(and Alexandra Gaynor)
My 10-year-old daughter Alex is a veteran cruiser, having sailed the high seas 15 times. Even with all this travel experience, I waited until her tenth birthday (literally) she turned 10 during our cruise while in Mykonos, Greece!) to take her on a European cruise. I'm glad I trusted my instincts and waited until she was mature enough to handle lots of sightseeing and historical attractions. Alex ended up having a fun, educational, and very memorable experience, and can't wait to go back to Europe again one day.
A Royal Way To Go
We sailed the Mediterranean on Royal Caribbean International's Brilliance of the Seas. Our seven-day, late September sailing departed Barcelona and included calls in France, Italy and Spain. Since school in the states had recently begun, there weren't too many older children aboard. Most kids were younger or from Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa, where it was spring break at the time. Even during off season, Royal Caribbean is a great European choice for families since all its ships are equipped with family-friendly bells and whistles. Alex spent lots of time at the Brilliance's video arcade, rock climbing wall (kids must be six years old to climb), Internet cafe, 10 computers (with kids' game programs) and four play stations, all located in the youth rooms. Most of the newer RCI ships, including the Brilliance, also have water slides, miniature golf, and basketball courts.
Additionally, Royal Caribbean's youth counselors are very personable and fun. There were a few nights that Alex stopped by the youth room when there were only little ones there, and one of the youth counselors always took time to do a craft project or game one-on-one with Alex.
According to Rob Corpuz, the Adventure Ocean manager aboard Brilliance during our cruise, the average number of youngsters between ages three and 17 on the ship's Mediterranean itinerary this summer was 500, compared to the 25 on our cruise. He pointed out a number of advantages to cruising off-season with kids, including: greater personal attention by staff due to the lower child-to-counselor ratio; lack of name tags needed since counselors easily learn the smaller groups of kids' names; more regular attendance by a higher percentage of children who are truly interested in the program; and more time spent doing Royal Caribbean's new "edutainment" activities such as Adventure Science and Adventure Art by Crayola. These fun yet educational activities often tie into the destination or history of the sites visited. For example, during our cruise, Alex and a counselor created Greek vases with Crayola clay while on other sailings the kids made Greek masks.
"For off-season cruising with kids, I suggest traveling in tandem with friends or relatives," Corpuz said. This assures that your children will have other kids their age aboard ship. While we still had fun participating in the group activities such as the family scavenger hunt, and the group of pre-schoolers enjoyed the Pirate Night dress-up parade, some of the planned group activities such as "Survivor Night" did not take place since there weren't enough children. However, since a European cruise is generally very port intensive and more tiring by day, Alex did not have the energy to stay long hours in the youth room as she had on a prior, in-season Caribbean cruise aboard RCI's Adventure of the Seas. (For more details on that cruise and Royal Caribbean's Adventure Ocean program, see the article on this site called "Adventure for kids of all ages.")
We found the ship very easy to get around, extremely attractive, and we also liked its various dining options. "Since I'm a picky eater, there's more food I like to eat on a ship instead of a European hotel," Alex pointed out. We loved the variety of choices in the Windjammer cafe; had a genuinely lovely waitress and assistant waitress in the main dining room; checked out the Seaview Cafe for late night fast food; and had a superb dinner at Portofino alternative restaurant. Alex got to celebrate her birthday twice) once with our group of travel writers and the next night with our endearing waitresses. Naturally, both nights Alex was brought a cake and sung to by a host of staff members. To top it off, we were thoroughly surprised when the youth counselors decorated the kids' room with posters and balloons (and more cake!) to celebrate Alex's birthday. According to Corpuz, the counselors always try to do something special for children celebrating their birthday during a cruise. It certainly was one Alex will always remember.
A Child's Insights
As part of an assignment from her social studies teacher, Alex had to keep a daily journal about things she did and saw in Europe. Alex loves to write and it proved to be the perfect activity while we waited for our dinner each night. I have included some of the highlights from her journal to give parents insights on the things that kids like about cruising in Europe. I found it rewarding that Alex's enthusiasm turned from lukewarm in the beginning to sadness that the voyage was over at the end.
