When it comes to a family vacation with babies, toddlers, or small kids, there’s not much that’s better than taking a cruise.
Cruising offers a chance for the entire family to sail together, yet with something to do for all ages. So whether you’re traveling with a one-year-old, a ten-year-old, or something in between, everyone will have a chance to make the most of their vacation.
Of course, if you’re a parent then you know that even the simplest of tasks takes planning when you have kids. A cruise is no different. While it’s an easy vacation with the kiddos, there is still plenty for you to know and plenty you can do to make the cruise go even smoother.
That’s why we’ve put together a list of some of the most useful tips for cruising with babies, toddlers or small kids. From how to keep them entertained on the ship to making sure they stay healthy, these tips run the gamut of what to think about before you take a cruise.
Know How The Kids Clubs Work
The large cruise lines cater to families, and perhaps the biggest draw for both children and adults in the dedicated kids area. Here, parents can drop off their kids for free while the kids get to play games and hang out with others their age. Parents get some time to enjoy the cruise while knowing that the kids are being supervised and also having a lot of fun.
Kids clubs run from ages 2-17 and groups are broken down by similar-aged kids so that they will always be able to find someone to play with. You simply drop kids off when you want (hours will be listed in the daily planner) and then pick them up when you’re ready. Parents of small kids will be given a shipboard phone in case you need to be contacted. Older kids (usually 12+) can check themselves in and out parents are ok with it.
Yes, You Can Pack Food and Snacks
Given all the strict rules around bringing drinks on board a cruise, it might seem like you wouldn’t be able to bring food either. In fact, bringing pre-packaged, sealed food is perfectly fine. Feel free to bring baby food (including those pouches that kids love), as well as your kid’s favorite snacks to keep them happy on the trip.
Just make sure that you don’t bring any homemade food. It’s not allowed on ships due to health concerns and issues with customs in other countries.
Most Kids Clubs Are Only For Kids 2-3 Years or Older
One of the biggest reasons that cruises are so great is the kid’s areas. Every major cruise ship will have them, and its free to drop your kids off. In these spots there is special supervised kids programming so that parents can have some personal time while the kids also have fun.
Unfortunately, these spots are only for kids that are a little older. For example, kids must be two years old before they can join in Carnival’s kids activities on their own; Royal Caribbean requires kids be at least three years old. There are still things for them to do under those ages, but you must supervise them or pay an extra fee for them to be watched.
Don’t Be Afraid to Overpack for a Baby
In general, we recommend packing less than what you need. No one needs four different swimsuits or six pairs of shoes on a cruise. However, being a parent, we are more than willing to overpack when it comes to our kid.
The reason being, with so many people on the ship, it’s nice to do your best to keep the kid happy (especially young ones that can throw tantrums) during the cruise. The last thing you want is a baby who is grumpy and crying — and bothering other passengers — because you forgot something at home. It’s also not easy to run out and grab things like diapers or formula.
Pack Plenty of Over-the-Counter Medicine
Kids — especially small kids — seem like they constantly get sick. And the only thing worse than a sick kid is not being able to provide them any relief. There is a doctor on board every cruise ship, but it’s still a good idea to pack over-the-counter items like Benadryl and Tylenol for your kid to take should they come down with a bug.
It’s a small peace of mind should your little guy or gal come down with something on your vacation.
Only a Few Ships Allow Kids in Diapers to Swim
Is your little one still in diapers? If so, then you should pick your ship carefully. Most ships don’t allow kids that aren’t toilet-trained into any pools due to health regulations. There are a few ships that we know that have special areas for smaller kids still in swim diapers. It’s a section of a larger play area, but better than no water time at all.
Even better is to find a ship that offers a splashpad-type park, like what’s shown above. These spots often allow kids of all ages.
Bottom line: If you still have a kid in diapers, then don’t expect to spend a ton of time playing in the pools on the ship. You can, of course, find a beach in a port of call to get their time in the water.
Get the Balcony Cabin if You Have a Kid That Naps
At home, those mid-afternoon naps are amazing. You can get so much done around the house while the kids get his/her rest. On a ship? They are kind of boring. When the kid takes a nap, you are stuck in the cabin keeping an eye on them… instead of hanging out poolside or playing in the casino.
That’s why we suggest a balcony cabin for parents with napping kids. This way, there is a space you can go out, talk in a normal voice, and get some fresh air. It’s much nicer watching the waves go by on the balcony than sitting in a dark cabin.
Prepare For Dirty Diapers
Have a Diaper Genie at home? They are great for keeping dirty diapers from stinking up the house. But what about in a small cabin? What do you do with those soiled diapers?
