the Vasa Museum in beautiful Stockholm on a Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise

Cruise ships compete with one another to have the best entertainment, but the informal British Ocean Village wins for the best circus act. Throughout the cruise, the resident circus troupe performs acrobatics in the ship’s atrium lobby, culminating in the Planet Show on deck – as good as the Cirque du Soleil. Cruises are in the Mediterranean in summer and the Caribbean in winter.

Eating is a vital ingredient on any cruise and P&O’s newest vessel, Ventura, even has a family restaurant designed by Marco Pierre White. There is certainly no over-boiled cabbage here – this is fine dining and cuisine at its best. Ventura sails from Southampton to the Mediterranean all summer.

Although the majority of cruises are in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, new routes are always opening up. Italian line Costa Cruises has adventurous itineraries on family-friendly ships, with cruises out of Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mauritius – great for exploring long-haul destinations in comfort.

US-owned Carnival Cruise line is popular with US families and is undeniably glitzy. So if you enjoy the razzamatazz of Vegas, this is definitely the cruise for you. The children’s Camp Carnival scheme is excellent and the food is top quality. The newest ship, the Carnival Splendor, was recently launched by British celebrity mother Myleene Klass, and features a giant water slide on deck, a huge playroom and nightly song-and-dance routines led by the restaurant waiters.

Perfect for multi-generation groups, cruises cater for everyone. Splash out and take a suite with a dining area if you’re celebrating something special and want a private party. NCL’s huge three-bedroomed Garden Suites are stunning for special occasions, with a grand piano, outdoor hot tub and butler service.

The hurricane season in the Caribbean is from July to November. But rest assured, cruise ships do not sail through hurricanes and if one is brewing, they’ll pull into port or change their itinerary. You may well wish to avoid this season, but if you’re willing to take a chance there are some bargains to be had sailing out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. For more advice on travelling in hurricane season, visit

Each of the Royal Caribbean’s bigger ships has an ice rink on board that is used for skating sessions by day and then for spectacular ice shows at night. Both are unmissable for Dancing On Ice fans – and they’re free. These ships are particularly good when it comes to catering for active children as they also feature climbing walls, mini golf and, on the three newest vessels – Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas – there’s even a water theme park.

The A-Z of family cruise holidays

Parents will love having this famous comedy club on board Island Cruises’ Island Star, which offers seven-night Mediterranean cruises from Palma in the summer. There are weekly shows and comedy masterclasses, where you can test your stand-up skills. The Island Star is perfect for first-time cruisers thanks to its friendly crew. It’s not as luxurious as some, but there are good children’s clubs and some excellent restaurants on board.

…and relax, while your children are entertained by someone else for a while. All the cruise lines we’ve featured have excellent children’s activities, but always check carefully how the age groups are broken down and look for the smallest possible age range within a club, for example, two to four. Cruise lines are very hot on safety and all of the children’s clubs are staffed by qualified carers and are often of a much higher standard than you might find in a regular hotel.

You can combine a family cruise with extreme luxury. Crystal Cruises is probably the best of a small group of upmarket cruise lines for families. It has children’s clubs that cater for those aged from three and upwards and babysitting, as well as lovely suites that can sleep a family of four. Chefs on board will prepare anything on request – my children practically lived on their tasty spaghetti carbonara for a week. The two ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, cruise all over the world (both are in Europe during the summer months) and both have superb food, impeccable service, wonderful spas and the ambience of a five-star hotel.

Cruise from Palma, Venice, Barcelona or Athens, or join your ship at a British port, usually Southampton. The Mediterranean cruises vary in length from a week or more and are popular with the Brits. Ships departing from Palma or Barcelona tend to stick to western Mediterranean ports, while those sailing from Athens or Venice will cruise the Greek Islands, Turkey and the Adriatic.

An increasingly popular phenomenon on family-friendly cruise ships. Many – including P&O Cruises, Princess and Royal Caribbean – have night nurseries with cot-beds, where you can put a toddler down to sleep and then go off to enjoy a romantic supper. The cots are in sweet dormitories and childcarers watch over children and alert the parents if there are any problems.

