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Cruising for first-timers

If getting one terrific idea for a family vacation is good, then getting three super ideas is even better. The problem: A family of five wants to try cruising for the first time, but doesn’t know where to begin.
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If getting one terrific idea for a family vacation is good, then getting three super ideas is even better. The problem: A family of five wants to try cruising for the first time, but doesn’t know where to begin. The solution: We turned to three in-the-know family travel agents for their best advice. What we ended up with is a trio of terrific trip recommendations, plus a ton of savvy insider knowledge.

The family: Ted and Maria Butler would like to take a cruise with their children, aged 11, 7, and 4 years old. Nobody in the family has ever been cruising before. Ted isn’t convinced that he’ll enjoy being at sea and would prefer to find a cruise that’s shorter than the typical seven-day sailing. Maria is worried about finding a cabin arrangement that can comfortably accommodate their family of five and stay within their budget. Ted and Maria want to find a cruise line that offers a wide array of activities for each member of the family, as well as good kids’ camps.

At some point during the cruise, the parents would love the chance to reconnect alone occasionally over a meal or evening show. Ted and Maria are both foodies. Their 11-year-old son, Michael, loves water sports of all kinds, while and their 7-year-old daughter, Alyssa, is passionate about animals. Their 4-year-old son, Kevin, is still in preschool. The Butlers would prefer a warm-weather destination but are open to any ports of call. Their availability is wide open; they can travel any time between February and October in 2008. Their budget is $3,500, not including airfare or onshore excursions.

Lauren Goldenberg of suggests:

The cruise line: “ is my favorite cruise line for families because of the broad range of family-friendly amenities, dining and recreation on their larger ships. Families will love the rock climbing wall, ice skating, pools, mini golf, full-size basketball court, spa, gym, fitness classes, shopping promenade and in-line skating. The fun evening entertainment includes shows, a casino for mom and dad, and movies for the whole family. The children’s programs are well-organized and well-staffed, so each child can enjoy an array of age-appropriate programming, including hands-on science, crafts, theater, games and more. As for dining, there are enough options to keep everyone happy. The main dining room serves up special meals that even the foodie parents will enjoy. There’s also a steakhouse-and-seafood grill onboard, plus a Johnny Rockets and a Ben and Jerry’s. And there’s always 24-hour room service, which all children think is the coolest!”

The ship: “The Navigator of the Seas is the first megaship from Royal Caribbean to start sailing shorter cruises. This is an ideal scenario for first-time cruisers who may be shy about sailing a full week. It’s a great opportunity to fully experience Royal Caribbean.”

The itinerary: “I’d recommend the five-night Western Caribbean sailing to Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios out of Fort Lauderdale.”

The cabin: “For a quiet cabin, choose between other passenger decks, midship, but not too close to an elevator. For families of five, there are a few different cabin configurations. Large family cabins can be inside, outside, or balcony cabins depending on the cruise line and ship. If you get connecting inside, outside or balcony cabins, you pay four full rates and one discounted rate. A very popular option for families with older kids is to have the parents in a balcony cabin with the children across the hall in an inside cabin—although this family’s children are a bit young for that option.”

The damage: “I can get a Grand Suite on the Navigator, sailing February 2-7, 2008, for $3,150 total for five people. This includes taxes, port charges and the new fuel surcharge. This family will travel in style! This 390-square-foot cabin has a queen bed, two day beds, and a rollaway, plus an 89-square-foot balcony and a larger private bathroom with bathtub and double sink.”

The excursion: “The entire family will really enjoy swimming with stingrays in Grand Cayman and then visiting the turtle farm. These are great adventures for the entire family based on the Butler kids’ ages and interests! offers a four-hour tour ($82/adult, $71/child) that includes interacting with the stingrays in waist-high water at Stingray City, a short snorkel at Coral Gardens (with a life vest, even a 4 year old can explore the sea life, including nurse sharks and moray eels), and finally a land tour that includes the Governor’s House and the turtle farm.

Planning tips: “Flying into the port of embarkation the night before is a good idea, especially in the winter. Some hotels in Fort Lauderdale provide a shuttle from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel to the port, and their rates even include free breakfast. At the end of the cruise, it’s a 5-minute taxi ride back to the airport from Port Everglades. If you’re going on the stingray excursion, bring some snacks along in case the kids get hungry. Try snorkeling in the bathtub before the cruise so the little one can see what it’s like!”

