Not all family cruises are created equal: Though most major lines offer activities and amenities for families, some seem to merely accommodate kids, while others enthusiastically court your clan. And while it's relatively easy to find programs to occupy your toddler while you hit the sun deck, entertaining your I-can't-believe-I'm-stuck-on-this-ship-with-my-parents teenager poses a challenge -- one that some meet with more aplomb than others.
Some family offerings are consistent from ship to ship within a line; others vary from ship to ship and according to the length of the cruise. Pay close attention to how each line divvies up the age groups: some lump 17-year-olds with 13-year-olds, for instance, while others make special arrangements for kids 15 to 17.
Here's a sampling of what the major cruise lines are offering in the way of family programs, along with itineraries, costs, strengths and weaknesses. We've given sample costs for each line, but note that prices vary widely by destination, duration, time of year and room choice, and are subject to change. Costs are based on double occupancy and generally include meals and most shipboard activities, but not fountain drinks, alcoholic beverages, spa services and shore excursions. Unless otherwise noted, costs don't include taxes and other fees.
WHERE THEY GO: Three- to 16-day voyages to the Bahamas, Bermuda, Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, New England and Europe.
SAMPLE COST: A three-day cruise from Miami to the Bahamas aboard the Fascination departing Nov. 11 runs $299 per person for first and second passengers, $199 for the third and fourth.
THE BASICS: Activities are offered for five age ranges: 2 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14 and 15 to 17 . . . Babies must be at least 4 months old to sail . . . Fountain Fun Card ($28) buys unlimited soft drinks throughout the cruise . . . $28 cruise-long stroller rental . . . Baby-sitting $6 an hour for the first child, $4 for each sibling. Supervised activities during the day at Camp Carnival for ages 2 to 11.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Club O2 for teenagers 15 to 17, featured on 12 of 21 ships (others are scheduled to be retrofitted by the end of the year), have dance floors with deejays, "Coke-tail" lounges and games based on "The Bachelor/Bachelorette," "Fear Factor" and "Survivor" . . . Fleetwide Y-Spa program for older kids and their parents . . . Teenagers-only shore excursions . . . Imagination and Fantasy have nine-hole miniature golf courses; the new Liberty has a 270-square-foot poolside outdoor TV screen, plus art, music, reading, science, geography and physical fitness programs for kids.
GENERAL VIBE: Recent emphasis on giving older teenagers a place of their own is a good move, although Web site's reference to "hip music" and karaoke for "star wannabes" is a little forced. Still, get past the lingo and there's something fun for everyone.
MORE INFO: 888-CARNIVAL (888-227-6482) , www.carnival.com.
WHERE THEY GO: Three- to 14-night itineraries in Alaska, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada/New England, Caribbean, Europe, Galapagos, Hawaii, Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Panama Canal, South America, transatlantic.
SAMPLE COST: Four-night cruise from Miami to Key West and Cozumel on Zenith would be about $1,012 for a family of three in December.
THE BASICS: Kids' activities are offered for five age groups: 3 to 6, 7 to 9, 10 to12, 13 to 15 and 16 to 17 . . . . . . No minimum age for babies . . . Unlimited soft drinks cost $5 a day, plus 15 percent gratuity, per child . . . Bring your own stroller . . . In-stateroom baby-sitting is $8 per hour per family (maximum two children); group baby-sitting at set times for ages 3 to 12 is $6 per hour per child.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: In summer, kids can take magic lessons, learn about navigation and other behind-the-scenes activities through the X-Club, participate in an all-ages masquerade parade, junior Olympics, talent shows and a pirate treasure hunt. Science Journey programs include pirate lore, astronomy and a look at "natural phenomena and human disasters."
GENERAL VIBE: Plenty to do, and no condescension: Kids can make good use of their time on the high seas.
MORE INFO: 800-647-2251, www.celebrity.com.
WHERE THEY GO: Itineraries in Europe and the Mediterranean, North America, Panama Canal, Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean, South America, Pacific and Indian oceans, ranging from six days to the 106-day Full World Cruise.
