When kids are ready for shipboard vacations

My son and his family were planning their first cruise in 2009. Fortunately for my daughter-in-law, they cancelled their plans because she broke her foot. The good luck wasn’t the break; it was the decision to put off the Mediterranean cruise for another year. Her family wasn’t ready.

How do you know when to take that first cruise with the little kids? My answer is: probably not until the youngest is potty trained and ready for day care. Once your kids can (joyfully) participate in all the children’s activities, they will have a memorable time and, perhaps better yet, their parents may relax on their own.

Our cruise, in February 2010 aboard the Norwegian Jade out of Barcelona, became a multigenerational voyage when I joined my son, his wife, and my two granddaughters, ages 5 and barely 3.

All of us had a wonderful time because the ship catered to our specific needs:

Over 12 days, the two girls spent dozens of hours in the young children’s play room, where their activities were led by energetic young people who planned parties, parades and games. Each day, the girls enthusiastically returned.

Their parents and grandfather had plenty of time to eat with the girls, play with them, swim with them and tuck them, exhausted, into bed — as well as time to themselves to read, sit around the pool, and get spa treatments.

If you are going to take the little kids on a sea vacation, do some research on the cruise lines. All have a minimum age, which ranges from 12 weeks on Disney to 8 years on Viking River Cruises.

Some lines discourage all young children or provide only minimal services. Others provide extensive youth programs:

•  Carnival: Ages 2-11 in Camp Carnival, with children younger than 2 requiring a parent to be present.

•  Disney: One of the best with programs for ages 3 months to 3 years.

•  Royal Caribbean: Programs for children 6 months to 3 years with parents present.

• Norwegian: Programs and group babysitting for ages 2 to 12, with no programs for children under age 2.

•  Princess: Children under the age of 3 are allowed to visit the ships’ Youth Centers for kids 3 to 17 only if accompanied and supervised by a parent at all times.

The key for parents looking for some private time is the difference between babysitting — typically at $5 to $6 an hour — and the well-supervised fun and games of the play rooms, provided free on the family-friendly ships. With the youngest children, parents are always close by. On Disney, for instance, parents carry a beeper because babysitters do not change diapers.

For parents with two or more children, there’s another issue — siblings being able to play together. Once the youngest is potty-trained, brothers and sisters close in age can join the same play group. Research indicates that siblings playing together on vacation in a new environment are more comfortable than if they are alone.

That worked for my family. Whereas in 2009, my younger granddaughter would not have been able to join her older sister at play, in 2010 they merrily marched off together to the playroom every day, as soon as their parents allowed them to.

At breakfast, lunch and early dinner, we gathered as a family at significantly low tables in the corner of the Lido buffet restaurant, with other families that included young children. The Norwegian Jade provided a small children’s buffet (which always had chocolate chip cookies even when I couldn’t find them elsewhere). We tried other restaurants at dinner, but the children’s area seemed to work best. Several evenings, we adults joined the kids for 5:30 dinner, then dropped them off at the play room and went to an adult dinner in a specialty restaurant.

Cruise lines have different ideas about the best cabins for a family of four. My son decided to book two adjoining cabins instead of one big cabin, so the girls had their own room and bathroom. For price, he chose cabins on the lowest passenger deck.

When the five of us boarded the Norwegian Jade in Barcelona, one of the ship’s officers asked us, “Who do you think will have the best time on this cruise?” The young girls said “me” and “me.”

The officer knew better.

“If your mother is the person in your house who is in charge of meals and cleaning and running the house, she will have the best time on this cruise, because we will do all that for her,” he said.

Just ask my daughter-in-law, who read at the pool with both eyes instead of one eye on her daughters, and who twice spent a morning at the spa.

She says the Mediterranean cruise with her family was her first real vacation since she the children were born.

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