When booking a cruise for your family, there are several factors to consider, including how old your kids are and what type of experience you're looking for. If you're not careful, you might end up with a bored teen or a kids' club that doesn't accept babies. On the other hand, you could have an unforgettable family vacation.
It's worth noting that just because a ship has a kids' club doesn't mean it's a good pick for your crew. Perhaps it's great for young children, but lackluster for tweens. Family-friendly cruises aren't always what they seem (or claim to be), and it can be hard to know what you're signing up for until you're actually there. Lucky for you, we've been there.
Whether you're looking for a family-oriented cruise that helps you bond, try new things, or just get a vacation from each other, we've got you covered. Here are our picks for the best family-friendly cruises that won't leave you out to dry when you hit the high seas.
While it's great that most major cruise lines have a minimum age requirement of six months, you'll likely spend most of your vacation tethered to your child. Most kids' clubs don't start accepting little ones until they've hit the two- or three-year mark. Luckily, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas has your back. Their Royal Babies and Tots program is a nursery specifically geared toward babies ages six to 36 months.
You can expect a dedicated, soft-floored space complete with cartoons and interactive activities like sing-alongs, games and play sessions, further divided up by age. However, unlike the other kids programs onboard, this one will cost you per hour -- and rates go up slightly for evening care. If you're worried about leaving your baby with a stranger, don't be. The staff members are certified, work in pairs, can bottle-feed, and even change diapers. Oasis also has an open play area where you can hang out with your baby. Furthermore, playpens, Gerber baby food, diapers and formula can be pre-ordered and delivered to your stateroom through the Babies 2 Go program. Nighttime babysitting services are also available until 2 a.m., so you can have adult time, too. Several other Royal Caribbean ships have a baby program, but we like Oasis of the Seas because of it's adorable dedicated baby pool area and splash zone on the pool deck.
The Carnival Vista is a great option for families cruising with kids ranging from toddlers to teens, but it really excels with children ages five to 11. This is a great ship for families who want activities that they can do together while still having the space and options to have fun separately. The daily schedule is filled with activities for both kids, adults, and families as a whole, plus there is an entire area dedicated for family games.
Dr. Seuss programming is a huge factor here. Younger kids will squeal at the chance to take snaps with the Cat in the Hat, gobble down a green eggs and ham breakfast, and read through a library full of the famous children's books. A fun waterpark area with slides, an IMAX theater, suspended bike course, and ropes course are hits with slightly older kids. As on all Carnival ships, Vista's kids' and teens' clubs have supervised activities for children ages two to 17, though there's not much to do for tweens and teens outside of these spaces. While nighttime shows are geared toward adults, main-stage productions like "Hasbro, the Game Show" are fun for all ages. Other family-inclusive features include cooking classes, competitions, and Family Harbor Suites with access to special dining options for kids 11 and under, nighttime babysitting services, and a special lounge. When parents need to sneak away for some quiet time, there's an adults-only pool area as well as a spa with a full range of treatments.
Teens and tweens may be some of the hardest cruisers to please, but Anthem of the Seas manages to come out on top thanks to its thoughtful programming and unique offerings. While most other cruise lines lump tweens and teens together, Royal Caribbean has two separate programs -- one for ages 12 to 14 and one for ages 15 to 17. These programs give teens some much-desired autonomy and the flexibility to decide whether they feel like getting competitive in the day's scavenger hunt or belting it out at karaoke that night. If they choose to partake, great. If not, Anthem of the Seas has some pretty great -- and free -- alternatives that are hard (or downright impossible) to find on other ships. For starters, there's a skydiving simulator, surf simulator, rock-climbing wall, circus school, DJ academy, and outdoor movies. There are also a handful of eateries and nooks on the ship where teens can hang out, plus a bunch of sports courts if they are feeling competitive. Kids ages 16 and up can even go hang out in the swanky adults-only Solarium pool and whirlpool area. The ship is large enough for teens to feel independent.
They grow up so fast, but just because your kid turns 18 doesn't mean you must stop traveling with them. Cruising with adult children -- over 18 and perhaps in or just out of college -- is a totally different experience. While mega ships and Disney cruises are still good bets, if you're sick of picking vacations based on the amount of kid-friendly activities available, we suggest ditching the cartoon characters for a more sophisticated look. Norwegian Escape is a stylish option that also has single cabins. These are perfect for young adults who may want to opt out of sharing a room, if they can. Plus, Norwegian's alcohol policy allows guests under 21 to drink booze under the supervision of a parent (you have to fill out release forms). On certain itineraries that sail through international waters, passengers who are 18 and older can saunter over to the bar and order a drink. While it is a bit more sophisticated than the other cruise lines on the list, this ship still has loads of fun amenities onboard. Check out the ropes course, catch some quality live shows, have margaritas at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville at Sea, or pull the slots in the casino.
If you're looking for multi-generational fun, you really can't go wrong with any of Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships. These vessels are the biggest in the world, meaning there's tons of space to create a fun experience for all ages, whether that's two or 92. We like Symphony of the Seas because it is the biggest of them all, and offers new features that you won't always find on its sister ships. We're talking about glow-in-the-dark laser tag, an onboard escape room, waterslides, and a 10-foot dry slide, to name a few. This ship also has outstanding children's programs with supervised, age-appropriate activities for kids six months to 11 years old. Tweens and teens are normally hard to please, but Symphony of the Seas makes it easy with an ice-skating rink, zip line, surf simulator, rock-climbing wall, mini-golf course, and several sports courts. The ship itself is divvied up into seven different neighborhoods, giving kids and adults their own distinct and also shared spaces. Adults have tons of options when it comes to restaurants, bars, shops, and evening entertainment. However, the downfall of having such targeted spaces and activities is that there are not many things for a multi-generational family to do as a unit. Outside of dinners and taking in a show, there's not much on the docket.
If you're looking to put a twist on your family reunion, consider booking a cruise on the Carnival Triumph, a popular pick for groups. We'll be the first to say it's not the sexiest of ships (wear and tear is apparent), but it definitely brings the party and is a decent bargain. Expect the bar to be packed on embarkation, personalized shirts claiming tribes, and a slew of friends and families letting loose for a few days. Several casual eateries are included in the rate, so you can dine and dash poolside during the day, while dinner in the main dining room is full of large groups. The two pool areas are small and mostly inhabited by children. Other kid-friendly features include a kids' club for ages two to 11, a small 24-hour arcade, a poolside waterslide, and Carnival's famous Dr. Seuss character breakfast.
(Editor's note: Oyster.com is an independent hotel review site that does not have any financial arrangement with the individual hotels reviewed.)