So you want to plan a cruise vacation the whole family will enjoy. You've consulted the reviews on a cruise review site and picked a cruise ship for its kids' club and family-friendly dining and amenities. You've booked a cabin (or cabins) that will comfortably accommodate your brood. Next step: It's time to figure out shore excursions.
How do you weed out the good from the bad choices, keep everyone happy and avoid wasting money in the process? Here are some tips to keep in mind, followed by some of our favorite shore excursions for little kids, big kids and teens.
Know your kids. A lengthy catamaran ride and snorkeling tour may look great on paper, but if you know Johnny or Susie suffers from motion sickness (which may not be a problem at all on the large cruise ship), think twice. Ditto with long, "scenic" bus trips. Does your child get excited about active pursuits, animals, water sports or history? Pick your excursion accordingly.
Check out the lengths of shore excursions before you book. An 8-hour island tour is a great way to pack in a lot of sightseeing, but if your children have short attention spans and tend to get squirmy after a half-hour, opt for something shorter. And, even if your kids can handle some long days, you still may want to consider alternating full-day shore tours with half-day ones. Most kids 10 and younger will be unhappy with back-to-back days of touring and will have a much better time if they can get some time off to enjoy the ship's pool, play in the kids' club or just veg out watching a movie in between heavy sightseeing.
Shore excursions vary by destination, so keep your children's interests in mind when deciding where to go. The Caribbean, Hawaii and Alaska are obvious favorites, whereas long trips to exotic destinations or fall cruises to New England will likely have fewer kid-friendly options (and fewer kids onboard). This doesn't mean you can't have fun on those itineraries (see below), but do your homework before you book.
Consider the ages of your children when researching shore excursions. Alaska is growing in popularity for families, but for someone too young to appreciate the spectacular scenery, it's, well, no day at the beach. The same principle applies to Mediterranean cruises. You don't want to fly all that way to find out your kids would be happier doing water sports than touring ancient ruins and visiting museums.
In the case of young children who may need to stay onboard while you're in port, check to see whether the ship has a children's program or group babysitting available. Make sure the hours line up -- a children's club that opens a half-hour after the last shore excursion leaves the ship isn't going to do you any good. And even if babysitting is available, ask if it's guaranteed. Otherwise, by the time you're ready to book, there may not be anyone available.
If you're taking toddlers ashore, consider the question of car seats. Laws vary in different countries about whether they're required, and some tour buses might not even be set up with seatbelts to strap in the cumbersome kid seats. In some cases, you might find it easier to hold a child on your lap; in others, you might opt for the extra safety of a car seat. Whatever you prefer to do, just be sure to inquire in advance about whether car seats are necessary and whether tour operators can provide child-friendly seating.
Since most kids tend to graze all day long, ask if snacks and/or lunch are available on longer shore excursions. If not, consider tucking a single-service cereal box or fruit in your backpack to head off temper tantrums later on. And, of course, bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat or visor for outdoor activities, as well as an extra sweater in case you need it when the sun sets.
"Teens only" shore excursions are an up-and-coming trend, and they're a great way to let your teen enjoy a day in port with his or her peers while you pursue more adult-friendly activities or cater your tours to younger siblings. If you opt for this route, be sure to ask about the ratio of kids to adults and how many of the ship's staff members accompany the outing.
Involve your kids in the decision. Narrow down the choices to a few appropriately priced excursions per port, and then let the family discuss them as a group. If your kids take ownership in the decision, they're likely to be more excited about the trip and have a better time.
Once you have decided on your shore excursions, book them immediately upon boarding or, better yet, online before you go. And, keep in mind that itineraries can change -- especially in hurricane season -- so be prepared with plan B.
Consider a private guide. Sometimes it's simply better to customize your day to the wishes and schedules of your family, rather than to force them to fit into an organized tour's plan for the day. Why? With a private guide, you can easily stop when you need to (for a snack or bathroom break, or if a passing playground or beach looks particularly inviting) and tailor a tour to your kids with shorter visits to museums or monuments, earlier lunch stops or even a visit to an off-the-beaten-path but family-friendly attraction.
Some cruise lines offer private cars and drivers through their excursions programs, or you can research guides on your own. Consider splitting the cost of a guide and a van with another family, and always ask if the guide speaks fluent English, whether car seats are available (if needed) and how payment is to be made (cash versus credit, up-front versus after the tour). Popular independent guides tend to get booked up months in advance.
For the more information on planning a cruise, visit Cruise Critic's cruise planning section for tips and advice.
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