The idea of cruising may not appeal to you if all you think is that they hit the same ports which have the same jewelry and t-shirt shops, and are herded onto buses like cattle to experience the same excursions. You want a more intimate, authentic experience that explores a multi-city destination or region. There is nothing worse than the hassle of having to pack up and change hotels over and over, especially with kids.
That is why I LOVE small ship cruises. Most small ships sleep less than a few hundred people (compared to the Mega-Cruises that can sleep up to 5,000), can visit smaller ports, and provide more intimate excursions.
Here are some of my favorite small ship cruise lines for families.
Uncruise is named because it is unlike large ship cruises in every way. Like other small ship cruise companies, they are all about getting you off the ship, exploring the destinations en route. A family-friendly UnCruise adventure is a unique way to experience Alaska, Central America, Baja, Pacific Northwest, or the Hawaiian Islands. The cruise line’s small ships only travel with 86 passengers and provide a much more intimate experience of Alaskan wilderness than the big ships operated by larger cruise lines. They provide experiences that focus on getting up close with nature.
If you have kids who love nature and exploration then you may want to consider Linbald Expeditions. Linbald has partnered with National Geographic to create unique programs for kids. They have onboard naturalists who are specially trained as National Geographic field educators. They optimize daily “In the Field” activities to prompt kids to watch out for a particular item, like a creature with scales or a giant coral head on land, then record their observations in their Field Notebook. Kids also take part in a variety of fun activities: snorkeling with sea lions in Galápagos and Baja, identifying whale flukes in Alaska, or kayaking with penguins in Antarctica.
If expedition-type travel is not really your thing, you may want to consider Crystal Cruises. They are a little larger with about 900 guests but they are the only small ship, luxury cruise line with dedicated kids spaces. Now you aren’t going to find the breadth of activities a mega-ship provides but they have a kid’s area that boasts art supplies, board games, building blocks, dedicated spaces with plush seating for reading or watching movies. Each dining venue offers menu options for kids, while in-room babysitting services are also available upon request for young ones. But I really love their destination-inspired activities:
Scavenger hunts that focus on the highlights of the itinerary. Search for “artifacts” in Rome, wildlife in Alaska, or “royalty” in the British Isles.
Cookie baking, pizza making, and other culinary creativity in the galley.
Arts & crafts of all kinds, for all ages, also often focused on the destinations visited on each cruise. Kids can learn about the world while they create their own masterpieces.
My absolute favorite way to travel is river cruising. So many of the great cities of the world were built up on waterways (or the highways of the time.) There are some incredible itineraries built to ensure that the whole family has a wonderful time, from kids to parents and even grandparents. I love how they build in ways for adults to experience the culture of a destination while kids have an educational but engaging and fun adventure.
An alternative to the larger (200 people) river cruise is luxury barges. European Waterways cater for groups between six and twelve, with the option of booking out an entire barge for your exclusive use. Gently traverse some of Europe’s most idyllic waterways with a chef and crew on hand to make sure you’re always well looked after. The barge moves at a walking pace, so it’s easy to step ashore at the locks. Whether you opt to head out into the countryside on a bicycle, explore the local vineyards and châteaux or simply relax on board, this marvelous option is perfect for those who want dedicated family time.
A lot of smaller ships typically have a minimum age requirement. With a private charter, you are able to choose your ship, itinerary, and activities. You have so much added flexibility and the cost is not as prohibitive as you may think. I met with some amazing charter companies in Croatia that have 5-7 day private charters available for as little as $1000 per person, very comparable to a cruise fare on a mega-ship.
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