SAMPLE COST: Seven- and 10-day fall Mexican Riviera cruises start at $1,295 per person, double occupancy. Children 11 and younger pay 50 percent of the minimum fare when accompanied by two full-fare paying adults. Throughout the year, the line occasionally has special promotions in which children can sail free when sharing a room with two adults.
THE BASICS: Kids' activities on this luxury line are offered for three age groups: 3 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 17 . . . Activities are determined in part by the number of children on board . . . From the Web site: "Parents should be aware that our Junior Activities Program is not to be used in lieu of a baby-sitting service" . . . No babies younger than 6 months without parental waiver. . . Line reserves the right to restrict the number of those under age 3 aboard ships . . . Bring your own stroller . . . Complimentary soft drinks . . . Babysitting in stateroom, $7.50 an hour for one child, $10 for two, $12.50 for three; call 24 hours ahead.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Lots of relatively low-key activities are offered for kids -- just no big whoops like on some of the other lines. Tours of the galley (where kids can decorate their own pastries), backstage area (including dressing rooms) and bridge are offered.
GENERAL VIBE: Web site states, "While Crystal Cruises' clientele is comprised mostly of mature travelers who prefer a refined and luxurious cruise experience, we offer a children's playroom and baby-sitting services on all cruises."
MORE INFO: 800-804-1500, www.crystalcruises.com.
WHERE THEY GO: From U.S. ports, three- to 109-day trips on the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth 2: Atlantic crossings, world tours, trips to Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean, and Africa.
SAMPLE COST: QM2's 12-day "Explorer's Caribbean" cruise departs New York Dec. 8. The fare is $1,799 per person, based on double occupancy, so a family of four pays $7,196.
THE BASICS: Specific activities/play hours are designated in five age ranges: 1 to 2, 3 to 6, 7 to 12, 12 to 14, and 15 to 17; a shipboard area on the QM2 called the Zone has low-key activities for kids 7 to 12 . . . For the younger ones, there's the Play Zone, which the Web site describes as "a well-run camp"; toddlers are watched over by British nannies . . . On the QE2, the Nursery is geared to kids 7 and younger, and the Club 2000 and Teen Center for older children. In honor of the fleet's British heritage, kids can take tea daily . . . No babies younger than a year on transatlantic crossings; shorter voyages can accommodate babies as young as 6 months . . . Bring your own stroller. . . Four days' worth of sodas for $3.95 per person plus 15 percent tip . . . Baby-sitting (with snack) only during scheduled adult meals and activities. No in-stateroom baby-sitting.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Older kids can take guided tours of the sumptuous ships, or attend a hot-tub or toga party. But . . .
GENERAL VIBE: . . . You don't book on the QE2 or the QM2 for the children's programming. If your kids aren't ready to appreciate this sophisticated, once-in-a-lifetime experience, maybe a different starter cruise would make more sense.
MORE INFO: 800-CUNARD (800-728-6273), www.cunard.com.
WHERE THEY GO: Disney Magic has a seven-night eastern or western Caribbean itinerary; Disney Wonder does three- and four-night trips to the Bahamas. In 2006, Wonder will have a 10- and 11-night itinerary in the southern Caribbean.
SAMPLE COST: Kids traveling as a third or fourth guest in a stateroom get a discount. A starting rate (the cheapest) for the first two people on a three-night cruise is $399 apiece; third and fourth guests staying in the same stateroom are discounted according to their age (a child under 3 would sail for $99; ages 3 to 12, $229).
THE BASICS: Kids' activities are offered for five age groups: 3 to 4, 5 to 7, 8 to 9, 10 to 12, and 13 to 17 . . . Onboard nursery for ages 12 weeks to 3 years; $6 per hour for first child, $5 for each additional, with two-hour minimum, on first-come, first-served basis . . . A limited number of strollers is available on board on a first-come, first-served basis . . . One-way "porthole" lets parents check on their kids during group baby-sitting without kids' knowing . . . Pagers are provided free for parents of kids 3-12 in the programs . . . Free sodas except at the bar.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Lots of stage shows featuring Disney characters, including "Twice Charmed: An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story," and a new deck party, "Pirates IN the Caribbean," that ends with fireworks . . . Teenagers hang out in the Stack (Disney Magic) and Aloft (Disney Wonder) and can explore the ship on Digi Hunt, a scavenger hunt using digital cameras, attend a moonlit Glow Jam (where fashion accessories include glow sticks and bracelets), or take part in a Shooting Stars program in which they produce a movie . . . Teens-only excursions to private island.