- This excerpt reflects our first night in a hotel in Barcelona prior to boarding the ship: "Europeans are real strange. They try to conserve energy by having the lights go off automatically every once in a while, like now! Their cars are real tiny but a lot of people ride mopeds in order to save on gas, which is expensive."
- Here are Alex's impressions after touring the ship upon embarkation: "I'm on the ship and it's really cool. I already checked out the kids' club and it's great ‘cause they have lots of computers. The ship's pretty big. Today I saw the pool, shot some baskets, and played miniature golf. That was awesome) I swung the club so hard I lost a ball into the sea!"
- This is about our first port call, in the French Riviera: "Today we were in Villefranche and it's pretty nice here. We went on a bus tour in the afternoon through Nice and a little old town called St. Paul de Vence. The tour guide talked too much on the bus, but I thought St. Paul de Vence was a cool old town. It was built in the 1500s and has narrow streets and little shops and cafes where we had a great dessert. I bought a little French house as a souvenir. Well, I want to go to the kids' club soon. I g2g now!
- Here's our daily report: Mom, talkative; Me: bored."
- "Today we are in Livorno, Italy (for Florence or Pisa) and I had a good time. We went on an afternoon tour of Pisa since the Florence and Pisa tour was nine hours…it would have been too long for me! We saw the leaning tower and the surrounding churches. The tower really does look like it leans. Here's a fun fact: Did you know that the Tower of Pisa leans because of the sandy soil it was built on and the fact that the foundation wasn't dug deep enough to support the size of the building? Cool stuff: I had Italian ice cream (gelato) that was excellent! After our tour, I wanted to climb on the rock wall but it was closed because it had just rained." :(
- "Roma was awesome. I saw the Colosseum, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Trevi Fountain. The Colosseum was awesome since it's about 2,000 years old! It has ruins on the bottom of it but you can walk around the middle levels. St. Peter's Basilica is interesting. The ceiling is decorated with a million different designs made out of gold. There is also the nearby Vatican Museum which has the Sistine Chapel in it. We heard that the museum is four miles long before you get to the Sistine Chapel so we didn't have time to go see Michelangelo's paintings there. Trevi Fountain is very big and it's built on the back of another building. If you take a coin in your right hand and throw it over your shoulder, you will return to Roma one day. Anyway, Roma was really cool and I hope the coin I threw at Trevi makes my wish come true! Tomorrow I might finally climb the rock wall on the ship."
- "Today was a sea day. I was planning to climb the rock wall but when we got there we had to join in the climbing class. Then it got really windy and they had to close the wall down. Big bummer! I did go on the water slide a little bit and went on a fun scavenger hunt with my mom and another girl we met on the ship."
- "Today is my 10th birthday! Last night we celebrated my birthday with the group of writers aboard which was a lot of fun and this morning my mom decorated our cabin door with balloons and stuff for my birthday. We spent the day in Mykonos, Greece. It's interesting here since the houses are square and are painted white with blue windows. We were supposed to go on an excursion to a little island off Mykonos called Delos to see some real Greek ruins but it was cancelled because it was too windy for the little boats to operate. That was a huge bummer! Instead, mom made me go shopping which is my worst enemy.
- Here's our daily report: Mom: Happy; Me: Excited."
- "Last night was my birthday and the waitresses sang and brought me a cake. Then we went to the kids' room and the counselors had decorated it for my birthday and we had even more cake! It was a great birthday!"
- "Tomorrow is the last day of our trip. This is my last entry too. I shall miss thee! Anyway, I finally got to climb the rock wall today and got to the top both times. It was neat because we were in Santorini which is way up on a cliff and my mom took a picture of me up on the wall with Santorini behind me. Before that, we went on a tour to an archaeological museum and a winery which was kinda boring for me. What was really cool, though, was that we walked down about 500 steps from the town to the pier rather than taking the cable car. We had to dodge donkeys and their droppings the whole way down!"
- "I really don't want to go home. I had a great time! Well, I'll talk to you on my next trip."