If you have a balcony room, you can set the dirty diapers in the room trash can and set it outside to keep the air in your cabin clear. If you don’t have a balcony, we suggest bringing some Ziploc bags to seal up those dirty diapers, along with some air freshener. The room steward will empty the trash when they clean, but that can be several hours.
Cribs Are Available for Cruise Cabins (Free)
Does your kiddo still sleep in a crib? No need to bring the Pack-and-Play, cruise lines have cribs that they can put in your room. They won’t be overly fancy, but it is a dedicated spot for your little one to sleep while on vacation. Best of all, there is no charge for this service.
Just call the cruise line before you sail or let the room steward know when you get on the ship.
Arcades Are Great For Entertaining Bigger Kids
Modern cruise ships all have an arcade tucked away that’s perfect for the kids to have some fun on their own — or with mom and dad. The arcades can be pricey, but it’s worth it to get some alone time during your cruise… or to see the smiles on your kid’s face.
Instead of quarters, the arcades use your room’s keycard to access your onboard account. For that reason, you’ll want to make sure that your kids understand a budget before you let them loose on their own.
HDMI Inputs Don’t Work on the TV
Do your kids love the play video games or watch DVDs? There is some bad news — the inputs on cruise ship television sets are typically disabled. That means you can’t switch over the watch a DVD player hooked up to an HDMI port.
Instead, your best bet is to bring a console that includes its own monitor. If you want to watch movies, try bringing a laptop. If you want to play Playstation or XBox, then bring a set that includes a screen. They are widely available on Amazon.
You Can Stream Shows and Movies for Kids… Sometimes (Downloading Is Better)
We all know that a movie or a show is a lifesaver for a parent. When you just need some peace and quiet, nothing does it quite like putting on a favorite show. In general, we suggest downloading programs ahead of time. But in some cases you can stream on a cruise ship.
Specifically, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines offer online streaming of services like Netflix and Hulu. Carnival says they only offer Netflix, but we’ve streamed other services. Just be warned that you have to purchase an Internet package, which can be pricey — up to $30 per day on some cruise lines.
As well, Internet at sea isn’t perfect. Sometimes streamed shows can be pixelated instead of perfect HD quality due to the connection. A smarter idea? Download programs before you get on the ship so you don’t even need an Internet connection.
Umbrella Strollers Are the Best Idea for Cruising
If your child isn’t quite big enough to walk all day, then you’re likely bringing a stroller. But forget that big bulky jogging stroller at home. Space is tight in a cabin, so smaller umbrella strollers — which also fold up to fit in a closet — are ideal. When it comes time to use, these small strollers are also easily maneuverable down the ship’s narrow halls and can easily turn to navigate a crowd.
Place Mats Are a Must for Little Eaters
Cruise ships have high chairs for your little one to sit in, but we also suggest bringing a silicone place mat for them to use while they eat. These mats stick to almost any surface and are easily washable. This way, not only do you keep the table or high chair from getting dirty, but you also keep food from sitting on a potentially unclean surface. It’s just a better solution all around for when it’s time to eat.
Don’t Forget to Pack a Nighlight
Chance are you still get up at least once or twice to soothe your kid while they sleep. Or even if your kid sleeps all the way through the night, you might get up to use the restroom. In an unfamiliar cabin with lots of heavy furniture, that can be a disaster for your shins and feet.
Be sure to pack a small nightlight to provide a little extra light to see by if you have to get up in the middle of the night. This is especially important for dark interior cabins.
Mealtimes Are Easiest in the Buffet
Most people envision eating in the main dining room, cracking into a lobster or slicing a steak. Truth is that parents with small kids — the sort that won’t sit still to eat for more than five minutes at a time — might prefer to dine in the buffet during the evenings.
At night, the less formal buffet is also less crowded, meaning you won’t be as stressed if someone doesn’t want to sit down and eat their dinner or throws a fit because they are tired.
Plan on the Heat and Humidity Zapping Kid Energy
It’s not often mentioned, but the heat and humidity of the Caribbean can zap the energy of even the most energetic kids. If you have an especially small kid or toddler, expect them to be able to stay up only half as long before they need to nap and recharge.
If you are planning a long excursion without many points to take a break, then you might want to reconsider your plan. If you have a kid with a lot of energy, then you will be happy to know they should sleep very well after a long day in the heat.
Search the Schedule for Kid’s Activities
Each day you’ll receive a schedule of what’s going on all around the ship. Take a few minutes to search the activities and circle the items that look promising to do with your kid. By planning ahead, you can make sure that you know where to be and when so that your kids don’t miss something that they’d love to do.
Keep Excursions Simple
Some excursions have a ton of elements — taxi rides to adventure parks to beach breaks to boat rides. The smaller your kids, the smarter it is to keep things simple.