GENERAL VIBE: You might think it's all about kids, but Disney cruises are popular with kid-free grown-ups, too. Provisions are made for giving adults plenty of ways to steer clear of the wee ones. Note to Disney: It's unsettling to check the cruise Web site and hear the theme music,"Under the Sea." We'll stay up top, thanks.
MORE INFO: 800-951-3532, disneycruise.disney.go.com.
WHERE THEY GO: Seven- to 108-day(most are 10- to 12-day) cruises to Alaska, Asia and Pacific, Australia/New Zealand and South Pacific, Canada/New England, the Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Panama Canal, South America.
SAMPLE COST: Kids (2-18) can travel at slight discount if occupying a third or fourth berth in cabin. Additional discounts for infants 2 and under. A seven-day Caribbean or a seven-day Canada/New England cruise costs $599 to $799 depending on the date. Cost includes taxes and fees.
THE BASICS: Kids' activities are offered for three age groups: 5 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 17 . . . All kids in the Club HAL program get a T-shirt . . . Youngest age allowed is 12 weeks . . . Baby-sitting in staterooms, $8 per hour for first child, $5 for each additional . . . Families booking five staterooms or more get group pricing, unlimited soft drinks, a family photo per stateroom, and a choice of either dinner for the entire family in the line's alternative Pinnacle Grill Restaurant or, on Caribbean cruises, free rentals of snorkel gear and swim mats or banana boat rides . . . Soda card buys unlimited soft drinks for $27.50 (seven days) or $43.13 (10 days). . . Bring your own stroller.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: In addition to age-specific programming, line offers family activities such as Family Olympics . . . Camp Night lets kids ages 5 to 12 pitch their own tents, eat s'mores, tell stories and sing songs around a "campfire" . . . For teenagers 13 to 17 on most ships, there's the New York artist's-style Loft and the Oasis, a private deck where kids can sunbathe, then cool off in a nine-foot-tall waterfall and cave.
GENERAL VIBE: Low-key and classy. Teen offerings, in particular, seem on target and not the least condescending.
MORE INFO: 877-724-5425, www.hollandamerica.com.
Norwegian Cruise Line
WHERE THEY GO: Two- to 16-day cruises to Alaska, Bermuda, Canada/New England, the Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, Mexican Riviera, Panama Canal, South America, South Pacific.
SAMPLE COST: A seven-day cruise to the Bahamas and Florida is on special for $449 per person. Children under age 2 sail free when accompanied by two or more paying guests.
THE BASICS: Kids' activities are offered in high season (which varies, depending on destinations) for four age groups: 2 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 12, and 13 to 17; groups shrink to three, combining the two middle age sets, when fewer kids are aboard . . . Under 6 months, a letter from a pediatrician is required . . . Bring your own stroller . . . In-stateroom baby-sitting after hours is $8 an hour for the first child, $5 for each sibling . . . Teen Passport ($34.50) buys up to 20 nonalcoholic specialty drinks, exclusive dance and pizza party, and a Farewell Frat Party . . . While an NCL vessel is in port, parents with infants and toddlers have access to the children's facilities in the mornings . . . Kid's Crew backpack package includes a souvenir cup and access to unlimited fountain sodas for the entire cruise, a ball cap, sunglasses, luggage tag and T-shirt, but it'll cost you: $39.50 on seven-day cruises, $33 for four days and $28 for three days. Kids Soda package gets them unlimited fountain sodas for $16, $10 or $8.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: "Wacky" cooking classes, treasure hunt and sand-castle building competition on the cruise line's private island; for teens, the "Newlymet Game," line dancing.
GENERAL VIBE: Norwegian has covered all the kid bases with dependable, if not too flashy, activities. Plus, it's always fun to get a backpack full of stuff.
MORE INFO: 800-327-7030, www.ncl.com.
WHERE THEY GO: Seven- to 29-day cruises to all seven continents.
