My daughter was only six weeks old when she traveled with mom and dad on our first family vacation — to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Only a few months later, at the tender age of five months, she crossed the Atlantic with dad (a travel writer) and mom to cruise to the Canary Islands on Cunard Line‘s – Queen Elizabeth 2. Lucky girl, right? Wrong. Both experiences were miserable.
Our six-week old was much too young to comprehend or appreciate Disney. Plus, she developed colic — a painful, but common, condition among infants that causes abdominal pain and uncontrollable crying (sometimes for the frustrated parents as well!).
My wife and I took turns dining at Restaurant Marrakesh, Epcot’s wonderful Moroccan restaurant. We were hoping for a romantic dinner while our sweet girl slept tableside. No such luck. Our baby girl began wailing before the appetizers appeared, and for the next hour, my wife and I swapped between bites to eat and trying to comfort our crying daughter. A romantic dinner? What were we thinking?
Months later, crossing the Atlantic, our baby slept for the entire flight. Unfortunately, we did not.
We arrived at London’s Gatwick Airport sleepy and tired. Dazed and confused from lack of sleep, we picked up our rental car and drove two hours to the New Forest, near Southampton, where we were to stay overnight in a beautiful hotel. We checked into our room and threw ourselves onto the bed. Baby, however, wanted to play. For the next week, our biological clock was out of sync with daughter’s and what could have been a wonderful trip went down in the books as “never again.”
There is a happy ending to these stories. Our children grew up, and when I wrote this story, we were planning our next family vacation: a four-day cruise on Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder combined with a three-night package at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. That one went down as a great vacation. Through the years, we became experts — by making the mistakes of trying to do too much or to do vacations that were inappropriate for our kids’ ages. We dragged our kids from one vacation to the other only to discover what makes a great family vacation –and also what makes a not-so-great one.
My kids on Disney Wonder, with a Carnival Cruise Lines vessel in the background.
Who’s Your Family?
It may seem obvious, but the first step in planning your family vacation is to know who will be traveling with you?
Are you traveling with an infant, or god forbid, infants? If you can still muster the courage after reading about our nightmare vacation with our daughter, then go right ahead. And take some solace: There are vacations that work with infants. The key is to make sure you don’t travel too far. When vacationing with infants and toddlers:
- Stay close to home — no more than, say, a six-hour transit, whether you’re flying or driving.
- Consider vacation venues that offer babysitting or child-watch programs.
- Not all cater to children, and of those that do, not all cater to infants and toddlers. Let’s face it, you and your significant other need a break from baby, and there’s nothing better than being able to get away for a romantic dinner or a hand-in-hand stroll along the beach while knowing your baby is in good hands.
If you’re traveling with children over the age of three, the playing field becomes a lot larger, because so many vacation venues offer supervised programs for kids. In fact, the programs are so good that you may suffer your first disappointment: Your kids may want nothing to do with you — they’ll want to hang out and play with their peers.
My wife and I quickly got over the initial disappointment of our kids not wanting to clutch at our clothing for the duration of our vacations.
As they grew older, our kids played to their hearts’s content while we relaxed, and everyone got what they came for: a vacation. The trick to the foolproof vacation with children over the age of three:
- Consider vacation venues that offer age-specific programs and activities. Your kids will have more fun hanging out and playing with their peers than they will gnawing at your nerves.
- Make sure your vacation venue has a pool. Any vacation that allows your children to splish and splash is a good vacation.
Traveling With Teens
Teens can be the hardest group to please, I can say from the experience of having once been a teen that they will want nothing to do with dull old dad and mopey old mom. We’re just not hip. How to please them?
- Consider vacations that offer teen-specific venues. Several cruise lines, for example, now feature teen-only bars (for mocktails, of course) and coffee shops.
- Book separate accommodations for your teen. Remember, we’re not hip enough to breathe the same air as our teens much less room with them. Plus, they often spend scads of time in the bathroom, mostly in front of the mirror. If you have need of this facility on your vacation, get a separate room.
There’s one other kind of family vacation: the extended family vacation. This is when grandmother and grandfather –and even aunts and uncles and cousins — come along.
On extended family cruises you can sit down for dinner with your family of six, eight, or a dozen or more, and no one has to worry about who is picking up the check. Go ahead and have that extra plate of lobster. Extended family vacations can be great, but to make sure they go off without a hitch:
- Consider vacation venues that offer something for everyone. The kids may be bored to tears on small luxury ships.
- Don’t try to pile everyone into one room. Sure, you could save money if eight of you were to share an inside stateroom on a cruise ship, but the point of family reunions is to emerge feeling better about one another — not learning more than you care to know about the hygiene habits of family members.
So now that you know who you’re traveling with, how do you choose the venue? Cruises are great, because cruise ships are self-contained, floating, nearly all-inclusive resorts. Nearly all-inclusive, because most cruise lines do not include the cost of alcohol, shore excursions, and gratuities. What generally is included, however, are children’s programs, all meals, and entertainment.
That is to say that typically you won’t pay a dime extra for your child to participate in the on-board children’s programs. Most cruise lines, however, do charge for baby-sitting, whether it’s in your stateroom or group-babysitting.
Happy Endings For Everyone
My children are now 14 and 15, and I have had some of the best trips of my life with them. I traveled to Alaska with my son, Alex (‘Awesome’ Alaska: The Great Land Through The Eyes Of A Kid), and my daughter Britton and I cruised the Mekong (Cruising The Mekong). I took both of them on Allure of the Seas over Thanksgiving.
Traveling with family, while sometimes challenging, can be exceptionally rewarding. So get out there and enjoy all that this world has to offer – on a cruise, with your family.
Editor (and father), Family Cruise Advisor