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Cruise control: Go at your own speed on a family cruise

Published on: October 26, 2010

Alaska family vacationYour family needs a vacation, but you’re wondering where you’ll get the energy for the frenzy of planning, packing and shlepping that goes into a full-on family getaway. Consider a cruise! With several cruise lines now sailing from the Seattle waterfront (including Disney in 2011), you can skip the hassle and expense of air travel and set sail with baby, great-grandma and everyone in between in decadent splendor. Cruising cuts down on logistics, allows you to control your expenses and makes it possible for different family members to move at different speeds, as my family discovered on a recent cruise to Alaska.

To each his own
Your ten-year-old has a need for speed; Grandma likes her feet up, watching vistas while knitting. No problem! All of the major cruise ships feature a boatload of options, with multiple swimming pools (indoor and outdoor), hot tubs, arcades, jogging tracks and the like, along with cozy corners to watch the world go by. And, more and more, the cruise lines are focusing on kid-friendly activities; most have supervised “kids’ clubs,” where tots can safely while away a day at sea playing games, doing crafts and having pajama parties. On one “at-sea” day, I spent an hour in the gym while my son checked out the Nintendo Wii tourney; my daughter swam while my parents enjoyed a little sipping and reading. We enjoyed the ebb and flow of coming together for meals and excursions.

When Seattle mom Sarah Armstrong took a Princess cruise to Alaska with her entire extended family — 17 grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — her own children, ages 1 and a half, 4 and 6 years old, didn’t opt for organized kid activities. “All of my kids would have been separated based on their age, and neither we nor they were very comfortable with that,” she says. But the autonomy that cruise ships provide did allow for an interesting solution for her 18-month-old’s sleeping problem. “He loved musical theater,” she says. “It was hard to get him to sleep at night . . . so I ended up taking him to the 10:00 show every night. He was enthralled, and my other son could go to sleep at a more reasonable time.”

Meal times can be ideal for extended families; there are usually many kid-friendly options, and most food is included in your cruising fare. “The kids enjoyed being able to try a lot of new foods,” says Armstrong. “They often ordered off the adult menu, trying a new soup or enjoying the main course, and of course, dessert!  We learned that my youngest really likes shrimp, and shrimp cocktail became his meal of choice.”

Most cruise ships have multiple family restaurants to choose from, and a few “specialty” restaurants (pizza joints, ice cream shops) — but beware: Meals at these restaurants are usually not included in the cruise fare and will show up on your ship’s bill.

Also, most beverages — alcoholic and otherwise — are not included. On a recent trip aboard a Norwegian Cruise Lines, Redmond mother Christina Macbeth found a creative way to keep drink expenses down. “The bill for drinks can get high,” she says. “We ended up buying drinks on the first stop and bringing them back on board. Our room had a fridge, which was great.”

Controlling costs
In fact, with some careful planning, there are several ways to keep costs under control while cruising. Besides sticking to free (i.e., included) food and beverages, you can book shore excursions in advance, so you’ll have a pretty firm handle on what the whole trip is going to cost — if you stay out of the shops. You can also find discounts and deals by cruising at certain times of the year. “The Alaska season is May–September,” says Karen Candy, media relations manager for Princess Cruises, “and you may be able to find lower rates in May and September.”

Cabin choice can make a big difference, too; so-called “inside cabins” — those with no windows — can save you big money, as much as several hundred dollars per person. But sailing with no windows isn’t for everyone, especially those prone to seasickness or claustrophobia. Splurging on a mini suite offers more space and often amenities like a bathtub, pull-out couch and balcony. “It really depends on your preferences and whether or not you plan to spend a lot of time in your stateroom,” says Candy.

“We upgraded to rooms that have a butler,” says Macbeth. “It had a great deck at the very back of the boat, and was excellent to sit on and view the scenery. It was worth the bit of extra money for the space and the deck.”

All ashore
When it comes to ports of call, you’ll face another decision: Explore on your own, or splurge on a guided excursion. Depending on your kids’ ages and interests — and your bank account — you’ll probably consider a mix. Excursions can be hideously expensive — and also incredibly memorable, like the dogsled ride Macbeth’s family took in Juneau. “This was by far the favorite thing we did,” says Macbeth. “You heard about the training of the dogs and equipment, then went on a ride, which was really fun, and at the end there are hot chocolate and puppies to play with. My 4-year-old and everyone else loved this trip.”

It’s easy to love those helicopter and train rides — for a few hundred dollars per person! But there are plenty of fun excursions offered in the $50 range, too; one of my family’s favorites was a simple (cheap!) bus ride that dropped us off at the foot of the jaw-droppingly beautiful Mendenhall Glacier. A muddy two-mile hike found us at the base of a torrential waterfall; the kids cavorted while I snapped dozens of photos. It was simple, exhilarating and memorable, my definition of a perfect family vacation.

Right now, Holland America, Princess and Norwegian all offer Alaskan cruises out of Seattle, and, starting in May 2011, Disney will offer cruises to Alaska from Vancouver, B.C.

Kristen Russell is ParentMap’s managing editor.

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