SAMPLE COST: A seven-day Caribbean cruise starts at $479 per person. Children sharing third and fourth cabin berths start at $199 per person.
THE BASICS: Kids' activities are offered in three age ranges: 3 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 17 . . . On smaller vessels, children's programs operate when 20 or more children ages 3 to 17 are on board . . . Minimum passenger age is 6 months (12 months on some of the line's Exotics itineraries) . . . Kids' programs are free until 10 p.m., after which kids ages 3 to 12 are watched in the ships' Youth Center (until 1 a.m.) for $5 per hour . . . Soda packages cost $3.95 per day for cruises 13 days or less, or $3.50 per day for longer cruises.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Care to dissect a squid? "Edutainment" offerings also include science projects, such as whale-watching, coral reef studies, building and racing sailboats, and marine biology studies . . . Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer programs, developed with the National Park Service, help kids learn about Glacier Bay and the Alaska wilderness . . . "Save our Seas" program teaches kids about the waters in which the cruise line sails; kids get a plush animal that depicts a species in danger, such as humpback whales, white pelicans, manatees, sea turtles and pandas.
GENERAL VIBE: Attention to on-board education might be off-putting to kids taking a break from school. But then there's that stuffed animal . . .
MORE INFO: 800-PRINCESS (800-774-6237), www.princess.com.
WHERE THEY GO: Three- to 14-night sailings to Alaska, the Caribbean, Canada, Europe, Hawaii, Mexico, the Pacific Northwest and the Panama Canal.
SAMPLE COST: Seven-night Western Caribbean cruises start at $700 per person.
THE BASICS: Kids' activities are offered in -- count 'em -- seven age groups: 6 to 18 months, 18 to 36 months, 3 to 5 years, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14, and 15 to 17 . . . On several nights, kids eat dinner in popular dining areas with their favorite youth staff and new friends -- without the 'rents . . . For $24.95, kids get unlimited nonalcoholic drinks; another package provides kids with unlimited soft drinks ($20 for a seven-night cruise) . . . Group baby-sitting is available for $5 an hour per child; in-cabin sitting for six months and up, $8 an hour, cash. . . . No stroller rentals.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: New Freedom of the Seas ship, debuting in May, has a water activity to beat all: on-board surfing. You can ride the waves standing upright or on a bodyboard. Check it out on the Web site -- but not when the kids are around, unless you're ready to book this ship . . . Adventure Family for kids 3 to 11 (and their parents) features ship-building regattas, talent shows and scavenger hunts . . . Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots are playtime programs for ages 6 months to 36 months . . . Teens 13 to 17 can visit the Y Spa for massages, facials, hair and nail treatments, and fitness classes; prices range from $23 for a manicure to $100 for a hair-styling session.
GENERAL VIBE: Lots of excitement and emphasis on family togetherness.
MORE INFO: 866-562-7625, www.royalcaribbean.com.
WHERE THEY GO: Tall-masted sailing ships make four- to 13-day trips to the Caribbean and Bahamas.
SAMPLE COST: Four-day sail to the Bahamas starts at $345 for adults. Kids ages 6 to 12 sail free with two paying adults (or half-off with one parent) year-round. Taxes included, but not port charges.
THE BASICS: Kids are grouped into two age ranges: 6 to 11 and 12 to 17 . . . Children under 6 not allowed . . . Windjammer's ships are smaller and more intimate than standard cruise ships, with no dress-up dinners, casinos or other typical cruise trappings. The emphasis is on exploring the ports and beaches, kayaking and mountain biking, so there's not a lot of onboard monkey business for kids. However, there are some kid-specific distractions of the summer camp variety, such as knot-tying and building aquariums out of Jell-O. Plus, kids get a chance to help with the sailing . . . No strollers available . . . Free supervision from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., or until the last dinner seating is over. Afterward, babysitting is $10 an hour . . . Sodas are $1 each.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Children learn a kid-version of scuba diving, called "bubble maker," free. Older kids get to try real scuba.
GENERAL VIBE: Laid-back, relaxed, low-key -- yet adventuresome.
MORE INFO: 800-327-2601, www.windjammer.com.