Cruise with children takes care Caution: Just because a ship has a program for youngsters doesn't mean it will suit your family.

Taking the Kids

September 22, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz bTC | Eileen Ogintz bTC,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Sure the stateroom sleeps four, as long as no one minds accommodations the size of a closet.

Certainly the children's activities are fun. Too bad the 2-year-old isn't big enough to participate and the 5-year-old gets seasick in the playroom because it's located so deep in the ship.

No one mentioned that there wouldn't be evening baby-sitting or anything for the kids to do while the ship was in port.

All of these shipboard disappointments have happened to family cruisers and all could have been avoided had the family asked more specific questions upfront.

"You can't change ships after one night like you would if you didn't like a hotel," warns Candyce Stapen, author of the recently released "Cruise Vacations With Kids" (Prima Publishing, $14.95).

Her tip for novice family cruisers: remember that newer ships tend to have larger staterooms and more children's facilities.

Also remember that just because two ships are part of the same cruise line doesn't guarantee that they are the same. That's why it's important to cover all the bases before booking; this can make the difference between a vacation that's a winner for families and one that strikes out. Some questions to ask:

Can the kids get a burger or pizza from room service or on deck? Is kid-friendly food available all day and evening?

Are the kids divided by age? Teen-agers won't go near a place filled with grade-schoolers. What's the ratio of counselors to children?

How difficult is it to arrange private baby-sitting?

Is there a basketball court? A water slide at the pool? A children's pool area?

Because cruises are booked through travel agencies, look for a travel agent who specializes in them, the experts suggest.

Cruise specialists know the best deals as well as what specific ships offer, says Neil Gorfain, spokesman for the 800-plus member National Association of Cruise-Only Agencies. (Call NACOA at [305] 663-5626 to locate a trained cruise expert in your community.)

Get with the program

A NACOA tip for families: Look for a cruise line that maintains a year-round children's program. "The program will be much more consistent and the staff better trained than on a ship where the program is just offered as needed," Gorfain explains.

Book as early as possible for the best deal, he adds. "You'll get the largest discounts and the ship you want." Each ship has only limited numbers of cabins that hold four or five people, he says.

Make sure your travel agent is familiar with the ship you are considering and participates in a price-protection program that guarantees you the lowest price for that sailing -- even if it becomes available after you book.

Here's a rundown on the latest in the family cruise scene:

Disney fans can book a combined cruise-Walt Disney World vacation on the new Disney Cruise Line starting Sept. 30. The ships also will have 15,000 square feet -- almost an entire deck -- of children's space, staffed by more than 30 counselors. Disney spokesmen promise staterooms will be spacious enough to accommodate families. Call (407) 566-7000.

Carnival boasts some of the largest staterooms in the industry and, with more than 100,000 youngsters sailing each year, some the most extensive children's programs. Ask about rates of $129 each for the third, fourth and fifth person in a cabin on some Caribbean cruises. Baby-sitting is available in port and at sea. Call (800) CARNIVAL.

Kids between 2 and 17 vacation free (up to two kids per family) on Premier's Big Red Boat through 1997 (excluding holidays) when two parents book a seven-night Orlando theme park-cruise vacation by Dec. 16. Single parents should ask about the plan for those traveling alone with children, while grandparents can get a seniors' discount rate. There are discounts for reunion groups, too.

Premier specializes in three- and four-night cruises, with frequent appearances by the Looney Tunes characters that even tuck kids in at night. No baby-sitting is available for those under 2. Ask about the Voyages of Discovery program designed to allow you and the children to learn about pirates, the ship and the ocean. Call (800) 373-2654.

Princess Cruises offers a new Love Boat Kids program for those between the ages of 2 and 17. The ships, however, don't permit children under 18 months. Nor is individual baby-sitting offered. The Sky, Star and Sun Princess have fully equipped youth and teen centers; the Crown, Regal and Golden Princess don't have designated centers, but a youth coordinator sails on each ship to run the program. On Royal Island and Pacific Princess, the program operates only when 15 or more children are on board. Call (800) 421-0522.

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