If you’re considering a family vacation, then there is arguably no better way to travel than on a cruise. Where else can everyone have something to do that interests them, all within walking distance?
On a cruise the kids can play at the arcade or climb the rock wall while parents sit poolside or enjoy a drink. Mom and Dad can go to dinner and a show as the kiddos drop into the kids club to play video games or arts and crafts while still being supervised by the crew.
And if you’re traveling with other generations, such as grandparents, the appeal of a cruise just gets stronger. Ships can appeal to all ages from two to 102 years old, providing something to enjoy no matter how mobile or active someone is… or what activities they like. Meanwhile, everyone can still be in the same area, offering the opportunity to spend plenty of time together as well.
Of course, not every cruise line is the same. And some are better at catering to kids and families than others. That’s why we’ve rounded up the best cruise lines based on a several different situations that might apply to your vacation.
First, however, it’s helpful to have an idea of what makes a cruise great for kids and families in the first place.
What Makes a Cruise Line Ideal for Kids & Families?
When it comes to finding the best lines for a family vacation, we think there are a few factors to consider…
Wide Variety of Things to Do: First and foremost, the best lines for families are going to be those with a lot of choices for things to do. Typically any large, modern ship will pack on a lot to do, but some cruise lines definitely push the envelope when it comes to what’s possible on a cruise. Even if you do sail a cruise line known for having lots, sticking to the newer and larger ships can give you even more options.
Focus on Children: It makes sense that you’d want a cruise ship with a focus on areas for kids, but if you aren’t familiar with the different options, you may not know what’s what. Nearly any modern ship will boast about things for kids to do. If we’re being honest, however, there’s a difference between the marketing for some lines about their family-friendly offerings and what’s actually available. Some lines really go all-out for things that kids will love while some have a more modest approach.
Other Passenger Demographics: Technically, just about any cruise line will be “family friendly.” Your kids will be welcomed aboard. However, that doesn’t mean its a line that caters to these families. As a result, it may be that your kids are some of the few onboard.
And when you sail on a line focused on adults with only a few children aboard, it can make a big difference in the enjoyment for your little ones. That’s why the most family-friendly lines won’t just have lots to do, but also plenty of similar-aged kids. This way, they won’t feel alone on the ship and have plenty of new friends to meet.
Best Overall for Kids and Families: Royal Caribbean
When it comes to the top overall choice for families, we think Royal Caribbean offers the best option. It simply goes above and beyond with large ships that have something to do for everyone while also focusing heavily on kids.
The cruise line is well known having the largest cruise ships at sea. Onboard those ships it packs the most activities and amenities — for adults and kids — meaning that no one will ever be bored.
Newer ships from Royal Caribbean will include everything from escape rooms to waterslides to arcades, dedicated kids lounges, climbing walls, ziplines, and the Flowrider surf simulator for children. That’s in addition to the “basic” items like pools and mini golf.
But one thing that also stands out to us is Splashaway Bay. This is a dedicated splash pad on many ships that kids love. It’s a a great idea not only because it’s more interactive than just jumping in a pool, but some kids have trouble swimming. This gives them an opportunity to get wet anyway.
You also can’t talk about Royal Caribbean without mentioning CocoCay, which is a destination on many cruises. This private island was completely transformed a few years ago and features lots of kid-friendly things to do, including the beach, its own Splashaway Bay, ziplines, a full waterpark, and an enormous swimming pool.
Of course, Royal Caribbean also has plenty for adults to do as well. From some of the top evening entertainment on any cruise line to tons of dining options to the casino, and plenty of bars and lounges to find a perfect spot, there’s plenty for all ages. And yes, you can even do the waterslides, no matter your age.
Best for Families on a Budget: Carnival
When it comes to family cruising, there are the “big two” options: Royal Caribbean and Carnival. Royal Caribbean takes the tops overall in our eyes, but if you’re on a budget, then Carnival is a great option.
To us, Royal Caribbean takes the lead when it comes to the number of things for kids to do, but Carnival is no slouch. Its newest ships include everything from waterslides to roller coaster to ropes courses, arcades, mini-golf, and of course the dedicated Camp Ocean kids areas where children can play (supervised) while adults enjoy the ship on their own.
But where Carnival really shines is in the value of the cruise. In general prices seem less expensive than Royal Caribbean. Some shorter cruises start at around $200 per person for an interior cabin. Even with taxes, fees, and gratuities, it’s possible to have a family vacation for a few days for less than $1,000 all-in. Similar value can be found on longer cruises as well.
In addition, we’ve found the onboard prices for Carnival for things from drinks to internet are generally a bit lower than other cruise lines.
Finally, Carnival also spreads its fleet across a lot of departure ports, including many smaller ones that otherwise don’t have service. The result is that there are plenty of ships within driving distance of the majority of people. So instead of having to pay for airfare for an entire family to fly to Miami to take a cruise, they can drive to a nearby port, saving even more.
Runner-Up for Families on a Budget: MSC
MSC, while a major player in Europe, is still growing its presence in the United States. But if you can sail from Miami, Orlando, or New York and are on a budget, we think it deserves mention.
When it comes to cruise pricing, we’ve found MSC to generally be the lowest in the industry. For instance, there are a number of 7-day cruises departing Miami that come in at less than $500 per person for an interior cabin before taxes and fees. They don’t have a lock on every deal, but in general you can find some extremely low prices.
We give the nod to Carnival when it comes to cruising on a budget because we believe they offer more things for families with kids to do on the ship. That said, there’s still plenty of kid-friendly activities aboard MSC, including an arcade with full bowling lanes on some ships, waterslides, and a kids waterpark.
One thing that stands out for the cruise line is Ocean Cay, MSC’s private island in The Bahamas. While Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay has many more things for kids to do, we think Ocean Cay has a couple of advantages to note.
First, it’s enormous, giving everyone plenty of elbow room on its white-sand beaches. If you’re wanting a spot where the kids can run and play without bumping into others, this is it. But the island was also built strategically, with a large lagoon in its center. So no matter the weather, there will always be a calm spot where kids — no matter their age — can swim in calm water.
Best for Large Families: Royal Caribbean
One popular way to connect with family is what’s known as “multi-generational” cruising. That’s just a fancy way of saying the kids, parents, and grandparents (and sometimes even great-grandparents!) all take a cruise together.
If you’re interested in this sort of family cruising, then we’d suggest Royal Caribbean as the top pick.
As mentioned above, Royal Caribbean offers so much to do that any age can find something they enjoy. The kids can play in the water while mom and dad relax in the Solarium and the grandparents enjoy a drink in the Schooner Bar. Then they can all meet up for dinner and a show. No one is going to get bored.
But we also like that Royal Caribbean offers a ton of cabin options compared to other cruise lines. So if the family all wants to get a large suite together to share, that’s a possibility. If the grandparents want to spend a little more and get a nice luxury suite for themselves while the rest of the family chooses a less expensive cabin type, that’s possible as well.
In other words, from what to do on the ship to where you’ll actually stay on the ship, Royal Caribbean offers the most options.
More on Buying a Cruise:
- 10 Rules to Getting the Best Deal on a Cruise
- The Best Cruise Lines for First-Time Passengers
- The Best Cruise Lines For Adults & Couples