How to Plan for your First Family Cruise

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Our family just got home from our first ever cruise! I thought that along side my sharing all sorts of fun pictures, I’d also show how to plan for your first {family} cruise, because I feel I went into it fairly blind. I put family in parenthesis because some of these tips are for first time cruisers alone without kids, and some tips are for families with kids.  I’ll also share a little printable packing list at the bottom that you can save for later.

How-to-plan-for-your-first-family-cruise1

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{My youngest has a sad face here because I said she had to have dinner before ice cream. She wasn’t happy with me for that! I made the arrow shirts using my Silhouette Cameo machine to cut vinyl, use it as a sticky stencil and painted. For the girls I added a layer of blue glitter and fabric mod podge to hold it in.}

Let me just say that a cruise has never been on my radar, it just never interested me. Maybe because I saw so many people going and loving it, I wanted to be different and not go just because. I’m weird like that. I also associated it with older retired couples, or often I heard of people going on cruises for their honeymoon.  My husband and I have done quite a few trips together just the two of us, such as Alaska a year and a half ago, to France (here, here, and here), Vermont in the fall, and a few other fun places. He and I actually view vacations very differently. I like to go-go-go, while he likes to stay in one spot.

Last year, when my sweet grandmother passed away, each grandchild was gifted a little inheritance money. Right away, I knew what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to take my family on a fabulous trip, something that we might not otherwise do. But where, I didn’t know. Around the same time, a local friend of mine just got back from taking her family (with 5 kids) on a cruise. She is similar to me with our thrifty spending, and upon inquiring all the details, I decided it might be something I’d enjoy after all. My husband would get what he wanted=relaxing in one spot, and I’d get what I want=adventure.  This friend told me that Roaton, Honduras was their most favorite spot, and that really sparked something in me…Honduras? Who goes THERE?  It had never occurred to me to vacation there, but all of a sudden, it sounded like such a mystical place. With so much going on last year, I didn’t take the time to research a spot to go with my family, sometimes I think it’d be nice to just have someone decide for you!  The cruise that my friend mentioned just kept coming back to me. In November, I booked the 7 day trip, and kept mum until Christmas morning when we surprised the kids with a cruise scavenger hunt! I had to make sure it was also gifted from my grandma, wanting them to appreciate it more.

The 3 big kids cheered as we discussed the details, the littlest one wasn’t sure she wanted to be on a big boat. Once I was booked, I started asking lots and lots of questions to friends in real life and on Facebook. I found that I appear to have been in the minority having never cruised before. It’s pretty commonplace as a vacation!

We traveled from Houston to (click o the country to read about our visit in each spot):

Click on each city link to see the post and highlight of our day in those spots.

Now, here are some tips, observations, what I wish I would have known, etc. that I learned and hopefully it can help some of you out there, if you plan to go on a family cruise.

Booking the cruise trip–There are many ways to book the trip. We went with a travel agent b/c I really did want someone else to do it for me, and the gal we used had a good amount of experience. I told her out budget, and she found us what we needed. You can also go directly to the cruise line and book it yourself. There are also third parties such as Travelocity, and others that will offer you a credit sometimes, too. I might have been able to find a better deal if I spend time on those sites, but I just wanted it done. I didn’t know my travel agent charged me $25 a person until after we were booked. It’s my fault, I didn’t ask, but it seems she could have mentioned it? In the end, she did work for me that I didn’t want to do so she earned it. But I also wish she would have guided me in a different cruise line, knowing we were traveling with kids.

