Planning a Mediterranean Family Cruise

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

Mediterranean cruise family vacations are generating lots of interest among family travelers. Careful planning is the key to a successful European family vacation. Here are answers to ten of the most frequently asked questions from Family Travel Network readers and other family vacationers.

1. What should you consider when planning a family Mediterranean cruise?

First, know your kids. Honestly evaluate their ability to handle long days, lengthy flights, significant time zone changes and getting up early - regardless of their age. Be aware of what their interests are and what's right for them. Based on this, determine whether a Mediterranean cruise is a good choice for your family. If so, plan your cruise around your family's interests, goals, and travel profile.

Second, get your expectations in line. It's important for parents to be aware that taking a Mediterranean family cruise isn't the same kind of vacation experience as a Caribbean family cruise. Some tour-packed segments of the cruise may not be relaxing. There's a 6-hour (or more) time difference. Many of the ports are over an hour away from the major cities or attractions, making shore excursions very lengthy for younger children. Also remember that your family Mediterranean cruise experience isn't going to be a replay of that romantic couples anniversary cruise you took to Italy years ago.

Finally, pick the right time to visit. August is the prime vacation month in Europe. If you cruise during August, attractions are going to be at their most crowded and it could be scorching hot. Plan accordingly.

2. Is a Mediterranean cruise a particularly good fit for certain kinds of families?

Taking a cruise is one of the best ways for families to see Europe. It's so easy. You just unpack once and the ports and destinations come to you.

It's also a great way for kids to learn. John Heald, Senior Cruise Director and brand ambassador for Carnival Cruise Lines, says, "Cruising the Mediterranean is a walking history book for kids and families." Seeing places like Rome and Pompeii with their own eyes is "the best show & tell program for kids and teens in the world," according to Heald. Parents who've cruised the Mediterranean with their children couldn't agree more.

Mediterranean family cruises are particularly good for:

  • Families who want to sample many destinations. Cruising the Mediterranean is like having dinner at a buffet restaurant. Families can sample many new places, find their favorites, and come back for more.

  • Families who want to save money. With the dollar/euro exchange rate, you can't beat the value.

  • Multigenerational families, because there's something onboard for every age group. Family members can do things separately and come back together for meals and selected activities.

  • Families who have children with food allergies. In the land of pizza and pasta, finding gluten-free food can be tough. Companies like Carnival Cruise Lines and Celebrity Cruises excel in handling this issue. Carnival offers family-friendly cruises in the Mediterranean and their kitchens accommodate special dietary issues such as gluten-free, low-sugar, vegetarian, low-carbohydrates with ease. Just make sure to notify the dining staff as soon as you're onboard.

  • Families whose kids get bored easily and/or have divergent interests. If your children are going to fall apart if they go on long tours and excursions every single day, cruising is an excellent option. Your kids can be entertained and have fun with their new friends onboard the ship while you go off for that in-depth tour of Florence. Then, after you get back onboard the ship, the whole family can have fun together at the pool or playing games together on the top deck. The advantage of this kind of vacation flexibility doesn't just apply to younger children, however. Your college-age kids can go on a shore excursion to the beach, for example, while you go off on your own to walk in the footsteps of the Godfather or visit Mount Etna in Sicily.
3. What's the best way to plan a family cruise to the Med?

Plan it together. Make sure the kids are involved and get everyone's input early in the process. It will help create buy-in and eliminate a lot of potential problems when you get on the ship.

Start by having a family get-together to focus on shared and individual interests. Do you have kids who are obsessed with history & gladiators, volcanoes, pizza, gelato, art, mythology, beaches, shopping, and castles? Do you want your kids to learn about European history, languages and cultures? If so, a family cruise to the Med could be just the thing for your next vacation. Use your family's interests to drive your choice of itineraries and ports of call. Talk with a good cruise travel agent to get their suggestions.

If you have tweens and teens, discuss the potential pace of the cruise, organized tours, and what's important to them about the ship to get the lay of the land and see what they can handle. Match that against your expectations and choose your ship and cruise options accordingly.

4. What are the best ports to embark/disembark from in the Mediterranean?

Look for ports that have great flight connections, good airfare rates, a wide variety of hotel options, and attractions that you want to spend lots of extra time exploring. This last point is important, because it's a huge plus for families to arrive at their embarkation city a day or two early before their cruise. Sure - it's more expensive, but it can save money and add to the enjoyment of your family's cruise. Here's why:
  • There's a 6-hour or more time difference between embarkation ports in the Mediterranean and airports in the U.S. and Canada. It takes a while for people to adjust to that, particularly kids and teens. If your kids are jet lagged throughout the first half of your cruise, it's not going to be enjoyable and they're not going to get as much out of it.

  • Many people have flight connections getting to their embarkation port. These days, it's pretty common to have flight delays and cancellations. When this happens, you (and/or your luggage) can miss the ship. Allow at least one or two days for potential delays.

