Tips For Choosing A Short Family Cruise

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

Many cash-crunched families are taking shorter family vacations this year. Luckily, the cruise industry's expanded array of quick vacation getaways is well suited to fit families' budget constraints. These 3- to 5-day sailings depart from a wide variety of U.S. ports, making them easily accessible for convenient family travel. In addition, short cruises are an excellent family vacation value and provide first-time cruisers with an opportunity to test the waters before taking a longer voyage.

If your family is craving a cheap vacation getaway, a short cruise may be just right for you. Our family took a 5-day escape on Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas and came away hooked on the experience. Exciting ports and onshore adventures combined with high-octane onboard entertainment make short cruises a great vacation choice for type-A families.

When planning a short cruise, it's important to pick the ship and itinerary best suited to your family's needs. Here are some factors to consider in choosing the right one for you:

Homeport convenience. Short cruises depart from a number of drive-to-port cities, cutting out travel hassles and eliminating the cost of airfare. This year, families can find short cruises sailing from homeports in states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, California and Washington.

Itinerary. If your family has cruised often, you may wish to choose an itinerary that includes some exciting new destinations. For example, the Enchantment of the Seas' 5-day sailing visits Key West, Cozumel and Belize City. Other short cruises call at ports in Bermuda, the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Grand Cayman, and a variety of locations in Mexico and Canada. Relaxing days at private islands are popular and European short cruises are available this year as well. The number of in-port and sea days varies, so choose the itinerary that best fits your family's preferences.

Shipboard amenities. Family-friendly amenities are important in choosing the right ship for a short family cruise. Royal Caribbean's Enchantment truly delivers in this category. The ship features a beautiful waterpark area and sun deck with two pools, four whirlpools, and a colorful splash deck with 64 jets of spraying water to delight the kids. Adults and teens 18 and over congregate in the Solarium on rainy and windy days. This spot, with its retractable glass roof and windows, is home to two large whirlpools and is an ideal place to relax in all types of weather. Adventure-seekers head for the ship's Jump Zone and rock-climbing wall. At night, teens enjoy the ship's Fuel disco while adults savor the 360-degree views in the Viking Crown Lounge atop the ship.

Dining venues. When choosing a ship, consider your family's flexibility needs and dining preferences. If you detest fixed dining times and your kids are unlikely to sit through a two-hour dinner, check for casual dining spots and look for cruise lines that offer freestyle dining, such as Norwegian Cruise Line. Norwegian's ships are packed with a wide variety of come-when-you-wish restaurants, informal eateries and 24-hour dining options.

Kids and teens programs. It's important to consider each cruise line's programs in light of your family's needs and children's ages. Each cruise line has a differing array of kids, teens and family programs, and some ships offer more dedicated kids and family spaces than others. Dedicated kids and teens spaces often make a major difference in program participation, so check into the available amenities before choosing your ship.

Keep in mind the ages of your children when choosing a cruise line and ship for your short cruise. For example, if your family includes infants and/or toddlers, Disney Cruise Line offers on-board nurseries for children 12 weeks of age and older, while additional cruise lines provide group childcare options for 2 year olds who are not potty-trained (Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney and Norwegian), in-room babysitting services (Royal Caribbean and Celebrity), and special family programs for little ones (Disney and Royal Caribbean). In addition, short cruises on Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Disney Cruise Line also offer a variety of family activities.

Family staterooms. Newer cruise ships tend to have more balcony cabins and staterooms specially designed for families. Look for a short cruise on a ship that will allow you to enjoy some of these options. A series of family cabins are available on Royal Caribbean ships, including a Family Royal Suite that offers a Jacuzzi tub, an enormous balcony, and room for eight. Disney Cruise Line offers some of the largest standard staterooms on the high seas and their family staterooms easily accommodate families of five with a sleep sofa and wall-mounted Murphy bed.

Short and Sweet Cruise Tips

Short cruises have a more compressed feel, but they're great vacations for families with tight time or budget constraints. If you decide to just sail away, here are a few tips to ensure you'll be enchanted with your short cruise experience:

Decide on a budget. Additional costs for shore excursions, sodas and drinks, spa treatments, arcade games and Internet charges can add up quickly - even on a short cruise. Determine what your budget will allow and let the family know. Take advantage of money saving programs, such as soda cards for kids and teens.

Make your shore excursion reservations early. Get the family together in advance of your cruise and decide what you want to do at each port. This will save time while onboard the ship and help avoid disappointment when shore excursions sell out. Shore excursions often can be purchased a few months before departure, so visit the cruise line's website to see if advance reservations can be made. Weigh the options offered by the ship along with independent shore excursion opportunities. Message boards such as those at www.cruisecritic.com and www.cruisemates.com can offer good insights and suggestions.

Work out your dining arrangements. Check out the available restaurant options. If you did not receive the dining time or table size of choice, visit the dining room as soon as you arrive onboard and find out if changes can be made. In addition, if you'd like to try out the alternative restaurants, make those reservations as soon as you arrive onboard the ship.

Explore the ship and find out what's available. Once you find your cabin and get settled, take some time to look around the ship. Many families like to bring walkie-talkies onboard to allow parents to stay in touch while kids are on their own - and this is a great time to try them out. In addition, make sure to check the ship's newsletter to learn about the entertainment and activities planned for the day.

Sign up for youth programs as soon as possible. If your kids are planning to participate in the ship's kids and teens programs, it's important to get them comfortable and involved as soon as possible. Make sure to visit the appropriate age group areas, sign them up for the program, have a look around, and strongly encourage them to participate in the first scheduled event. Friendships are often forged in the first evening and participation on that night can make all the difference - especially on a short cruise. In addition, if your cruise line offers in-room babysitting and you'd like to take advantage of this option, book your dates and times as soon as you get onboard.

Relax and get ready to set sail. Come aboard, unpack, and get into the short cruise frame of mind. As the ship leaves the pier, join the gang at the sail away party and leave all your worries behind. When it comes to fun, these wallet-pleasing short cruises are definitely in the money.

If You Go:

For more information, visit the following cruise line websites:

Royal Caribbean International: www.royalcaribbean.com

Norwegian Cruise Line: www.ncl.com

Disney Cruise Line: www.disneycruise.disney.go.com

Carnival Cruise Line: www.carnival.com

Celebrity Cruise Line: www.celebritycruises.com

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