- Daily report: Mom: Talkative; Me: Tired but happy"
Why Cruising is the Best Way for Kids to see Europe
There are many reasons why cruising to Europe is a better way to tour the continent with kids than by land. As mentioned, Alex is a picky eater and the kids' menus are a big plus for us rather than trying to figure out what she might like in a foreign country. Since I wanted to add a touch of European cuisine to my experience, we ate lunch out once while on a full-day "Rome on Your Own" tour and also went out for dessert at cafes in most ports.
Children like familiarity, and cruise ships offer that. On a cruise, kids can sleep in the same bed and get to know the same waiters each night, while you still get to sample a variety of ports and cultures.
The word "convenience" is synonymous with cruising and is extra important when traveling with kids. Got a child who comes down with an ear infection? It sure is more reassuring to see the English-speaking doctor on board than trying to find one on land that speaks English. Have to change your dollars into Euros? You can do that daily at the guest relations desk on board.
Many children are first-time visitors to Europe. Cruising offers a good overview of countries for those who haven't visited by land yet. Also, it allows you to choose where you'd like to return for an in-depth visit one day when your kids are older. Alex is very enthusiastic about returning to Europe soon.
Cruise ships offering a children's program are perfect since kids need to blow off steam after a long day of sightseeing or sitting on a bus. In addition, youngsters who just are too young for half or full-day tours can stay in the youth program while parents tour ashore. Many lines, like Royal Caribbean, extend their hours on port days. For example, Adventure Ocean is normally open from 9 a.m. to noon; 2 to 5 p.m.; and 7 to 10 p.m. However, on port days it opens up a half hour prior to the first tour of the day and stays open until 5 p.m. and then reopens at 7 p.m.
Tips for Parents
The following are tips on things to consider when planning a European cruise with a child.
Younger generally children seem to be more affected by jet lag than older children and adults. Being up until 2 a.m. with a two-year-old who is jet lagging is not a lot of fun. I noticed that Alex adjusted better to the time changes on recent trips compared to when she was very young and we traveled to the West Coast and Alaska. (For example, on a recent Hawaiian cruise, she slept to at least 6:30 most mornings while her toddler brother woke up between 3 and 5 a.m. daily!) This supports my theory that it might be better to wait until your child is older to bring them to Europe.
Make sure you consider your child's interests and attention span when choosing itineraries and shore excursions. In summer, Mediterranean itineraries offer some beach options, which break up the intense sightseeing for kids nicely, while Northern European itineraries obviously do not have this option.
However, keep in mind that many Mediterranean ports are a long drive from the main city or attractions. For example, ships call in the port of Livorno, which is about a 1-1/2 hour drive from Florence and a half-hour from Pisa. We chose the half day tour of Pisa since I didn't think Alex was up to a nine to 10-hour bus tour. That way, we had the morning to sleep in, get some homework done, and enjoy the ship prior to the afternoon tour. The 3-1/2 hour tour focused on architecture but was short enough to hold Alex's interest.
Similarly, the port of Civitavecchia is about 1-1/2 hours from Rome. Instead of choosing an eight-hour tour, I selected the Rome On Your Own shore excursion. While this was still an eight-hour day, Alex and I were able to take the bus shuttle into the city and then had about six hours to explore at our own pace. Since I had been to Rome many times before, I briefed Alex on the many sightseeing attractions and she chose which appealed to her most. This worked out beautifully (make sure you buy a map and guidebook prior to your trip) and it proved to be Alex's most memorable day. We saw the main sights of St. Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain at our leisure, but also had time for lunch at an outdoor cafe in Piazza Novona, a gelato stop later in the afternoon, and some shopping too. Alex met some children on our cruise who had been on mostly full day tours and she remarked to me that she was glad we didn't go on long tours everyday since she probably would have gotten tired of them. Instead, I eased her into sightseeing and she can't wait to return to Europe.
Prior to your trip, you may want to rent some children's videos that take place in Europe so that your youngster gets a feel for what some of the cities you may be seeing look like. For example, there are a few scenes of London in "Mary Poppins," such as St. Paul's cathedral. Additionally there are two "Mary Kate and Ashley" videos set in Europe; one is in Paris and the other in Rome.
Lastly, realize that your child can't and won't want to see everything during their trip. Chances are that they will have the opportunity to return to Europe one day to see all the wonderful things they might have missed during your cruise!