I used to think I was too cool for cruises. Spend a week on a boat with thousands of strangers? Eating in the same restaurants the entire time? Are you kidding me? But then I got married and had two kids. And I became a convert to cruising.
Why? Because if you're traveling with small kids, cruising is perhaps the easiest kind of trip you can take. You get to visit several different ports with your family, but you only have to unpack all your gear once. (And it is a ridiculous amount of gear. When I was in college, I traveled around Europe for six weeks with just a backpack. When we had a toddler and an infant, though, I think we packed more stuff than I took with me to college.) Also, accommodating a picky eater (or, more importantly, a child with severe allergies) is easy on a cruise, because you only have to explain your requirements to the dining room staff once instead of reciting them in every restaurant you visit.
Plus, the cruise lines are smart—they're putting a lot of thought and money into family-friendly features. The newer ships' kids' clubs are amazing, and some lines even offer babysitting. Let me repeat that: Some lines even offer babysitting. So you and your spouse might actually be able to enjoy a rare night out while you're on vacation.
Some been-there-done-that tips:
1. Bring all the supplies you could ever possibly need. No matter how well-stocked the ship's stores are, they are not going to carry diapers, wipes, baby Tylenol, organic pureed beets, etc. However, if you're flying to your embarkation port, don't bring all this stuff from home and incur huge checked-baggage fees. Bring a few empty bags in your luggage, then stop at a grocery store on your way to the port. You can buy all the baby supplies and food you need, bag it up and take it right on the ship.
2. If you can swing it, get a room with a balcony. Someone's going to have to stay in the cabin while your child naps, and it's nice to sit outside and enjoy the sea breeze.
3. Consider your stroller carefully. If you have one of those huge "travel system" ones, or a big jogging stroller, you might want to leave it home in favor of a smaller model. You'll need to ride the elevator a lot on the ship, and a big stroller can take up half of the elevator.
4. When you're in port, consider booking a private guided tour instead of one of the official ship excursions. Babies aren't compatible with giant group tours, as we found out when my son had a spectacular blowout on Grand Cayman. With a private tour, you can change your itinerary on the fly. Also, if you have a party of four or more, a private tour might even be cheaper per person than an official excursion.
5. Don't be afraid to split up. If you're in port for a full day, there's no reason Mom can't go off on a snorkeling trip in the morning while Dad watches the baby, and vice versa in the afternoon.
6. If you're going to the Caribbean, plan for the sun. Make sure your stroller has a shade or umbrella and that you have plenty of sunscreen.
The final thing I was worried about was whether other passengers would resent having small kids around. I imagined a ship full of senior citizens and honeymooners who would glare at me wherever I went. Sure, a few folks may give you the hairy eyeball at times… but that's true pretty much anywhere. If your kid is bothering someone, use common sense—apologize and move away. Then get back to enjoying your vacation.