U.S. Virgin Islands
U.S. Virgin Islands
March/April 2016

Family Friendly Cruising in the Caribbean

Advice on amenities, the best times to go, and ways to save

BYBeverly Burmeier
Caribbean cruises treat families to crystal-clear waters, pristine beaches, water sports, zip-lining, duty-free shopping, and nonstop entertainment for all ages.
 
If there’s a problem with the overabundance of options, it’s decision fatigue — from choosing a region to selecting amenities, the cruise planning process can be overwhelming, particularly when making arrangements for a large group. Following are some considerations to help you choose a destination, get the most from your vacation budget, and plan a cruise the whole family will enjoy.
 
Picking a Port
Cruise lines often divide the Caribbean into three regions: Western, Southern, and Eastern. The Western Caribbean offers travelers opportunities to see Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatan coast, snorkel in the barrier reef off the coast of Belize, lounge on Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach, or explore the interior jungle in Roatan, Honduras.
 
Islands in the Eastern Caribbean are close to the United States (the Bahama Islands are only 50 miles away), so embarking from Florida means less time sailing and more time in ports. St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Nassau in the Bahamas feel both foreign and familiar at the same time. Activities include snorkeling, diving, swimming with dolphins, or exploring underwater on a submarine. Visit the island that is split between two countries and encompasses both cultures: Sint Maarten is the Dutch side and St. Martin is French. On this island, get your thrills by taking part in America’s Cup yacht racing, where even guests who have never sailed can serve as crew in a race between two high-performance boats.
 
Ready for a longer, more exotic journey? Cruises to the Southern Caribbean last up to 20 days and travel to landscapes brimming with natural beauty. Relax in Dominica’s hot springs, or explore the reefs of Bonaire, a world-class diving and snorkeling destination. On Barbados, snorkel with wild sea turtles, or take a guided 4x4 safari to view seaside rock formations and the spectacularly rugged coastline.
 
While Western Caribbean cruises allow Arizona residents to sail from closer ports like Houston, Galveston, and New Orleans, flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale sometimes offers travelers a broader selection of sailings and more airline choices. If you are traveling from the West Coast to catch a sailing from a Florida port, consider flying in a day early and staying at a hotel to avoid missing your cruise due to flight delays.
 
Cruising With Multiple Generations
Ships are increasingly catering to the growing market of family and multigenerational travel with a plethora of onboard activities. Options include casinos, trivia games, and art auctions for the less physically active, as well as dance classes, sports competitions, and exercise facilities for those who crave action. Looking for pure relaxation? Lounge by the pool, indulge in a spa treatment, or bask in the serenity of the ocean from your balcony. 
 
Caribbean cruises are particularly kid friendly, making them ideal for family getaways. For starters, you only have to unpack once. Most ships have children’s programs with age-appropriate crafts, movies, and games. Together with youth counselors and activity centers, these are potential lifesavers for parents and grandparents who want to enjoy adult-only time. If you have teens who want some independence, touching base is usually easy on a ship.
 
Dining rooms typically accommodate young children with faster service and special menu items. Parents also can choose casual buffet restaurants that serve the same items, allowing the adults to sample fine cuisine while children nosh on familiar foods. 
 
If your group has more than four people, find out if the cruise line offers adjoining rooms or suites, especially if you are traveling with children too young to stay in a separate room without a connecting door. In addition to providing more room to move around and store items, a suite offers the possibility of some privacy for parents while still allowing them to keep an eye on the kids.
 
Best Times To Go
Ships sail in the Caribbean throughout the year because the weather is almost always comfortably warm, making it pleasant for holiday cruises, spring break, or summertime. 
 
During spring break and summer vacation, cruise ships in the Caribbean often are filled with children and teens. That’s great if you’re traveling with kids or grandkids; they’ll soon find a cadre of new friends to hang out with. However, if you’re flying into a popular port during those peak seasons, flights and hotels may be hard to come by or expensive.
 
If you’re looking for a break on your cruise price, consider cruising during the slow season, generally September to November. During this time, cruises tend to be less crowded because most kids are back in school. Also, weather during these months can be less predictable, which can be a benefit for families looking for a good deal. 
 
Tips for Saving at Sea
Many cruise companies sail the Caribbean, a boon to travelers looking for more options and a variety of itineraries. Take time to compare pricing and amenities. When looking at the base price of a trip, understand what is (and isn’t) included and calculate the cost of extra features like drinks, excursions, and transportation. Different cruise companies offer varying benefits. Here are a few more strategies to help stretch your family vacation dollar. 
 
Cruise together. Family reunions with a large group of travelers may qualify for significant savings in the form of discounts or credits. When booking a family cruise, consider the ages and interests of children in your group and check on available services like activity clubs for toddlers, kids, preteens, or teenagers.  
 
Book early (or late). Cruise lines try to give their best rates and deepest discounts to those who book further in advance. Occasionally, last-minute space might have a discounted rate, but when you wait to book, you won’t get your choice of cabins, and transportation costs typically increase.
 
Take the deal. Look for special offers like lower deposits, kids sail free (or at discounted rates), shipboard credits, included airfare, beverage packages, prepaid gratuities, Internet packages, and free shore excursions. These budget boosters can increase the value of a cruise. Also, programs exclusive to AAA members may provide additional value, such as onboard credits or credits for excursions.
 
Avoid extra fees. A big selling point for cruises is they’re generally more inclusive than other types of travel. But newer, larger ships often offer more extra-fee services. Exclusive dining, wine tastings, Pilates classes, golf swing analyses, computer classes, and more can hike up the total amount due at the end of your cruise. Consider deactivating your kids’ cruise cards (which function like credit cards), so they can’t run up your tab on unapproved expenses. Also, if you plan to spend most of your port time on land, consider sailing on an older ship without the newest amenities, which could offer a better bargain.
BEVERLY BURMEIER has written about travel adventures for National Geographic Traveler, AAA Home and Away, AAA Going Places, and Chicken Soup for the Soul – Young at Heart.
If You Go
Get help: AAA Travel agents who specialize in cruises can help you choose the best fit and tell you about money-saving promotions.
 
Excursions: Book shore excursions before leaving home to guarantee availability.
 
Leave a note: Magnets or whiteboards can be helpful for leaving messages for other family members (remember, the ship is made of metal).
 
 
Book a Cruise
Find out how a AAA Travel agent can help you select the cruise that best fits your needs by calling toll-free 1-888-870-9392 or visiting AAA.com.
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