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How to Choose the Best Cruise for Your Family

Taking a cruise with the family sounds like it should be simple. After all, how hard can it be to relish long, leisurely days with each other, an expansive dining selection of food prepared by someone else and ample entertainment right at your fingertips?

The truth is, enjoying a cruise with your family might not be that difficult but deciding which cruise to book is. Here are 10 things to consider when you start shopping around for a vacation on the open sea.

1. Onboard programming

It should come as no surprise that a toddler and pre-teen need and want completely different things when it comes to supervision and entertainment. Make sure that the cruise you choose has suitable diversions and support for kids. For toddlers, this may include a higher ratio of staff to kids with lots of age-appropriate activities (story time, finger painting). Teens-only programs may include specially designed spa treatments and shore excursions.

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2. Menus

While cruise ships have a wide variety of dining options and plans, make sure your family's specific needs are met. Take a look at the cruise ship's restaurant hours and ask whether some dining venues offer kid-friendly menus. Also, inquire in advance regarding food allergies of concern. Though you'll likely eat a few hamburgers or hot dogs by the pool, chances are you don't want this to be the only meal option for anyone in your crew.

Not all cruises are about entertainment, and your pre-teens and teens may appreciate a more education-oriented option.

3. Baby-sitting

If you'd like an evening out with your partner without the kids, find out about any babysitting services that may be available. In general, babysitting is charged by the hour. But, beyond fees, it's important to note how far in advance you need to book a sitter. It's also worth noting whether babysitting (and supervised programming for kids) is available while ships are in port.

4. Destination

Of course, cruising is about more than just choosing the perfect ship. While the journey is part of the experience, so are the destinations on your ship's itinerary. Would your family prefer warmer weather, which means lighter packing and more deck time? Or a chillier destination, such as Alaska? Though you might not enjoy as much time sunning in a lounge chair if you choose the latter, the off-shore excursions and different ways to spend time as a family (scanning the horizon for whales) may be worth the trade-off.

5. Entertainment

Cruise ships almost always offer some sort of evening shows and programming, but your kids probably don't want to be stuck listening to a jazz band in the lounge. An increasing number of ships—especially those affiliated with companies like DreamWorks and Disney—offer family-friendly productions. It's also worth noting that some of these ship programs, like Carnival's Seuss at Sea, let kids meet and interact with popular characters.

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6. Educational opportunities

Not all cruises are about entertainment, and your pre-teens and teens may appreciate a more education-oriented option. No, this doesn't mean they have homework to complete every night. Rather, a river cruise in Europe might appeal to those interested in history and a trip to the Galapagos Islands—replete with snorkeling and hiking opportunities—may be perfect for those interested in zoology or biology. Cruises with an educational component often go beyond shore excursions. Some have naturalists or historians onboard, offering seminars or lectures on relevant topics.

7. Adults-only areas

While a diverse and robust offering of kid-friendly services and entertainment is important for your family's cruising vacation, make sure there is some space onboard where you can escape the chaos that comes with kids. When they are busy with their own activities, it is just as important that you have the opportunity to enjoy adults-only pools, nightclubs and excursions.

This is a family trip, so don't forget to ask kids what they want from a cruise vacation.

8. Room configurations

Though you'll spend a majority of your time away from your stateroom, it's important that you are comfortable in your sleeping quarters. Some cruise lines offer larger suites designed for families with separate sleeping and living areas, while others offer adjoining cabins. Another option to consider is booking an inside cabin and one with a balcony right across from each other, so teens can have a separate room altogether. Take note that sometimes booking one large accommodation is less expensive than booking two smaller rooms.

9. What the kids want

This is a family trip, so don't forget to ask kids what they want from a cruise vacation. While they certainly shouldn't have the deciding vote on your vacation plans, you may be surprised to discover what is most important to them. This is particularly true for older kids, who are more independent and have definite ideas about what is cool and how they'd like to spend their time.

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10. Travel agent

It's easier than ever to book your own travel plans, but choosing a cruise is one area where the right travel agent can go a long way. Travel agents—especially those who specialize in the cruise industry—are well-versed on the various options available to you and can address specific concerns or questions, help narrow down choices and, often, provide personal insight about a specific cruise before you finally settle on the right vacation for your family. Yes, you will likely pay a commission for this service.

And, yes, it is totally worth it.

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Photograph: Flickr/yasmary

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