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.
The Specialty Lines
THE BOAT CO.
This nonprofit outfit runs two converted wooden Navy minesweepers (one holds 12 people, the other 20) and an aluminum replica (capacity: 24) among the islands of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the world's largest intact temperate rain forest. Trips span six to nine days, and families are welcome to take over whole boats. Flexibility factor: Itineraries are planned daily, based on the group's consensus. 206/624-4242; www.theboatcompany.com.
DISNEY CRUISE LINES
Two 2,400-passenger ships tour the Caribbean for three, four, or seven nights. All routes include a stop at a Disney-owned island in the Bahamas with a beach for kids (a simulated archaeological dig nearby is salted with fossils), one for teens, and one for adults seeking massages in ocean-facing cabanas. Most popular package: The 7-Night Land & Sea combination, with three or four nights at Disney World, three or four nights on the cruise—and only one check-in. 888/325-2500; www.disneycruise.com.
Of the company's adventure-oriented roster, trips to the Galápagos, Alaska, and the Scandinavian coastline have the most multi-generational appeal. Onboard and onshore commentators explain mysteries such as the giant tortoise's longevity. The ships hold up to 110 people and can be chartered; www.expeditions.com.
WORLD EXPLORER CRUISES
From May through August, the company's 731-passenger ship tours Alaska, and in December and January, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. The laid-back Youth Activities Center takes kids to observe a Northwest Indian woodcarver and visit an eagle refuge. Most popular family outing: The Alaska cruise's sailing tour of Glacier Bay, an 80-mile-deep fjord that's home to whales and sea otters. 800/854-3835; www.wecruise.com.
Posh and, on Occasion, Kid Friendly
If you want to go first-class, here are the lines that'll float your boat. Though decidedly grown-up in their offerings, several have summer and holiday cruises with frills for families.
Radisson Seven Seas
Its newest all-suite, all-balcony ship, the Seven Seas Mariner, introduces Club Mariner, a kid's program focusing on Alaska's wildlife and heritage: whales, totem poles, and glaciers! 800/285-1835; www.rssc.com.
Ten luxury ships follow exotic routes: a seven-day voyage around the Tahitian Islands; Athens to Singapore in 30 days. Starting in December, the gangways open for the first time to kids under 18. 877/549-1124; www.renaissancecruises.com.
Among the crew on the Seabourn Sun's winter holiday voyage are kids' counselors and a Jule Nissen (hey Santa, that's you in Norwegian), who lead carol- singing, hand out presents, and serve Shirley Temples at "mocktail" parties. 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com.
On four yachtlike ships, Silversea dishes out premium services—from suites with roomy verandas to French-accented meals served on Frette linens to onboard driving ranges. Sample routes: Cape Town to Zanzibar and Mombasa (15 days); the New England and Canadian coastline (11 days). Families are welcome, if not specifically catered to. 800/774-9996; www.silversea.com.
Specializing in eastern Mediterranean and South American routes—a week in the Greek Islands; Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize in 11 days—Royal Olympic has family cabins (a standard cabin linked to another cabin) on its newest ships, the Voyager and the Explorer. 800/872-6400; www.royalolympiccruises.com.
Before you hit the seas, surf these sites: www.cruising.org, the cruise industry's official site; www.a1supercruises.com, www.expedia.com, and www.icruise.com for deals and discounts; and www.cruisemates.com for tips, opinions, and planning info.
The Hidden Costs of Cruising
Before you spend the money you thought you saved on a stellar cruise deal, factor in these standard, but often surprise, expenses:
Beverages: All-inclusive rates generally leave out liquor and soft drinks. Carnival and Celebrity offer an all-you-can-drink soda card for kids ($9$19.95, and $4.50 per day, respectively). There's a 15 percent tip included in the tab, whether it's for a single soda or a six-pack of beer.
Phone Calls and Faxes: Hold that thoughtdialing within the States costs $5.95 to $9.50 per minute.
E-mail: The way to stay in touchif you must. Most ships charge about 75 cents a minute for Internet access, plus fees for messages sent. A Royal Caribbean digital postcard goes for $4.95; a video e-mail from one of Norwegian's cyber cafés is $9.95.
Shore Outings: Pick your price, from Disney's $12 banana-boat ride to Radisson Seven Seas' $350 per person two-hour combination glacier panorama (by helicopter) and dog-sled Adventure in Juno, Alaska.
Spa Treatments: An 80-minute, $280 massage performed by two massage therapists?It's an option on Norwegian. Of course you could just stick with a $15 no-frills nail polish change.
Other Extras: Medical services, gambling, ice skating, baby-sitting (about $6 per hour), onboard family portrait ($5$19.95), souvenir We Be Jammin' T-shirt.
Gratuities: You're rarely left to do the mathmany cruise lines print tipping guidelines and even supply envelopes. The standard rate is $3.50 per person/per day for both the room steward and dining room waiter, and $1.50 for the busboy. Some ships factor gratuities into the bill (Carnival tacks on $9.75 per person, per day); others, such as Holland America, have a tipping-not-required policybut just try to get off scot- and guilt-free.