The first time I took my son, Javier, on a cruise, it was just the two of us traveling. We sailed from Port Canaveral, Florida, on Disney Cruise Line for a quick, three-night getaway to the Caribbean. He was hooked from the moment we stepped onto the ship and our names were announced in grand, Disney style. “Disney Cruise Line welcomes the Connery family!” said a crew member clutching a “magical” megaphone.
Cue the applause from the other crew members lined up to greet us and the previous families who were still standing around. At 7-years-old, Javier felt like a king — and I’d be lying if I said the look on his face didn’t make me tear up. You can’t help but feel good when you’re welcomed like that. It made the start of an awesome bonding trip special and set the tone for the rest of our vacation.
Whether you’re looking for a grand entrance or just plain good fun, cruises are ideal family vacations because they offer plenty of bang for your buck. For that reason, my family took its share of cruise vacations when I was growing up (we lived in Miami, so a cruise was fitting). Once I had Javier, I was all too happy to share the experience of cruising with him. Since prices usually include overnight accommodations, meals, and tons of family-friendly entertainment and activities, cruises are sort of the original all-inclusive vacation.
Since that first Disney cruise, we’ve been on several others, and in my experience, it pays to board the ship armed with a few mom-tested travel hacks that can help you make the most of your cruise. Whether you’re about to take your first cruise or you’re a sailing pro, following are cruise hacks that’ll make traveling with kids more fun and less stressful:
1. Pack a carry-on bag with everything your family might need on embarkation day. Depending on when you first board a ship, it will be a few hours until your luggage is delivered to your stateroom. Having essentials on hand, such as swimsuits, sunscreen, and a change of clothes, means you can start enjoying the pool and other activities onboard right away.
2. Choose a cabin on a high deck near the aft (the back of the ship). “Most of the family-friendly activities, such as the pool and sports decks, the kids’ club and the buffets, are found here on the majority of cruise lines, making it easy to access them without dealing with crowds and long elevator lines,” says family travel expert Wendy Perrin.
3. Create an extra drawer or makeshift toy box by sliding an open suitcase under the bed. Cruise cabins are famous for their tight quarters and minimal storage, but this is an easy way to boost your storage space and keep clutter under control.
4. Avoid crowds by doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Between 6 and 7 pm, for instance, when most passengers are prepping for dinner or already dining, the sports decks, pools, hot tubs, and gyms tend to clear out. The buffet also tends to be busy between 8 and 9 a.m. and 12 and 1:30 p.m. — all ideal times to check out poolside activities and shows.
5. Pack your kids’ outfits in large freezer bags, then write their name and any special notes about when to wear it on the front. Some cruise itineraries require special dress code for certain days, so this easy hack will help you save time in the morning. The bags are also great for repacking dirty laundry. Toss extras into your bag for stashing wet swimsuits and shoes if your kids suddenly have to change or have an accident.
6. Use Post-it notes to help keep tabs on your family’s whereabouts, and coordinate meeting times. Since most people switch their phones to airplane mode to avoid roaming charges on cruise ships, good ol’ Post-it notes are great to have on hand for easy communication, says Perrin. “Place them on your cabin door or inside on a mirror or closet,” she adds.
7. If you have little kids, bring an umbrella stroller or carrier. Cruise ships are often crowded, making it hard to get around with a stroller. If your child is too young to walk (or too young to walk much), bring a carrier or a lightweight umbrella stroller that folds down easily and can be hidden away under the bed when not in use, freeing up space in your cabin.
8. Pack cheap lanyards for kids to use to keep their stateroom cards with them. All passengers— including children — receive a card that allows them to open their stateroom, make purchases, and both embark and disembark from the ship. This handy hack will help make sure kids don’t lose their cards. The attendant at the purser’s desk can punch a hole in the card once you’re onboard, so kids can wear it around their neck.
9. Arrange entertainment for your kids during dinner. Disney Cruise Line’s Dine and Play plan offers youth activities for kids (ages 3 to 12) during the second dinner seating. Just tell your server when you arrive that you want to participate in the program and your kids will be served at an expedited pace. About 45 minutes into the meal, counselors “magically” appear to escort your kids to their respective activities, freeing you to enjoy your meal at a more leisurely pace, take a stroll around the ship, and enjoy some of the nightly entertainment.
10. Reserve a room with a balcony. It may sound like a splurge to reserve a cabin with a balcony, but if you have kids who nap or have early bedtimes, it will be a godsend. You can curl up with a book or a glass of wine and enjoy the fresh air instead of staring at your child while she snoozes in a darkened cabin.
11. Bring glow sticks for a fun kind of nightlight. If you opt for an inside cabin, plan for total black when the lights are out. Glow sticks double as nightlights, and kids usually love them. Toss a pack in your luggage, and you’ll be all set come bedtime.
12. Have baby supplies delivered to your cabin. Save suitcase space by shipping baby essentials, such as formula powder and nursing supplies, to the Disney Cruise Lines warehouse up to two weeks ahead of time; Disney will deliver it to your cabin on embarkation day. If you’ll need a crib, request it when making your cruise reservations. Additionally, Traveling Baby delivers baby gear to major cruise line terminals for as little as $6 per day. Having everything from folding play yards to diaper essentials delivered to your stateroom will minimize both your load and stress level, while ensuring you’ll have everything you need once onboard the ship.