If you’re new to cruising, splash out on the Berlitz Guide To Ocean Cruising And Cruise Ships (Berlitz, £16.99), the cruise ship ‘bible’, with reviews of most liners and answers to all your questions. For online reviews, read Cruise Critic at

MSC Cruises, an elegant, family-friendly, Italian-owned line, has the best pizzas at sea, cooked in proper pizza ovens. Although many guests are Italian, there are families from all over Europe on board. The ships are beautifully designed and sail mainly out of Italian ports around the Mediterranean or in the Caribbean in winter (when most of the guests are American).

Being seasick is a concern of every first-time cruiser, but you can prevent it or deal with it. Traveleeze are good chewy pastilles for children over two years old that helps prevent feelings of nausea, while adults can use an acupressure wristband, like Sea Bands. Ships always carry a good supply of medication to help.

Most ships offer 24-hour dining with room service, buffets, pasta and pizza stations, and gourmet restaurants. There are always children’s menus and if something is not on the menu, the staff are usually very open to any special requests. If you like variety, then try NCL’s ships, which offer Freestyle Cruising – this includes a variety of restaurants, including Asian, tapas, steak houses, Italian and French. You need to pay a small supplement to dine, but they are very child-friendly and are of excellent quality.

Cunard’s flagship, Queen Mary 2, recreates the glory days of the luxurious transatlantic voyage, with beautiful cabins and suites, stylish dining and excellent entertainment on its six-day crossings from Southampton to New York, or vice versa. Plus, this ship has the biggest nursery at sea, complete with NNEB-qualified nannies. It’s an extremely relaxing way to get to New York and if you take a westbound crossing, you gain an hour each day so there’s no jet lag.

The A-Z of family cruise holidays

The whole point of cruising is to see new places. Some of the bigger cruise lines offer family-friendly excursions, which you can book online before you cruise or choose once you get on board. Don’t go mad and book something for every day, or you’ll be exhausted. Also, do your research beforehand; city destinations – such as Barcelona, Athens, Dubrovnik, Copenhagen and Amsterdam – are usually easier to explore independently than more off-the-beaten-track areas.

Cruises are perfect if you don’t like flying. P&O Cruises and Cunard Line have ships based in Southampton, while Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises also sail from the UK during the summer. It takes three days to reach the Mediterranean, sailing down the west coast of Spain, which gives you plenty of time to chill out and enjoy the facilities.

Meet Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Snow White and many more Disney stars on Disney Cruise’s ships, Disney Wonder and Disney Magic. They operate short cruises from Port Canaveral in Florida to the Caribbean and are packed full of Disney fun and include the highest standards of children’s clubs and childcare. There are also adults-only restaurants and bars, as well as a spa for luxury pampering.

Although the Caribbean is the traditional cruise area for the cold months, there are also regular departures to the warm Canary Islands. Two Italian lines, Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises, also sail from their Mediterranean home ports throughout the winter, heading further south and visiting destinations in North Africa. This can be a great time to cruise with small children as the weather is not too stiflingly hot and there are fewer crowds.

Cruise lines are always competing with each other to offer something new, and this month sees the launch of the first ocean-going ship with a lawn. Strange as it may seem, Celebrity Solstice will have an area on deck with real grass, used for picnics and pétanque (French bowls), creating the feel of a park. The ship also has the first ever glassblowing workshop at sea.

MSC Cruises launches its new mega-ship, MSC Fantasia, this autumn. The ship is huge and there’s a whole section for VIPs called MSC Yacht Club where passengers have their own bar, restaurant, lounge, pool and an array of 99 suites. It’s a ship-within-a-ship, where the stairs are studded with Swarovski crystals. Elsewhere, there is a 4D cinema (like 3D, but with added physical effects), giant water slides, a children’s club and a Formula One simulator, 20 bars, four pools and five restaurants. What more could you need?

Many people find that they have the best sleep of their lives on a cruise, thanks to the gentle rocking of the ship and, more recently, the investment made by many cruise lines in super-comfortable beds. In fact, the beds on Carnival are so good that you can buy them from their website. If your children are erratic sleepers and are sharing your cabin, almost all ships have 24-hour room service and children’s channels on television to help out!

Read more family cruise ideas here…

Cruising with Royal Caribbean – 10 reasons why a cruise is perfect for families


Norwegian Bliss: what families can expect on board this spectacular liner