  • Major sites in places like Barcelona and Rome are tough to cram into just one day. So, why not spend some extra time there and explore? There are a number of family-friendly ships that sail from these two ports. The Carnival Breeze sails round-trip from Barcelona on 12-night cruises to a number of popular family-oriented destinations. For those looking for a shorter cruise, the Norwegian Epic sails round-trip from Rome on 7-night sailings.
5. What's the best way to choose a ship for a family Med cruise?

Finding the right ship for a Mediterranean cruise is like buying a pair of jeans. You have to find the right fit. It's important to take your time, do the research, and find the right match for you and your family.

Look for the features, amenities and strong points that are important to your family members. For families seeking a high energy environment, extensive kids and teens programs and activities, cool waterparks, lots of dining options and loads of entertainment, Carnival ships are a great fit. On the Carnival Breeze, for example, families will enjoy films at the 4-D Thrill Theater, games and adventures at SportsSquare, and competing in Hasbro, The Game Show. Plus there are more Fun Ship 2.0 features such as Guy's Burger Joint, the awesome Carnival WaterWorks waterpark, and RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Cantina for adults. College-age kids and young adults will be thrilled to know that the Carnival Breeze has all the evening action they crave with DJ IRIE's spin masters handling the show.

For families with school-aged children looking for exceptional dining in an upscale setting, a Celebrity Cruises Solstice-class ship could be an excellent choice. These ships are a bit smaller, with superb service and innovative ship features. Celebrity also offers a four-tiered family cruising program for children ages 3-17.

It's important to research the cruise lines' kids and teens programs and the age groups within each program to make sure they will work for your family. Also look for robust teens programs with extensive daily and nightly activities and a club area set aside for both tweens and teens. Carnival Cruise Lines' ships feature Circle C for pre-teens 12-14 and Club O2 for teen 15-17, each with their own spaces and array of activities. The tweens and teens programs on the Carnival Breeze earned rave reviews from families cruising the Med.

6. Are the kids facilities and programs on ships in the Mediterranean different than those offered in the Caribbean?

The kids' facilities are the same because the ships are the same. Most of these ships spend their summers in the Med and winters in the Caribbean. The kids' programs can be somewhat different however, because some add a Mediterranean flair and extra activities for the kids' learning enjoyment. On the Carnival Breeze, for example, children make a volcano to learn more about destinations in Mediterranean ports they'll be visiting, such as Mount Etna in Sicily and Mount Vesuvius near Naples. Pizza making is a big hit with the kids on these cruises as well.

Some programs also offer important benefits to help families deal with the pace of their Mediterranean cruise. For example, on the Carnival Breeze, the Camp Carnival kids' program area opened earlier in the morning than usual on busy port days so parents who were on an early shore excursion could drop their kids off before their departure times.

7. What are some tips for parents and kids to remember while planning for and sailing on a Mediterranean cruise?

With proper planning, a Mediterranean cruise can easily be your family's best vacation ever. Here are a few suggestions:
  • "Plan as much as you can before you get on the ship," says John Heald. This includes shore excursions, specialty dining, spa appointments, and other activities. If there's ever a place where you should take organized shore excursions, says Heald, it's Europe.

  • If possible, register your children for their programs in advance of boarding the ship. Research the age groupings for your ship's kids and teens programs before you get onboard and prepare your children accordingly. Don't expect that you'll be able to move your children to the same age group if their ages do not conform to the ship's age categories.

  • Pack bathing suits in your carry-on luggage so that kids can hit the pool as soon as they get on the ship. This was a popular option on the Carnival Breeze, particularly since the ship's WaterWorks waterpark is so huge.

  • Make sure your kids and teens go to their programs on the first night of the cruise. Friendships form quickly on cruises and it's easier for kids to bond if they are involved from the outset.

  • Get your family together each night and go over your ship's program for the next day. Plan what you'd like to do, always set a time to meet for dinner, and arrange to do some fun things together as a family. On the Carnival Breeze, popular family activities included going down the ship's waterslides as a family, taking the ropes course challenge at SportsSquare, enjoying a special dinner at Cucina del Capitano, playing miniature golf, watching movies at the action-packed Thrill Theater and the pool-front Seaside Theatre, and competing at Hasbro, The Game Show.

  • It can get very hot in the Med, even in June. Bring along water bottles and make sure to keep everyone hydrated. In addition, think about letting the kids stay onboard at the kids camp on very hot days when you'll be on a lengthy shore excursion.

  • Be aware that your kids will make friends onboard the ship and you might not see them as much as you usually do. Relax and have fun. It's okay to enjoy your time alone.
8. Do you have any shore excursion recommendations for families?

Don't cruise blind. Learn about your ports of call in advance and know what you want to do even before you get on the ship. Detailed information on ship-sponsored shore excursions is available on each cruise line's website. Guidebooks (Rick Steves' series is excellent) and sites such as Cruise Critic, TripAdvisor, CruiseRadio and others can be a huge help.

