What’s your ideal travel scenario? Mine consists of me and perhaps a friend or my significant other, donning our sunglasses and stepping out onto the crowded streets or exotic beaches or snow-dusted mountains of some far-off country. No worries. No reservations. Just pure adventure and discovery for the having. But what happens when the equation is slightly different? How does the scenario change when it becomes me and my entire immediate family?
Family vacations are practically mandatory in the American household. Whether it’s simply pitching a tent and going camping, or packing up the car for a cross-country road trip, we’ve all been there at some point or another. Our families have all felt the pressure to “bond” (i.e. fight) in some place that is not home. We’ve all rolled our eyes at Dad’s refusal to ask for directions when we’re lost. We’ve argued with a sibling over who was taking up too much room in the backseat. And we’ve probably all wondered why the hell we go on family vacations in the first place.
And don’t say you haven’t. I know you’re lying. Even the best of families sometimes don’t travel well together, and that’s okay. The key to a memorable family vacation (and one that’s memorable for the right reasons) is choosing one that satisfies all palettes. Impossible, you say? Well consider this:
How about a cruise vacation?
I know, I know, I say “cruise” and you picture either a bunch of snub-nosed rich people lounging around in their suites, getting spa treatments instead of checking out the port cities; or a bunch of rotund middle-class schmucks, sporting Hawaiian T-shirts and fanny packs and holding up the buffet line. Well, it’s true you’ll probably see these people on a cruise. But you can see a whole host of other people in between, too. In fact, your family can probably be some of these other people.
Back when my parents went on a cruise for their honeymoon in the 1980s, cruises weren’t for everybody. They were a formal affair where you got your hands slapped if you used the wrong utensil at dinner. Not so anymore. Cruising has become much more accessible over the past 30 years, and can be a great option for a family vacation.
It’s affordable. A cruise is obviously going to be more expensive than heading over to Uncle Buck’s cabin in the woods for a week, but the prices really aren’t terrible these days. Especially with the economy in a rut and airlines struggling, cruise lines, too, have had to lower their prices and offer deals. You can book a cruise for the whole family at a price comparable to a Disney vacation. Except, with a cruise, you won’t have to jostle with the stampede of parents and toddlers all hell-bent on shaking Mickey’s hand.
You have options. A whole fleet of cruise lines operate all over the world: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Celebrity, Princess, Holland America — just to name a few. While most of them offer cruises to wherever you could possibly want to go, each cruise line has its own personality, if you will. Carnival, for example, caters more to families, while Norwegian promotes its “Freestyle Cruising” that allows you to avoid typical cruise features such as set dining times and table assignments. Chances are, you can find a cruise line to satisfy your travel style.
It’s all-inclusive. The initial price of a cruise might seem a little steep. But consider what you’re getting: All your transportation, meals, accommodation, and most of your entertainment for the duration of your vacation. Aside from shelling out for shore excursions and the occasional glass of wine for Mom and Dad, you won’t need to worry about making any sort of arrangements beyond your initial booking. And, when it comes to family vacations, the less hassle, the better.
You’re well taken care of. A steward will come into your stateroom each afternoon to make your bed and clean up after you. The buffet will basically always be open. You’ll be served a 3-course meal each night for dinner. Guest services will be available to help you out 24/7. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? A far cry from swatting at mosquitoes by the lake after your tiki torches burn out.
There’s something for everybody. The on-board activities (everything from slot machines to ballroom dancing) cater to all sorts of different interests. And the ports of call offer up activities suitable for everyone, from shopping (for Mom) to mountain climbing (for Dad) and everything else in between. The key is choosing a variety of excursions to mix things up and satisfy as many people in your group as possible. A few small compromises can go a long way on any vacation, and this is no exception.
You’ll meet people. Unlike a family vacation where you spend the majority of your time wedged in between your sister and your suitcase in the backseat of a van, a cruise allows you to easily connect with other families from the comfort of, well, wherever you are. Whether it's at the dinner table or on a shore excursion, it’s easy to strike up conversation with fellow travelers, and meet some new and interesting people as a whole family.
There’s room and time for separation. The benefit of traveling on a gigantic floating hotel is that, while a cruise ship is big enough to not feel confining, it’s also small enough to allow for a bit of separation. The kids can go off with the youth staff, and Mom and Dad can have some time to themselves. If the kids are older, they can hang out at the pool or the bar on sea days, and meet up with the rest of the family for dinner. Because, at the end of the day, you are stuck on a big boat together; there are only so many places you can go. So take advantage of the opportunity, and embrace some non-togetherness time, too.
This isn’t to say, of course, that there won’t be any mishaps, or any fighting or bickering between family members on a cruise vacation. My family can argue with the best of them, and there were plenty of spats on our latest family cruise. But I think that just goes along with the family vacation territory. In the end, we all managed to have a good time and enjoy ourselves, even if it meant we weren’t constantly in each others’ company.
So go ahead. Plan your next vacation at sea. At least with a cruise, you don’t have to worry about Dad getting lost. Unless it’s on the way to his stateroom. But that’s his problem.