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6 Tips For Taking A Cruise With a Toddler

Like many parents with young kids we have become cruise-goers!

It’s one of the many things I thought I would never do–until I became a parent. Richard and I liked it much better than we thought we would, as evidenced by the great extent to which we prattled on about it to our friends afterward. And we liked that 2.5YO Tiny Traveler loved it.  We took the Norwegian Dawn from New York City to Bermuda. The Dawn has since been refurbished, but is still one of the fleet’s older ships and doesn’t have the bells and whistles that the newer ships offer.

Here are a few things we wish we knew before we left and could have done more to plan around.

6 Tips for Planning a Cruise With a Preschooler

Tip 1: Cruises are great for multi-generation vacations

Cruising is ideal for multi-generation vacations because there really is something for everyone and it’s easy to balance whole-family time with couple or alone time. I took yoga classes, my husband went to cooking demonstrations, TT loved the kiddie pools and colorful stage shows (she talked about them for about a year after the trip). My mother-in-law lounged by the pool and ate more than I’ve ever seen her eat in her life at the buffets while my father-in-law won the ship poker tournament and my husband’s aunt learned how to fold napkins and towels like animals. We could easily gather for meals or by the pool for some part of the day and do shore excursions together.

Tip 2: Avoid peak check-in time for boarding

having a window is a nice plus in a cruise ship cabinBeing able to board the ship in our home city was staggeringly convenient. It was nice to throw the bags in a taxi, drive to the terminal, hand my bag to a handler and have it show up in my room a few hours later. I realize that not everyone is lucky enough to live in a port city, but I always look first for what ships are leaving from NYC.

Since we did live in town, we got to the ship at the tail end of the three-hour check-in time.  My in-laws, who were there when we arrived, told us that 20 minutes earlier the line had been snaking all over the place. By the time we rolled up there was no line and we breezed through check-in.

Of course those checked in as soon as they could had already logged several hours of pool time when we were just rolling up the gangway.  But kids and lines don’t mix. So I always time it the same way if I can.

Tip 3: Entertaining toddlers can be hard

Giant chess can be fun on a cruise ship.Cruises seem especially good for teens and tweens because they can be independent without getting into much trouble.

It’s an option with younger kids who are Okay with spending at least some time away from you in the ship’s kid camp program (and if their parents are Ok with it, too). The groups of kids with the youth counselors always seemed to be having a good time.

But options for entertaining very young toddlers and preschoolers are on the ship are limited. So if your child is too young for the kids camp or won’t go,  then cruising can present some logistical challenges. Relaxing was way harder to do than on a beach vacation and we sometimes found ourselves wandering the ship, looking for something that would amuse all of us and pass the time. One of her favorite things was sitting in the window of our cabin; no one wants to spend their cruise vacation in their cabin, but we had to figure in window play time whenever we went back to the room to change.

towel critters are kid-pleasers are on cruise shipsNewer ships have a parent-and-kid crafts by the pool, a playroom parents can use with the pre-kids-club set or hours when part of the kids’ club space is open to parents and little kids.. Activities like mini golf, mini rope courses, bigger splash pads and good old shuffle board help– if your ship has them. Take a good look at the shows, place spaces and pools before you book.

The amazing staff made up for the small inconveniences. The waiters handled all my special toddler requests, procuring half-orders of pasta or off-menu plain chicken breast. They brought Tiny Travler’s dinner with our appetizers and ice cream with our meals. Several staffers went out of the way to say hello to her every day. She also delighted in small things like seeing what towel animal would greet us in our cabin after dinner each night.

Tip 4: Check out the pool before you book

plan to spend a lot of time near the kids' pools if you cruise with a toddlerOur biggest  frustration with the Norwegian Dawn was the layout of the swimming pools, which hasn’t changed with the ship’s update.

The adult pool was too deep even for adults to stand in and wasn’t suitable at all for a parent and non-swimming toddler. The kids’ wading pools were at the opposite end of the ship from the main pool and though they were on the same deck, you had to go up and down stairs to get from one to the other. The toddler pools had nothing to offer grown-ups. No hot tub, no real places to sit, no bar, no waiters, not even a water fountain. Technically we weren’t allowed in the wading pools. So we felt more than a little bit exiled to kiddie Siberia.

Had the kids pool been with the main pool, tag-team chaperoning between several adults would have been easy. Instead, my husband and I each spent  couple of hours at a time with our feet in a foot-deep wading pool tricked out with a purple dinosaur slide, hoping the other would rescue them soon, or at least bring them a daiquiri.

No ship will allow kids in swim diapers in the pool, but they will often allow them in the splash zones, so make sure your ship has one. And of course, make sure it’s near the main pool or that it at least has deck chairs and amenities nearby.

shore days can be exhausting for toddlers on a cruiseTip 5: Bring a stroller

We used our stroller far more than we thought we would. On  shore days Traveler fell asleep on the bus back to sleep every day, exhausted from her days at the beach. She often stayed napping in the stroller while we enjoyed a dockside beer, and we didn’t have to carry her across the large dockyard back to the ship.

Additionally, for reasons we couldn’t quite figure out, she didn’t like walking down the ship’s long narrow corridors, so we actually used the stroller quite a bit for getting around onboard, too. Needless to say an umbrella or other compact, easy-to-fold  stroller is your best bet for tight cruise spaces, public buses and so on.

Tip 6: Consider a single-destination cruise

We loved that our cruise ship went to one destination. Having three full days in Bermuda was fantastic, especially with a child too young to cram a lot of sightseeing into one day. We used Bermuda’s easy (if pricey) public transportation and free public beaches. We took buses, a ferry and a high-speed ferry—all much to Tiny Traveler’s delight—to far flung beaches and towns. We discovered a small, little used cove on the last day, where she splashed and looked for crabs and minnows while we took turns snorkeling. We also became regulars at the dockside Frog & Onion brewpub where happy hour coincided with our daily return from the beach.

the NCL Dawn in port

Despite the challenges we had, we liked this cruise enough to do it again three years later on the Norwegian Epic. We made much better use of the ship’s (newer) offerings with a 5YO than with a toddlers. Still, despite some small challenge, the easy booking, logistics and hands-on service make  a cruise is pretty good bet with little kids.

Read reviews and compare fares for cruise vacations Cruise Direct.

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A cruise vacation can be an easy option with small children, because of the high level of service and easy planning. But being a ship with a toddler or preschooler requires some additional consideration and planning that you don't need with older kids. Here's how we fared with a 2YO in the NCL Dawn and our 6 tips for a cruise with a toddler. #cruise #vacation #toddler #tips


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  1. Lisa Rusczyk
    December 2, 2013 at 7:23 pm — Reply

    We went to bermuda with a 10 month old. A trip we will never forgot. The hardest part is she did not sleep at night.

    • December 2, 2013 at 10:28 pm — Reply

      Sleeping away from home gets easier as they get older. But the more travel when they are little the more flexible they become. So good for you!

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