Private car tours in cities like Rome, Naples, Florence and Athens are exceptional and allow families to do exactly what they want to do on their own schedule. In addition, families can often experience far more than they could on a large group tour. Private tours are available through the cruise line, but they also can be arranged independently. Cruise Critic's message boards can be an excellent resource for meeting other passengers on your upcoming sailing and arranging to share private car tours and other independent shore excursions to cut down on costs. Check out the Roll Call boards as well as specific destination boards for ideas.

APTours in Italy offers fun and educational tours specifically designed for families who are cruising or touring in Italy. The company is run by parents who have designed these special tours to incorporate things they'd like their own children to do on vacation. In addition to touring Pompeii or climbing Mount Vesuvius with a kid-friendly guide, additional activities include pizza making and a hands-on ice cream making and tasting class. Top quality tour options for couples and families with teens or adult children are available as well. RomeinLimo in Italy and Tours of Athens in Greece are two other excellent private tour options.

The most important thing for parents to remember about planning family shore excursions is: don't overdo it. Parents are paying a lot of money for the cruise, so there's a big temptation to try to pack everything into their cruise to get the most value and make sure their kids learn as much as possible. If you do that, however, your vacation can turn into something resembling a forced death march and you won't enjoy your cruise experience.

Talk things over with your kids and teens in advance and see what they want to do and what will cause a mutiny. Listen. Try to compromise and pick your battles wisely. The great thing about a cruise is that if you really want to do something and your kids really don't, they can stay and have fun on the ship. It's possible for everyone to get what they want, as long as there's some flexibility involved.

If you have "must-do" excursions, book them in advance before you get onto the ship. Popular tours sell out - sometimes well before the ship sails. Book ahead so you are not disappointed.

Vary your plans so that you're not doing 10-hour city tours for 5-6 days in a row. Some ports lend themselves to other things. For example, John Heald suggests a beach day for families in Palma de Mallorca. Combining a visit to Mount Etna with a trip to the beach is an excellent choice in Messina, according to Heald. Dubrovnik is a good destination for active pursuits, such as walking the walls of the old city, while riding the vaporettos or taking a gondola ride might be fun in Venice.

Keep your expectations fluid and shift plans accordingly. Things over which you have no control may interfere with your plans, such as weather and strikes. On our June Carnival Breeze Mediterranean cruise, temperatures in many ports were over 100 degrees for much of the day making lengthy shore excursions difficult for children. As a result, Youth Director Julie Wiltshire reported that Civitavecchia Italy (Rome) was the busiest day for the Camp Carnival crew, with many parents allowing their kids to stay onboard and play while they went on a lengthy tour of Rome.

Even with all this planning, know your cancellation policies and re-visit things during the cruise. If someone is getting sick - or your kids are ready to have a meltdown, call the ball early and don't waste your money. Just stay flexible.

9. What are some money-saving tips for families who have booked a Med cruise?
  • Look for cost-saving private tours and book them in advance. We saved a bundle of money doing this on our Mediterranean cruises and the experiences we had were fantastic. There are pros and cons to private tours though, so make sure you're aware of these and research options carefully if you decide to go on your own.

  • If you're planning to stay overnight pre- or post-cruise, choose a hotel that includes breakfast. That way you won't be paying as much as $6 for a cup of coffee.

  • If you'll be staying for more than three nights in a European city, consider renting an apartment or flat. These accommodations can save hundreds of dollars for families, since many European hotels don't have rooms that will sleep four or more people comfortably. Check sites such as VRBO, HomeAway Holiday Rentals, Great Rentals, and other rental agencies.

  • Hop-on/hop-off buses can be a great way to see major cities less expensively. Just get the schedule and a sightseeing map and plan your day accordingly.

  • When you'll be touring all day, eat a big breakfast and dinner on the ship and have light snacks or split a pizza for lunch - they're huge!
10. What's the best way for parents to keep their sanity on a Mediterranean family cruise?

Years ago, I remember telling someone that I was planning to go to Europe and asking where was the best place to take my kids. They said, "Do you want my honest advice? Take them to Grandma's on the way to the airport!"

I don't agree. The Mediterranean is a fantastic place for a family cruise vacation if you go with the right expectations, budget and frame of mind. The Med can be an intense place to visit on a cruise, but it doesn't have to be action-packed to be enjoyed. Relax, keep a positive attitude, don't over-cram, pace yourself, and plan ahead.

Try to stay flexible and keep your expectations in check. Schedule some "me" time and let family members do things separately. Don't expect everything to go perfectly and that Junior will get an A+ in European history just because he went on a Mediterranean cruise over the summer. It may not seem like your children are absorbing everything, but three weeks later you'll have that "ah-hah!" moment when they start talking about volcanoes and Pompeii or the history of Rome.

If you do it right, you might find that your kids have a new appreciation for their world, their country, their family, and what a family vacation can be. It may take a while, but that's a goal worth achieving. In my opinion, giving your children that kind of world view is the best family vacation souvenir ever.

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