Taking your kids on a cruise solves all of the above concerns, and also provides parents and youngsters alike with some time together and time apart. Youth programs are free and provide hours of fun activities for children and teens, while mom or dad can get a few coveted moments to read a book, lounge in the sun, play in the casino or go to the disco.
PLUSES OF SINGLE-PARENT CRUISING
"Cruising is the only way to vacation with my kids," says D., a single dad. "I love my kids," he continues, "but after dinner on a cruise I take them to the kids' club and I'm free to enjoy my evening until 1 a.m. if I choose. Where else can you do this? Plus, I don't have to figure out how to drive a babysitter to her house with sleeping kids, like I would at home if I went out at night. What's best of all, though, is that my kids love cruising too!"
Some adult activities, like going to a casino, just aren't possible for a single parent on a land vacation unless you have a babysitter or youth program to occupy your children. While youth programs at hotels and resorts are very costly (often about $45 per half-day session), they are included in the fare on cruise ships, and are top quality too.
"The greatest appeal for us is the kids program," D. noted.
Most youth programs run from 9 a.m. to noon; 2 to 5 p.m.; and 7 to 10 p.m. After 10 p.m., most lines have group babysitting for an hourly fee until at least 1 a.m. (Note: The aforementioned hours vary slightly by cruise line.) If you have smaller children and prefer private, in-cabin babysitting so your little ones can go to sleep in your cabin at their normal bedtime, you can hire a private, qualified babysitter on Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, and Crystal Cruises.
On the other hand, T., a single dad with joint custody of his sole daughter, has cruised solo with his daughter five times and found that "surprisingly, we ended up spending most of our time together during these cruises." If one has joint custody, there are usually opportunities to go out at night alone for adult activities, yet there are plenty of "missed" days that you can't share with your child. Thus, T. finds cruising "a great opportunity to spend quality time doing and seeing things together. It also has exposed my daughter to other cultures, helped her learn proper etiquette, and given her opportunities to develop her conversational skills with adults."
T. pointed out that cruises have plenty of activities to enjoy together such as ping pong tournaments, art auctions, and live shows, in addition to the many things to do ashore ranging from cave tubing to snorkeling and climbing waterfalls. A few cruise lines with leading youth programs, such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean, also offer family activities aboard ship. Carnival has family water/deck games and arts-and-crafts night, while Royal Caribbean features family karaoke, bingo, talent shows and scavenger hunts.
A single mom, TB, notes that "having all the basics included in your up-front costs (food, snacks, youth program) makes it easier to budget than a land trip." She added that if you're on a tighter budget, you can plan your trip for a time when fares are lower (such as in the fall). "Free room service is definitely a boom for moms and kids," she adds.
The biggest drawback to cruising with kids as a single parent is that you have to pay a full second-person fare for one of your children or teens, unless you bring another adult friend or relative as the second person. Any additional children with you get charged the lowered third and fourth person rate once the second person rate has been applied. Unfortunately, no cruise lines currently offer single-parent discounts. However, as one single parent pointed out, if he were to cruise on his own, he'd have to pay a 150% single supplement for being the only one in the cabin. Thus, paying for his child at the full adult rate is not bad by comparison.
TIPS FOR SMOOTH SAILING
When traveling solo with kids on land, evenings can bring on a whole new set of concerns. However, on most ships, you don't have to make prior reservations for dinner (except at alternative restaurants and aboard Norwegian Cruise Line ships due to its Freestyle Cruising policy). C., a single dad, pointed out that on their Disney cruise, dinner was very enjoyable because they were seated with another family, whereas it was a little less comfortable on another cruise line when they were seated with an older couple. C. suggests you ask your travel agent to make sure you are seated with another family at dinner, providing peers for parents and children alike. C., a single mom, said it was harder to meet other adults on NCL because of Freestyle Cruising. On NCL, most people do not eat in the same spot each day as they do on most lines, making it harder to get to know others in the dining room.
Another concern for single moms traveling by land with their kids is whether the vacation destination is safe, particularly at night. Although I am married, I have often cruised solo with my daughter and I feel very comfortable roaming around ships at night while my daughter is in the youth program. D. adds, "Compared to a land-based vacation, the ship is a closed environment where no one leaves and no one comes on during the trip. Your kids can't run into the street or get lost." I agree, and thus allowed my 10-year-old daughter much more freedom than usual the first time she and I cruised without my husband or another adult relative.
C. offers another tip to make evenings more enjoyable – he suggests getting a verandah cabin if possible. Once his son is asleep, he "goes out on the balcony and enjoys the ocean and night air. I order some decaf and dessert from room service and enjoy the evening." Many verandahs even have a light so you can read out there if you'd like.
For single parents looking for a more active evening, cruises offer options too. D. notes that "when I cruise, it is my hope to meet other singles. In the three cruises that I've taken with my kids, I have not failed to meet a lady." The many bars, discos, and stage shows all provide free adult evening activities.
A very important tip is to get notarized parental permission from your child's mother or father prior to your trip. Many international immigration bureaus and airlines ask for letters giving permission for a child to travel with only one parent as a way to try to prevent kidnapping. When I travel alone with my daughter, I bring a notarized note from my husband giving his permission for her to travel with me. My last name is different than my daughter's, which makes this even more important. Family Travel Forum web site has a form you can copy, complete, and have notarized prior to your trip. Go to: www.familytravelforum.com/permissionletter.html
T. noted that on a cruise calling in Cozumel, he left the permission letter on the ship while they were in port for the day. Subsequently, his daughter was questioned extensively by the authorities when they re-boarded the ship to make sure she was there of her own free will.
"Although much is made of the fact that many are never asked to produce the absent parental consent letter, it saves a lot of trouble to have it in the rare event that one is questioned," T. added. Mexico seems to be the most stringent on this issue -- I have a single friend whose daughter was detained at the airport en route to Mexico because they did not have these documents.
"LEAVE THE NAGGING AT HOME"….
TB makes a very important point for single parents. "Remember that on a cruise, someone else handles all the details you usually have to do yourself – making the beds, cooking, cleaning, setting the table, entertainment -- and you don't have to drive your children anywhere." More importantly, she added, "You can basically leave your nagging hat at home, let someone else do all the work for a change, and just settle in and enjoy your kids for change. To me, that's the perfect single parent vacation scenario." Well said!