Cruise Vacation

All ships are not created equally–This is where I got frustrated that our travel agent didn’t mention that each boat is different with their amenities. All of them have a few standards, but they vary in quality. Our boat had a few pools, but none of them had even a slide or diving board or anything that kids might enjoy. I’d heard after that my friend traveled on a different cruise line, and they had an ice skating rink, rock wall, mini putt putt golf, and surfing on her ship and we had none of that. It was  something I had to just set aside and not let it bother me, though it did make me quite sad that I didn’t realize that. Luckily, my kids didn’t know about all of that, and they had a BLAST just with the experience. But some ships do cater more to that than others.

cruise stateroom

Where to cruise? Since we live just a few hours from the Houston Port, it was a no-brainer for me to book something out of Houston, as opposed to flying first to Florida, California, or even drive 6 hours to New Orleans to hop on a boat. Didn’t want to do plane tickets for 6 in addition to the cruise expense. Since I was already fixated on Honduras, I planned around that. Houston had a 3-4 day cruise (which time wise would have been my ideal) but it only went to one port and came back.  So we booked the 7 day trip, that included the 3 ports.

sunset and sunrise on the ocean

Excursions-Ahh, now this was quite the hidden expense. I knew that we’d have all we could eat food, and that in and of itself was pretty exciting. But each day we stopped to get off of the boat, we had to figure out what we would do those days, how we’d get there, do we pay double and go on the ships excursion or find an excursion on our own via a middle man or just risk it and grab a taxi and explore with them. I was plagued with stress over these excursions because just a week before we left, I hadn’t yet decided what we’d do. If it was just my husband and I, I would have gone the cheaper/riskier route, but with our 4 kids in tow, I wanted to make sure all went smoothly. I booked 2 of our excursions from Shoretrips.com. The 3rd, I took my friend recommendation and booked something that wasn’t on shore trips or our cruise liner.  Some excursions have varying prices, and my friend told me to plan on about $100 per person per excursion, OUCH! Our 3 excursions combined came close to the price of our ship tickets, so all of that added up more than I would have liked. Some of the cruise prices were $200 per person!  Some were as little as $50 per person, but it really didn’t offer much more than taking you to a spot you could grab on your own with a $10 taxi. The cruise lines like to overly emphasize that if you do not to an excursions with the group and you are late to get back on the boat, the boat will leave you. If you are late with the boat’s excursion, you will be waited for. I felt risky, but after all was said and done, the locals running all of the excursions know how important it is for you to be back to your boat by a certain time, and they make sure it happens. Their jobs are on the line, too. Friends of ours on the boat hired a taxi to drive 4 of them around for the day and paid him $50 for the day for all of them. I think I’ll do THAT next time!

cruise trip drill with life vest

{first day, practicing our emergency drill}

Food on the ship–There were many food options on the ship which was really, really nice with children who don’t like a lot of things.  There was also a pizza place open and hamburger and fries place open. That helped when kids didn’t love the buffet main coarse. We ate a lot at the buffet which had many options, lots of fruits, breads, etc. There is also the more formal dining, restaurant style. There is “anytime” dining or “set” dining. We opted for Anytime dining b/c I didn’t want to be pinned down to eat dinner at the same time each night. It also required a lot of waiting, which my kids get restless in that scene. We were fine with the buffet all week, until our new friends told us we HAD to try it out, and it really was a pleasant experience. On the 2 formal nights, we were supposed to dress up (people ranging from a tux and sequin gown to a church dress/slacks). We hadn’t planned on going to the formal night, but we ended up going with our new friends and scrounged around for something a bit fancier than a t-shirt for my husband. Room service was included, and on the days were were rushing out, we wrote on a paper the night before saying what we’d like and what time to deliver it. The kids LOVED the all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream cones, and they got up to 5 cones in one day. I gave my calories to the buttery croissants and the croissant doughnut and berry pies. Another hidden cost is soda’s. They are not all you can eat, you have to purchase a soda card (which also includes virgin daiquiris). Though we don’t drink soda that much, it also covered malted shakes and those fruity frozen drinks, so I purchase a drink ticket for the week for $50, and I’d get one and share sips with my family. I felt it was ok to do that because most people were getting up to 10 a day, and we got one or two a day.

