In a few weeks we are lucky enough to be setting off on our fifth cruise - a week long cruise on the Disney Magic through Norway. Our first cruise was with Harry when he was about 20 months old, and having cruised three times since with both small children in tow, I thought I'd share a few tips for cruising with pre-school aged children! My personal experiences are from cruises with Disney Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean, both in Europe and the Caribbean.
Firstly you need to think about what to pack. Although there are shops on the ship and you will be able to shop in port, things will be more expensive and may be different brands than you are used to. Make sure that you have plenty of nappies and other baby essentials, and also think about taking toddler sized cups, plates and cutlery to use on board ship. Pack some familiar snacks and drinks, and plenty of hand gel. It's also nice to take some bath toys that children can use in the swimming pool - children in nappies will likely be limited to a small splash pool so it's more fun to have something to play with.
One thing that we've struggled with is dining on board. It perhaps doesn't help that our children are quite fussy with their food, but I think that most toddlers would struggle to sit still for a full three course meal in a formal setting. For our first cruise we took lots of stickers and colouring books for Harry and rode it out, but of course on most of the large cruise ships you don't have to eat in the main dining room at all and it's often easier to stick to a buffet restaurant. If you do want to eat in the dining room, it's best to book an earlier sitting as there will be more children around and you can make the most of the early evening entertainment before the children get too tired. If you eat in the buffet, sit as close to the food as you can, you'll be constantly up and down getting more food for yourself and the children!
When it comes to washing your children, some staterooms only have a shower which was a bit of a problem for us as neither child particularly likes them. I've heard of people taking a small inflatable bath or paddling pool to use in the bathroom.
Take advantage of the many opportunities to have your photo taken! We have some really lovely family photographs which were taken on cruises of us all dressed up in nice clothes, and we rarely otherwise have family group photographs taken. They aren't cheap to purchase, but compare reasonably to having a family photo shoot at home, and if you have lots taken there will definitely be some nice ones to choose from.
In our experience we've found that stateroom storage, even in smaller rooms, has been more than adequate. The beds are generally quite high, so you can stow suitcases and pushchairs underneath and there will be drawer and hanging space. Some people find it useful to take an over the door shoe hanger or similar for extra storage of small items that you need frequent access to. Be aware that if you need a cot in the room there won't be much floor space left over. Your stateroom attendant should be able to pack it away for you during the day, but if you have a little one that naps or goes to bed early it is more convenient to have it set up permanently.
A safety tip if you have a room with a balcony - although the railing is very high and children won't be toppling over, we found that the first thing my son did when he went onto the balcony was to head for the small outside table so that he could climb up on it and look over! Obviously we were right there and he didn't make it, but it did worry me and I barely let them out there after that! The doors are very secure with high up locks so children can't open them themselves, but you do need to be alert, and the same goes for up on deck, as there are always sun loungers and small tables that adventurous children might try to climb on to see over both exterior and interior railings.
If your children are old enough and want to go to the kids clubs they don't need to stay for a whole day or even a whole session, you can just drop them off and pick them up whenever you want. Ours have never been huge fans of the kids club to be honest, but have been quite happy to be dropped off for half an hour or so just for a change of scene on sea days, and to let us grab a quick child-free drink or snack or venture into the adults only areas of the ship!
If you are lucky enough to be travelling with other family members, book interconnecting rooms if you can! This means that you can go out in the evening while your children sleep in their own beds with babysitters in the room next door leaving the door open (thanks Mum and Dad!)
You will probably be sleeping in very close proximity to your children, so take earplugs if they are noisy sleepers. The staterooms get very dark at night, especially if you have an interior stateroom, so it's worth taking a small nightlight, otherwise you'll be sleeping with the light on in the bathroom and the door ajar.
Check what type of sockets are going to be in your room. In our experience staterooms are fitted with both US and European (2 pin) sockets, so if you have both you'll be able to use more sockets. The rooms are pretty well soundproofed so you shouldn't need to worry if you have a child that wakes up frequently in the night or tantrums.
The stateroom doors are magnetic and particularly on the Disney cruise ships it's a big thing to decorate your door with appropriate decorations and perhaps your family names. On our Disney cruise there was a family crafting session early on with art materials to make your own, and this time I'm planning to make decorations with the children in advance, particularly as Mia will be celebrating her birthday while we are on board. Another big thing on Disney Cruises is taking part in fish extender exchanges where you can arrange with other families to swap small gifts while on your cruise - you can find lots more information here - Disney Cruise Line Fish Extenders information.
If there are going to be themed nights on your cruise then go prepared with costumes and accessories otherwise you'll likely end up buying them on board for vastly inflated prices. This has been more appropriate for our Disney cruise, with a pirate night and various opportunities for little ones to meet their princess heroines while wearing a matching dress. There will be at least one formal night on your cruise too, and although the dress code is more relaxed for little ones, it's nice to dress them up if you can.
Our children have never been good at napping, which is a problem if we've wanted to keep them up a little later in the evening, but we've found that a few laps of the deck in a pushchair often sent them off to sleep, so it's worth taking a pushchair for that even if they don't use one otherwise. If they do drop off it also gives you a chance to sit out on deck with a book and enjoy some peace and quiet!
We've had brilliant cruises with our little ones and so I hope that this post inspires you to try it out yourself, or perhaps offer some advice if you are already booked.
Do you have any tips that you would add, or any questions? Please do share in the comments!