Gather your crew. Going to sea is a great family vacation: daily options for activity or sloth, well-designed kids' programs, onboard freedom, plus the opportunity to cover a lot of territory without having to schlep bags. Want to get sandy on Martinique or play Ahab along the Inside Passage?The cruise industry is expecting you. The hands-down most popular family routes are those that tour the Caribbean and Alaska. Here, 18 top lines to consider. Prices are not included because each company offers a range of itineraries, and fares are extremely season-sensitive. Ready?Set?Sail!
The Big Ships
This year a whopping 300,000 children will sail aboard the line's 15 "Fun Ships," which stick to ports in the Americas, such as Mexico and Hawaii. The Camp Carnival program for 2- to 15-year-olds has sunrise-to-sunset spin art, mini-basketball, even climbing walls. Groups can stay in 230-square-foot interconnecting staterooms, ideal for up to five passengers each. Nightly thrill: Kids' turndown service comes with freshly baked cookies. 800/227-6482; www.carnival.com.
As the line's two 940-passenger ships tour the Amazon or the Baltic Sea, for example, the youngest passengers (ages 3 to 17) take "stretchercize" classes and learn how to make pizza. Warning: The kid's camp operates only on trips with lots of kids onboard. The Harmony and the Symphony, however, each have a playroom. Most popular family route: Twelve days, six stops, in Canada and Alaska during July and August. 800/446-6620; www.crystalcruises.com.
On Celebrity's six ships, which pass through the Panama Canal, among other places, 3- to 17-year-olds are enlisted to produce, direct, and perform plays. The children's program also provides a behind-the-scenes look at the ship, and a chance to win a medal in the Pool Olympics. Safe sailing: Celebrity issues ID wristbands (with cabin numbers) for kids, and ID cards that adults must flash during camp pickups. 800/437-3111; www.celebritycruises.com.
The QE2 sails around Europe and Africa, makes transatlantic crossings, and offers an annual 100-day world cruise. Along the way its year-round children's enticements include DJ parties and teatime (an early dinner to free up Mom and Dad for a meal alone). Most fun: The two family-themed Atlantic crossings in summer come with the biggest splashes, such as appearances by London Festival Players or Sesame Street personality Bob McGrath. 800/728-6273; www.cunardline.com.
HOLLAND AMERICA LINE
Club HAL karaoke and dance parties await cruisers five and up on the line's 11 ships. Port report: A "Wild-Ride Street Car Tour" in Skagway and rafting in Juneau are two of the Just for Kids Alaska shore excursions. 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com.
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE
As NCL's eight ships cover the world (Bermuda, the South Pacific), kids take in magic shows and playact in a version of The Newlywed Game. Launching this fall: The Norwegian Sun and the Mirta, both with a high crew-to-guest ratio and relaxed dining rules. 800/262-4625; www.ncl.com.
The original Love Boat teaches cruisers to care for our oceans and wildlife with hands-on encounters, especially on the Alaskan route. Another enticing trip goes from Athens to Istanbul. Kids only: There's a whale's-tail water slide and a teen hot tub. 800/774-6237; www.princesscruises.com.
On 14 ships—the largest holding 3,114 passengers—the Adventure Ocean program lures even teens (Tae Bo classes!). Family favorite: The seven-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Voyager of the Seas or Explorer of the Seas, each with ice-skating rink, climbing wall, and full basketball court. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com.