Just heading out to the beach is more than enough for babies and toddlers. Don’t stress yourself out trying to handle a kid on a wild excursion; you’ll just make your trip less enjoyable for both you and your kids.
There Are Only Showers…No Tubs
If your kid is used to taking baths, then they (and you) need to be prepared for the showers in the cabin. The showers come with a detachable spray handle, and are pretty small. It’s easiest just to have them stand while you give them a quick bath. If they like playing with a water hose, then showers with the spray handle are a lot of fun for them.
Pack a Passport… or Birth Certificate
What sort of documents do you need to travel with a child? A passport is always the best idea as it offers the most flexibility. Should something happen and you need to fly back home, a passport is vital.
However, on most cruises (those that begin and end at the same port), kids can travel with an official birth certificate. Frankly, this is much easier and less expensive than getting a passport and works in most cases. Older kids (those 16 years or older) also need to have a photo ID.
Plan Your Day Around Naps
In addition to realizing that the heat can take a toll on kids, you should also be sure to plan your day around naps. There’s nothing worse than being out and about when your kid decides it’s time to crash.
Be sure to plan on being somewhere that the kiddo can nap — whether it’s hanging out on the beach under an umbrella with a lounger or making it back to the cabin in time for naptime.
Babies Must Be Six Months Old to Cruise
If you have a newborn, don’t plan your cruise just yet. In most cases a child needs to be at least six months old before they are allowed to board the ship. There are some trips where a child must be at least one year old before they can sail. This includes sailings over long distances with more than two consecutive days at sea.
The cruise lines don’t want to have a small child on the ship and be too far from any possible medical help should an issue arise.
Have Enough Diaper and Formula? Bring More
The thing about cruising is that if you run out of something, you can’t just easily run to the store for more. So when you are packing consumables like diapers, wipes, and the like, go ahead and pack even more than you normally would.
Worst case scenario is that you don’t use them on the ship. Best case is that you have an issue and end up being covered until you can get back to home.
If You Need More of Something, Pharmacies in Port Are Lifesavers
Say you do run out of diapers…or wipes…or formula, or anything else that a kid might need. Don’t worry, while you might not be able to get some right away, most ports of call have a small pharmacy or store within them that sell these types of items.
It’s best to simply pack everything you need, but if you do get in a bind, it’s nice to know there is a place where you can pick up the basics.
Sleeping Can Be Difficult With a Baby/Toddler in the Room
Are you used to sleeping in your room while your child sleeps in another? If so, be prepared for some rougher nights. It’s one thing to hear your kid cry through a baby monitor set at low volume. It’s another thing altogether to have the baby making noise in their crib that’s just a few feet from your bed.
Be ready and expect that you might not get the greatest night’s sleep while your little one is sharing the cabin.
Sunscreen is a Must, but Shirts and Hats Are Better
Yes, you likely already know that sunscreen is a must. At the lower latitudes the sun is stronger and can burn sensitive skin quickly. But let’s face it, putting on sunscreen every hour is a greasy affair — and not much fun when you’re trying to do it to a wiggly two-year-old.
Instead, look for a swim shirt that covers up most of a kid’s torso, leaving just face and arms to sunscreen. A wide-brimmed hat is also a smart idea. Not only is it easier than having to lotion everywhere, it’s also more foolproof and quicker.
Make Sure You Get a Kid’s Life Jacket in Your Cabin
In your cabin closet, you’ll find life jackets for use in case of emergency. Be sure to check that there is also a kid’s life jacket if you are traveling with child. If not, just ask your cabin steward, and they can get you one. Chances are slim that you’ll use it, but you should have it just in case.
Order Bottled Water to the Room if Your Kid Uses Formula
Yes, you can arrange to bring water onto the ship if you have a kid that needs it to mix formula. Or you can also fill up some water bottles at the buffet and bring it back to the cabin to mix.
Instead, it’s easier just to order some bottled water delivered to your room. Carnival, for instance, has it for about $10 for a 12-pack and it keeps you from having to lug on heavy water bottles when you board the ship.
Have the Length of Your Cruise Correspond With Your Kid’s Age
Have a one-year-old going on his or her first cruise? Don’t try to do a week-long trip. The younger your kid, the better it is to do shorter cruises. As your kid gets older, however, then the length of the trip can increase.
With small kids, you’re never sure how they might react to something new — even if it’s supposed to be fun. As well, older kids are also better able to take advantage of all the things to do on the cruise and are less likely to be bored.
Most importantly of all, Mom and Dad don’t have to be stuck in a tiny cabin with a young child for hours on end, and if your kid were to get sick or have a bad time, it’s a lot nicer knowing it’s only a few days until you are back home instead of it being a week or more.
