CHOOSING A CRUISE: I decided on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas after checking the Web for teen-friendly ideas and reviews (I especially liked Family Travel Network, www.familytravelnet work.com), but relied on a travel agent to help me select a cabin, dinner seating and flights. Booking air through the cruise line ensured that we would get on the ship regardless of flight delays or cancellations.
COST: Our seven-night cruise cost $1,336.23 per person, including stateroom, tax, cruise insurance, port fees, round-trip airfare from Washington to Miami and airport transfers to and from the port. Each guest is issued a Sea Pass, which serves as a room key, ID and charge card onboard. Kids can use the card in the arcade, but parents should keep track of the running tab on their in-room account: One 9-year-old ran up more than $200 playing games in five days before his parents checked the balance. Tips of $68.25 per passenger for dining and cabin staff are recommended and can be applied to the Sea Pass account.
WHERE TO STAY: We booked an interior room, which was small but well-appointed. Next time, I'll upgrade to a room with an ocean view.
WHERE TO EAT: We ate most of our meals in the Windjammer Cafe (breakfast and lunch buffets) and the Nutcracker dining room (dinner). The food was plentiful -- two entrees or desserts -- but never mouthwatering. There were endless free snacks and treats around the ship 24 hours a day. We heard the food was very good in two smaller restaurants (Portofino's and Chops Grille), but passed because of the $20-per-person surcharge. However, we loved Johnny Rockets diner, even with the $3.95 surcharge (and extra for malts). Wine, drinks, espresso and Ben & Jerry's ice cream all cost extra and quickly add up. Unlimited sodas for kids and adults are available for a fee.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: Shortly after we made our reservation, the cruise line sent a brochure listing all of the excursions at each port. Up to 10 days before the cruise sailed, I could sign up online; after that, the trips were available on a first-come basis onboard. Once again, I went to the Web for tips (Royal Caribbean's Cruiser's Discussion Group was very useful). Rule of thumb: The more popular or complicated the travel, the safer it is to book through the cruise line; if you go off independently and get back late, the ship can leave without you. Our dolphin excursion ($159 per peron) required a ferry and a bus ride to another island, so we booked ahead. But we saved $10 and got a whole day at Magens Bay beach in St. Thomas by taking local cabs to/from the ship.
INFO: Royal Caribbean, 866-562-7625, www.royalcaribbean.com.
-- Roxanne Roberts