Susan Kelly of suggests:

The cruise line: “’s four-night sailing on the Disney Wonder meets the Butlers’ criteria perfectly. It is completely family-friendly with opportunities for adults-only fine dining and entertainment. The kids’ programs on Disney Cruise Line are the best at sea and will keep the children fully entertained with top-notch counselors and programs as well as those wonderful Disney characters!”

The ship: “The Disney Wonder is a magnificent vessel, designed with families in mind. Staterooms are 25 percent larger than the industry average. There are three different dining rooms to sample and a wonderful theater where Broadway-quality productions are performed each night.”

The itinerary: “The four-night sailing allows them to have a taste of cruising without a full week commitment. This cruise departs from Port Canaveral and sails to Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. There is also a day at sea.”

The cabin: “The ‘Category 4 Deluxe Family Stateroom with Verenda’ is the perfect stateroom for a family of five, located on Deck 8, the top deck with accommodations on it. It has a queen bed for the parents and three single beds for the kids. This also features a split bathroom—one room with a shower and sink and another with a toilet and sink—so two people can be getting ready at once. There is also a beautiful private verendah from which to enjoy your morning coffee.”

The damage: “The price fluctuates with the time of year. For April 2008, a four-night cruise including meals, taxes, entertainment, port fees and airport transfers would total $4,162.40. The same sailing in September 2008 would be $3,212.40. Of course, that could interfere with the start of school and it is during hurricane season. Still, plenty of travelers have sailed at this time of year and encountered no problems at all.”

The excursion: “Since the 7-year-old is an animal lover, the Dolphin encounter at Nassau would be a great choice. The kids can actually swim with dolphins ($99/person) and if the family wanted to save money, the parents could go along as observers ($35/person). This is part of a beach day when the ship docks at Castaway Cay, in the beautiful turquoise waters of the Bahamas. Snorkel equipment can be rented ($25/person, $10/kids 3-9) or kids can take a banana boat ride ($15/person).”

Planning tips: “The further in advance a family can plan, the better the price, with the exception of holiday sailings. Disney is currently accepting reservations through the end of 2008 and taking requests for 2009. We would normally advise traveling between December and April, but prices for departures in early 2008 are currently at a peak point. If this family can wait until 2009, we may be able to secure early-booking savings.”

Linda Allen of Cruises by Linda (870/743-2121) suggests:

The cruise line: “is owned by Royal Caribbean and operated as their premium product. Since it is not as well known, it is frequently a better value for less money.”

The ship: “I would recommend the Century, which has recently undergone a major refurbishment. She is not only pretty but a very nice size at just 1,800 passengers. Century features award-winning cuisine prepared by world-renowned chefs and made from scratch using only the finest, fresh ingredients. There are many onboard activities for all ages, and a great kid’s program for children 3 to 17.”

The itinerary: “The five-night Western Caribbean sailing departs from Miami and includes two sea days to enjoy the ship and two great days in beautiful Caribbean ports—Ocho Rios, Jamaica and George Town, Grand Cayman—filled with many beach-oriented activities.”

The cabin: “I always price two connecting cabins for a family of five. Many times it is cheaper than a family cabin, and you get two true cabins with two baths.”

The damage: “For a mid-February sailing (Feb 9-14, 2008), the price would be $2,871.45 for for five people in a Family Cabin with Veranda. I recommend spending an extra $110 on travel insurance, bringing the total to $2,981.45.”

The excursion: “Celebrity offers a four-hour Turtles & Stingrays Land & Sea Adventure on Grand Cayman ($84/adult, $84/child). It begins with a drive to Boatswain’s Bay Turtle Farm to visit the turtle breeding facility and rum cake factory before continuing on to the town of Hell. The second part of the tour is a trip to Stingray City Sandbar for a one-hour visit with the famous Southern Rays.” (Note: This is a slightly pricier version of the excursion offered by ShoreTrips, mentioned above.)

Planning tips: “For people who live in cooler climates, I recommend going when it is coldest at home to get a sunshine fix to break up the winter. Cabins that can accommodate five people are very limited, so I recommend booking as far out as possible. If you want peak times on the best ships, it sometimes requires booking 18 months out, and at the very least, nine months out. Do keep in mind that hurricane season runs from June to November, so for warm weather destinations it is best to go before or after that. There are more ships to choose from in the Caribbean from January to March, before the ships start going back to Alaska and Europe starting in April.”