Magnetic Hooks Are Ideal for Drying Swimsuits
Kids love to swim, and there is only so much space in the cabin to hang wet clothes. Instead, bring a few magnetic hooks with you. You can stick these hooks on the metal ceiling, and use them to hang up wet swimsuits.
There is also a retractable drying line that runs across the shower, but we find it usually gets in the way to hang clothes here. As well, the swimsuits don’t dry as well in the damp bathroom.
Expect Your Toddler to Find the Dirty Spots in the Cabin
Every person should expect a clean cabin when taking a cruise, but just like any hotel, there are still spots that don’t get much cleaning attention. Behind and under beds, and tucked away corners may still be dirty.
If you have a baby or a toddler, expect them to find these spots when they are crawling around the room. It’s a bit gross, but it’s a fact of life.
Life Jackets & Lifeguards Are There, But Keep an Eye on Kids
Have a kid that’s not a great swimmer? One nice thing is that cruise lines have life jackets for kids to use and there are lifeguards on duty.
Head to the pool and you’ll see the guards keeping an eye on things. And nearby you’ll find racks of different sized life jackets. They are free to use; just find one that fits and put it on. Even if your kid thinks he is a good swimmer, a life jacket — and keeping watch — isn’t a bad idea. Cruise pools usually don’t have a shallow end and if the ship is moving, the water can surge back and forth making it more difficult for smaller kids to swim.
Get Snacks for Kids in Port of Call… Don’t Bring Food From the Ship
Any parent knows that the most important word to a kid is “snack.” That’s why it’s tempting to grab a couple of items from the buffet or to bring some snacks from home onto the ship. But, just know that you can’t bring food with you into ports of call. Due to customs, authorities are fairly serious about not bringing things from the ship onto land.
Instead, if you need something for your kids to eat, you’ll want to make a stop at a store or restaurant to get something while visiting.
Going Off-the-Beaten Path Means Fewer Facilities for Kids
If you are cruising with kids, then you’ll want to stay in the more touristy spots near the ship and popular attractions. As a rule of thumb, the more off-the-path your destination is, the less likely it is to cater to families. So, for instance, it’s less likely to have changing tables or places to entertain kids. Stick with the more touristy spots and you’ll likely have all the comforts you would expect of back home.
Understand the Muster Situation with Kids
Before your cruise, you’ll have the muster drill, where you learn about the procedures in case of emergency. This includes finding your muster station — the assigned spot to meet. But what if you and your kid are separated (such as at the kids club) when a call to muster takes place?
When you cruise, small children are given a wristband with their assigned muster station. If you are not with your child, then the staff will ensure that kids are escorted to the correct muster area based on this wristband to be reunited.
Bring an Outlet Adapter for Gadgets
These days even kids have lots of devices that need to plug in. For babies and toddlers, this can include sound machines and nightlights, as well as chargers for tablets and more. But many older ships have one or maybe two outlets.
The lack of outlet space is frustrating. No worry, just pack a cheap outlet adapter. They can be found for about $5-7 and plug in to give you multiple outlets where there was only one.
Prepare for Seasickness… Just in Case
Seasickness isn’t a huge deal on a cruise, but it does happen for some people. If you’re traveling with your little one on a ship for the first time, then you should be prepared for the possibility. Be sure to pack some seasickness remedies and don’t hesitate to use them if your kid complains of feeling queasy.
Don’t Feel Guilty About Having Your Own Vacation
When you cruise with a child — especially a baby or a toddler — it can feel like anything but a vacation. Kids are a lot of work, and you deserve to take some time to yourself. Don’t feel guilty about dropping the kids off and enjoying some pool time, the casino, dinner, or the evening show with your spouse. Remember, it’s your vacation too.
Make Sure Kids Understand the Danger of the Ship’s Railing
Every year there are stories of people falling overboard due to climbing on the ship’s railing and losing their balance. NEVER let your kids climb on the railing, and make it clear right from the start how dangerous it is to even think about sitting on the rail. It’s literally a matter of life and death in some cases.
Pack a Couple of New Toys for the Trip
Want to really make your child’s cruise special? Try packing a couple of new toys with you to surprise your kid in the middle of the trip. We’ve found that this is a great way to keep smaller kids entertained if they get bored while at sea and can’t run around like they would at home. It’s also smart as a technique to use when they start to get fussy at an inopportune time. Think of it as a cheap insurance policy to keep them entertained and happy.
For more on cruising with babies and toddlers, read our complete guide here.
Have more tips on cruising with your baby, toddler, or small child? Let us know in the comments below.