food on cruise ship

food on cruise ships

Staterooms-Having heard from friends in the past that they got claustrophobic when they were in a room on the interior of the ship without windows, I decided I needed a balcony. They rooms do cost more, and I loved having the natural light in there, but if I were trying to save money in the future, I may not do that. The suites that would hold all 6 of us were quite expensive, so we got the room with the balcony/double bed and across the hall was 4 single beds. Our kids loved the bunk beds and freedom to watch cartoons when we were resting, and I loved them right across the hall while I watched a “mommy show.” There were only about 10 channels on the room TV’s, but always a cartoon movie for kids, and always a chick flick for me. We mostly did this in the evening when we were winding down. We were also in the middle of the boat both directions, so I think it helped us not get sea sick.

stateroom on cruise ship

Medicine–Speaking of sea sick. My husband was concerned right from that start that he might be affected by the motion. Many told us about the patch that goes behind the ear, which we also found is a prescription. We just called into our doctor to ask them to call in the prescription, so that was nice. I figured I might as well get one just in case. They each last 72 hours, so we got 4 and it costed us $67 which was more that I thought it should be, but I also didn’t want to end up being sick the whole time or paying double that amount on the ship. WE also brought Dramamine and the wristbands. In our first aid kit, we brought Pepto Bismol, headache medicine, neosporin, aloe vera, sunscreen band aids, etc .  Of course the day my youngest trips and scrapes her knee was on an excursion and we had left the neopsporin and band aids behind. However nice people in our excursion offered up theirs, which was so nice.

family cruise

{anxiously waiting to board the ship}

Meeting People-We planned this to be a really fun family trip, and I wasn’t really intending to mingle much with other passengers. My husband was shocked to hear me say that, and even I was surprised that I felt this way b/c I LOVE meeting new people! This trip was about my family, creating memories, and bonding with each other.  I wanted to focus on THEM. We were quite the anomaly walking around the ship with 4 kids in tow. First of all because people seem to think that 4 kids is a LOT anywhere we go, but mainly because it’s January, most kids are in school, and 85% of the passengers on the ship were retired. Every time we got in an elevator or walked down the halls, we got smiles, and sweet comments on our cute kids, how well they were behaving, etc. It was nice to hear, and nice that others noticed. They are good kids. Most people on the ship were simply happy-go-lucky, and had cruised many many times. It got to the point where I’d ask how many cruises they’d been on, and I liked to hear which ones they loved the best. I think the highest number that I met was 31 cruises, and that went to the sweet lady that gave my daughter a band aid. Because kids were so sparse, I found myself drawn to conversation with those that brought kids along. I met quite a few from UTAH, and since I have roots there and went to college there, that often came up and found those were also members of my Mormon faith. We also sported some BYU clothing on a few of the days. One gal in particular I got to know is from Provo. I saw her little family on the first day and without even talking to her, I thought to myself, “I bet they are Mormon.” There are a few tell tale signs that I notice with those that share my faith. Sometimes I’m wrong, but usually I’m not. When we first chatted, I asked where she was from, she said Provo, UT. “Uh, huh”, I thought. When I told her I went to BYU, she then said, “Are you Mormon?” When we realized we both were, it was an instant kinship. I saw she was expecting and had 2 girls with them. Turns out they brought their 2 oldest, left 2 at home with family, so she is expecting #5. Since Mon-Wed was so crazy with excursions, it wasn’t until Thursday morning that we hung out more, as her girls and my girls played in the pool together for hours. At that point, I was really grateful for another family to chat with because we had two full days at sea, and I wasn’t sure how I’d handle that. We spent quite a bit of time with them on Thursday and Friday. Hopefully we’ll get to meet up on our next trip to Utah!  I also ran into a lady that I knew from Austin, Andrea. It had been quite a few years since we’d seen each other, but fun to see someone I knew!

