By Cynthia J. Drake | Published on September 27, 2022
After a long school year full of ups and downs, one of the best summer vacation ideas for families is to take a cruise. Think about it this way: After juggling multiple schedules for school, work, sports, and extracurricular activities, you deserve worry-free summer getaways where everything is planned out for you.
That's been the case for my family over the past several years. Ever since my two sons started school, we've all eagerly looked forward to our family summer vacation by counting down the days on the kitchen calendar. We've taken summer cruises to the Caribbean and Mexico, including excursions to hold sloths, explore ancient ruins and soak up some rays on the postcard-worthy beaches.
One year, we opted for a cruise to Alaska. It was one of the most memorable trips. I'll never forget the magic of witnessing the rugged and beautiful landscape for the first time alongside my children, not to mention the day trips to see glaciers and snuggle with sled dog puppies.
Here's a guide to help you plan and prepare for your summer cruise.
If you've never taken your family on a cruise before, I recommend doing a little research in advance and thinking through your cruise options as soon as possible to keep your trip prep manageable.
For most families, this starts with the itinerary. Which ports of call will you be visiting? Spend a little time researching the places you'll be stopping. This will help paint a mental picture of what kinds of activities add up to the best summer vacation. Then, schedule some low-pressure family meetings to discuss everyone's hopes for the trip. Be sure to give all family members equal time to share what they want to do most.
There are so many things for kids to do on and off the ship. For elementary-age kids, I enjoy letting them each choose a favorite shore excursion (animal experiences like sloth encounters and dog sled adventures always rank highly!) Older kids, on the other hand, may be ready for the responsibility of playing tour guide for an entire day. Let them plan the vacation itinerary, complete with local restaurant and attraction recommendations.
And don't neglect the parents' needs in the planning process! During the school year, a lot of parents' preferences get pushed aside while the kids' activities take precedent. Make sure to recoup at least a bit of that time during vacation. If, like me, you dream of treating yourself to a decadent spa treatment followed by some quiet reading time on a plush deck chair, schedule it in. Or perhaps you want to reconnect with your partner over a romantic dinner. Or maybe you want to try something new, like scuba diving. The beauty of a cruise is that all of these dreams are possible, with built-in childcare to support your mission to make them happen.
While you are preparing your kids for your cruise (especially if they've never been onboard a cruise before), it helps to plant the seeds about the activities and facilities onboard designed just for them. We like to watch videos online showcasing all the cool kids-only spaces, read ship reviews from fellow kids and parents, and educate ourselves on any unique features like waterslides, bumper cars, ziplining, rock climbing, skydiving and — the perennial favorite — arcades. This is also a good time to check height and weight limits for onboard activities — there's nothing more disappointing than showing up to a much-anticipated waterslide and realizing your kiddo is an inch short. Knowing this information in advance will help you avoid tears and redirect to an activity that's just right for your child.
Don't know what to pack on a summer vacation? Of course, your packing list will depend on the climate you're visiting. If you're heading to Alaska, bring lots of layers and rain gear just in case! For a warmer clime, be sure to bring a few bathing suits for each family member, especially for Caribbean and Mexico itineraries, plus sunscreen, sunhats, cover-ups, and flip-flops or water shoes.
Aside from clothing, think through things like whether your family will eat in the formal dining room most nights. If so, you'll probably want to bring an extra set of clothes for each person to have a fresh outfit each evening. If you like to dress up for formal dinners onboard like my family, pack something that makes your kids feel special (and looks great in onboard portraits).
Are your kids old enough to check themselves in and out of the activity area or wander around the ship by themselves? Come up with some expectations for checking in and a plan for communicating while on the cruise. For some families, that means a simple whiteboard posted on the stateroom door, so you can leave notes for each other. For others, whose kids have cell phones or tablets, texting or messaging works well. Some cruise lines offer guest-to-guest messaging for a small fee for people ages 13 and up. Otherwise, you can consider purchasing an internet package to use other communication apps. Keep in mind that connections can sometimes be spotty while at sea, so talking through some backup plans for staying in touch is a good idea.
On travel day, head off headaches by double- and triple-checking all documentation you need before you leave home. Once you check in and get onboard, that stress has a funny way of simply evaporating. I recommend a round of cocktails — or mocktails — to toast your family summer vacation.
Spend the first few hours onboard getting acquainted with the layout of the ship and taking care of any mandatory protocols, such as the muster drill. Now is a good time to attend to any internet needs while still in port and download apps. Register your kids for any onboard activities and take a moment to familiarize everyone with the spaces designated for their age group. It might be helpful to ask the staff if they anticipate a full ship and whether there might be wait times to visit the kids' facilities. This information can be helpful as you plan your week.
You probably have your port days planned and reservations for shore excursions booked, but once you're actually on your cruise ship, planned daily menus of activities await. This is one of the reasons why I love cruising with my family. Scan the list of activities — plus the daily event schedule — and come up with a plan that keeps everyone happy. Sometimes that means splitting up for putt-putt and a port shopping trip; sometimes it means everyone wants to gather together for a family egg drop challenge.
Pool time is always a must, of course. Your cruise ship offers multiple pool and hot tub spaces, including adult-only spaces for some relaxation and splash areas for smaller kids. Embrace your sense of adventure and race your children down the slide — you're never too old to have fun.
When the parents are ready for a break, utilize the onboard childcare services. I've been sailing with my kids since they were infants, and I've always been impressed with the childcare staff. I fully trust them to rock our babies and let them crawl around the supervised play area, and engage our older kids with group activities (and the occasional video game) as well. It's become one of the best parts of a cruise for our family.
The video arcade is always a fan favorite for the kids, too. These games charge additional fees, so parent pro-tip: Save this as a reward for good behavior, or consider giving your kids a limit on how much they can spend here per day. This can be so fun for kids, and the hours fly by.
Back home, spend some time reflecting on the highlights while going through your photo album with the whole family. The memories will help sustain you through the following school year. Though take heart: Summer getaways are just around the corner.