Make our family cruise memorable, but in a good way?
May 16, 2012 3:30 PM   Subscribe

Taking the family on our very first cruise on a Carnival Conquest. A 7 day Western Carribean itinerary going to Montego Bay, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. Help me with experienced cruiser/traveler tips, especially with children. What should I know about, avoid, and go out of my way to do. Of course special snowflake multiracial special needs family details inside.

So I'll have three kids along (8, 10, and 12). Two of them are African-American and so we don't look like a typical unit. Will that be a problem at the ports? Should we get passports or will the birth certificates be enough even though they don't look like mom and dad?
Youngest daughter is having a birthday during the cruise and she wants to swim with dolphins for her birthday present. Any tips for cruise-board birthdays?
I am a little worried about accumulating costs, but I want to strike the right balance between being thrifty and ensuring my family has a special time. Where can I optimize my value and avoid wasting scarce funds?
Any tips for the ports of call for out-of-the-way, family friendly, and not too tourist-trappy things to do/see?
My wife and I are the type that prefer "be" vacations to "do" vacations, but with kids, their entertainment is a prerequisite for our relaxation. How entertaining/safe is the cruise ship for kids independent of direct parents' involvement? My big fear is that the kids will declare all the kid facilities "lame" within three hours of leaving port. How can I avoid that?
And finally, what did you wish you had brought/bought/did better on the cruises you've been on?
posted by cross_impact to Travel & Transportation around Augusta, GA (6 answers total)
cross_impact: "Should we get passports or will the birth certificates be enough even though they don't look like mom and dad?"

It is a good idea to have passports for them anyhow.

cross_impact: "My big fear is that the kids will declare all the kid facilities "lame" within three hours of leaving port. How can I avoid that?"

As lame as the kids stuff might end up, the adult stuff will be so much more lame. If they end up not appreciating structured kids stuff there will also be plenty of other kids in the same predicament to hang out with. Those are really big boats.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2012

You want to spend some time on the forums on Cruise Critic. There are tons of cruise veterans on those forums who can answer any question you have.
posted by vignettist at 4:12 PM on May 16, 2012

We did a 4-day cruise to the Bahamas on Carnival Fascination last summer. One of the highlights of our trip was the "Dolphin Encounter" excursion shore trip. We were very pleased with the experience and the dolphins seemed very well cared for. So, I can definitely vouch for the dolphin experience. Well worth the money.

On the other hand, you can save money on a shore excursion that takes you to a water park/pool at a resort by simply making your own way to the resort and buying a day pass at the location. We saved about $70 by making our own way to the Atlantis resort and buying their day pass to their water park and beach facilities. We simply took a little shuttle boat over to Paradise Island and walked the 4 blocks to the resort entrance. (Obviously this method will vary depending on location, but look into it)
posted by Fleebnork at 4:36 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make sure to get a set of walkie-talkies! Makes communicating on-board much easier.

On our cruises, we find that we typically get much better deals going ashore and talking to the locals than booking through the cruise's packages. For things that are "musts", like your daughter's dolphins, maybe book through the cruise just to be sure it'll happen. Otherwise, don't let them pressure you into thinking that if you don't buy through them, you won't have anything to do! These islands are centered around tourism, so you're guaranteed to find something nice, and with a big family and over a number of days, you'll save thousands over what the cruise would've charged you!
posted by estlin at 4:43 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as costs for the kids, you'll have two main ones, I think: first, most cruise lines sell a "soda package" at the beginning of the week. For a cost of about $24-50, your kid gets a reusable cup and a sticker on their cruise card entitling them to free sodas for the entire week. This usually covers sodas/soft drinks from all bars on the ship. It doesn't cover things like smoothie bars, virgin mixed drinks, etc, but if your kids are drinkers of anything other than water and iced tea, it will save you much money and argument. Second, expect to have to tip the childcare staff at the end of the week. I'm not sure of the going rate, but you can almost surely find out on Cruise Critic, as vignettist recommends.

In my experience (as having once been a kid, never been a parent) is that the kids usually love the kid-centric shipboard activities. Most cruise lines have different programs for different age groups, and there will be sports activities, behind-the-scenes activities, creative activities, and usually quite a lot of hang-out type activities (many lines are now doing a "club" for tweens and teens to hang out in at night, with music and dancing but no alcohol or adult passengers). If your kids are typical, expect to see them in the morning and at bedtime and not too often in between (though this is totally up to your family - all activities are optional, and the kids don't have to be present for all of them if your family wants to do something else). Kids-program activities are 100% supervised by childcare workers employed by the cruise line, and they will often hook you up with emergency pagers so that if you need to get in touch with your children quickly, or vice versa, you don't need to go searching.

There are usually also some family-centric areas of the ship (I haven't been on Carnival in forever, but I know Royal Caribbean ships have started having places like family pools, where the parents can chill out and read while the kids scream five feet away in the pool, without people directing evil glares at them).

Talk to your kids beforehand about the fact that their cruise card is their "credit card" on the ship - they will be allowed to make purchases with it in places like the gift shop, the restaurants, etc, and they need to be aware that there's actual money flowing through it, even if they never touch cash. My parents usually set a simple "budget" for my sister and me on cruises (this was before the days of soda packages) of "two pay drinks per day, and check with us if you want to buy something from the shop".

For your daughter's birthday, absolutely inform your room steward and wait staff - these people are super-friendly, it's their job to make you feel welcome, and it's very likely that the ship has stuff they can do for her special day - balloons in her cabin, singing "Happy Birthday" over her dessert at dinner, etc.

As far as ports, in my experience Grand Cayman is very well-off and clean, Cozumel a bit less so (expect to see chintzy stuff), and Jamaica very much less so. Depending on how sensitive your kids are and whether you venture out of tourist-restricted areas in Jamaica, you may want to prepare the kids (and yourselves) for not-all-happy-sunshine ports where there may be beggars or armed guards, or spend a few minutes of planning how to avoid those (sticking to tourist-only areas, etc).

If you're willing to take a bit of a chance, you can absolutely save money on shore excursions by walking off the ship in port and finding one you want there, or finding the company the cruise books through online ahead of time and booking directly with them. The trade-off for saving money (sometimes quite a lot) by doing this is that when you book your own shore excursion, the cruise line doesn't guarantee the quality of your experience and they take no responsibility for the timing of it - if your self-booked shore excursion runs late on the island, the ship will not be waiting for you, whereas if your cruise-booked one does, they will.

I can't recommend strongly enough the Cruise Critic forums for any and all questions you might have. There's usually a thread for every weekly sailing of every ship, so you can even make some friends beforehand to meet up with on-board. I'd also be happy to answer any general-cruising questions if you want to memail me.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 5:16 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Regarding the ports, you won't need passports other than when you get on the ship the first time. When you board, they will take each person's photo and associate it with the card. At each port just take the cards with you, that is all you need to get visit the port and get back on. When you get on they scan your card, the computer pulls up the photo and they let you on.

One thing we have done is bring lanyards for the kids, punch the card on the ship and put it around their neck. That way they always have their room key and drink sticker (if you purchase that).

Most likely, the kids will have a great time and you won't see them except at night. Enjoy!
posted by cosmac at 8:03 AM on May 17, 2012

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