Family Cruise tips

{Our boat had “Movies under the stars” a few times a day, by the pool, on chairs we watched with the blankets they provided. Above, our new friends from Provo, and exploring the boat}

Activities on Board-One of my biggest worries was What on Earth would we be doing on the ship with all that time??  I just didn’t know what to expect, and they things I heard from past cruise travelers, I didn’t know that all of my kids would enjoy certain events such as dancing, and I wonder what was “family friendly”. Each night, we’d get the next days agenda all typed up so we could plan what we wanted to do, I really liked that. I’m a planner. It ended up being just great, there was a paper airplane throwing contest, an egg drop contest, fruit carving demonstrations, jazz bands playing, ping pong tournament, basketball and golf games with prizes, a comedian, and many other musical activities. It was fun to introduce our kids to the jazz playing, and even requesting a song from the piano man who had a voice like Michael Buble. I requested, “Blessed the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts, which sounded fabulous, and my #2 son requested Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” There was a “kids zone” that we could drop the kids off to do video games or whatever, but I wasn’t too interested in having them go there since I wanted our family bonding time. I was glad they didn’t see a need to go, either.

playing games on cruise ship

{we took home a handful of medals for golf and basketball. Even I got a medal! There were just 3 people competing, so I got the last one even though I only made ONE free throw!}

basketball free throws

My determination in this pic cracks me up…my face!

fruit carvings

{We were all pretty impressed with the fruit carvings. Two men, 15 minutes, 3 carvings each}

What camera to bring?–This is a tough one for me to answer. I actually used my SLR, phone camera, and an underwater point and shoot throughout the week. I had an underwater camera years ago, and it was fun, I wanted to get another since I knew there would be spots I couldn’t take the others very easily. I got a Kodak Easy Share sport camera (in yellow), it can do video and stills underwater. I also got a foam floating wrist strap (in turquoise), and a simple case. It’s hard to get a good focus underwater, so those images weren’t highlights. I’ll share some of them in the next few days. I brought my phone with me on the ship to take pictures (had it on airplane mode all week with no calls, texts, or internet), but I also lugged around my slr with my 35mm lens that is my favorite travel lens, along with my 70-200mm lens that I brought along for long distance shots. I knew it would be cumbersome to lug that around, but I also knew it’d give me beautiful pictures, so it was worth the sacrifice. 

Cruising with Kids

cruise tips

{Fun family pictures in the elevator, on our balcony overlooking the water, and playing games on the rainy day at sea with our new friends. Also our steward, Christian from the Phillippines was so great to chat with, and inquired about Mormons, so I have him a copy of the Book of Mormon that we brought with us. He works on the cruise ship for 10 months straight with only 2 months off, and has done that for 8 years, sending money to his wife and kids back at home. Kinda broke my heart. Grateful for my blessings.}

Documents/Papers–All of these items on the list below may not be necessary, and some are common sense, but I figured I’d cover all my bases just in case!  My passport was outdated, and I didn’t want to do the rush on it. So I had to show my license and official birth certificate for me, all official birth certificates for my kids, but my husband had an updated passport and that’s all he needed. Someone told me I’d need my marriage license b/c my name is different from birth certificate to license, but I never had to show it.  (click on image below for pdf). We got travelers insurance, so kept those documents close by. I also printed off all details about each excursion and put them in their own envelope in my backpack that also held my camera and wallet and stayed by me at all times.

Here is a little printable I made for those that think you’ll cruise someday, a cruise packing list!

 

Cruise Packing List 2

We really had SOOO much fun, my kids are asking when we can go back. Now that I know more,  I may just look for something in the future.  Every time I mentioned to someone that we were taking our family on a cruise, pretty much everyone assumed and asked if it was Disney. There really is so much more than Disney out there! We went to Disney World last March, and I didn’t feel we needed to go that route again. I wanted something different, and this adventure was just that!

on top of the cruise ship

If you’ve cruised before, I want to hear about it! What did  you love/dislike about your cruise? What ports did you go to? What did you do there? I’ll tell you all about our excursions in the next few days!