Can Your Kids Do Europe?

Taking your children on a European cruise is a wonderful hands-on learning experience that can never be replicated in the classroom. But there are several points to consider before booking such a trip. Foremost is whether your youngsters are mature or old enough to handle the rigors of major sightseeing. Once you've decided to cruise as a family on the continent, you should carefully choose an appropriate itinerary, ship, and shore excursions. The following advice will help you decide whether a grand jaunt abroad is right for your family--or if you're better off staying in waters closer to home.

Benefits of European Cruising with Kids A European cruise is a great way to introduce kids to the many sights and sounds of the continent before attempting a European land trip. Cruising lets your family sample different lands without the "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belguim" syndrome that easily happens on motorcoach tours. Not only is a cruise more relaxing than a motorcoach trip, but it also eliminates the need to live out of a suitcase or continually pack and unpack, which makes for weary moms.

A first European land trip for children is filled with new experiences that could be disconcerting for younger ones, but cruising in Europe lends a familiarity that is comforting to them: They can sleep in the same bed each night, hear English spoken aboard ship, and enjoy familiar kid-friendly food. For parents who want to expose their kids to more than just American burgers and fries, there are plenty of opportunities to dine in port.

The best part of taking your children to Europe via cruise ship is that history comes alive in a way they never experienced before. Are your teens studying ancient Greece or Rome in school? A trip to the Parthenon, Coliseum or the ruins of Pompeii will leave an indelible mark. Does your grade-school child like to pretend he's a knight in shining armor? A visit to the many castles that dot Europe will let his imagination fly. Even sights familiar to kids due to popular culture can be seen here. In London, for example, children can visit St. Paul's Cathedral and other places seen in the long-time Disney favorite, Mary Poppins.

Lastly, if your youngsters are on historic overload during of the voyage, many cruise lines offer youth programs while in port so that you and your spouse can venture on a shore excursion alone. That's one option that certainly isn't available in most European hotels.

Important Considerations Prior to Booking When weighing whether your child is old or mature enough to handle the sometimes demanding rigors of transatlantic travel, consider:

  • Is your tot still in diapers or on formula? If so, you might want to postpone such a big trip until diapers and formula are no longer on your packing list.
  • Can your child sit through a long transatlantic flight?
  • Is your youngster a good sleeper who can adjust to jet lag easily?
  • Does your child have an interest in seeing castles, museums, and other historic sites?
  • Can your youngster (and you) handle long days in port--especially when you might face up to a two-hour ride from the ship to the main city/attractions? (Note that this is the case when calling in Tilbury, Dover or Southampton for London; Le Havre for Paris; Civitavecchia for Rome; and Livorno for Florence.)
  • Does your child have a desire to experience new languages, sights, and customs?

It seems obvious that a European cruise is probably not the best choice for a toddler, preschooler or early grade school child under 10 years old. Pre-teens and teens are probably the most appropriate age groups for a family European adventure. Generally, the Caribbean and Bahamas are better choices for little ones, since days in port are filled with swimming and playing on the beach rather than sightseeing.

Choosing an Itinerary and Ship If you've decided your kids pass muster and are intrepid travelers, make sure the ship you choose offers a youth and teen program on its European cruises. There won't be as many days at sea to enjoy the youth program on European itineraries as the Caribbean, but it's good to have a place where they can go after a hard day of sightseeing to blow off some steam. Some lines offering European itineraries and youth programs include: Royal Caribbean International, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, Costa Cruises, First European Cruises, Cunard Line's QE2, and Crystal Cruises.

When choosing a cruise, get your kids involved and decide whether it will be a Northern European itinerary (Scandinavia, Baltic, and Northern European capitals); a repositioning sailing (Atlantic coastal cities in England, France, Spain, and Portugal); a Western Mediterranean trip (Spain, French Riviera, and Italy); or an Eastern Mediterranean schedule (Italy, Turkey, and the Greek Isles). Northern European itineraries feature cooler weather, lots of castles, and many parks, while repositioning cruises boast many museums and cathedrals. Western Mediterranean itineraries sometimes include beach options on the French Riviera or isles of Corsica and Sardinia, sprinkled with plenty of historical sights. Eastern Mediterranean cruises are steeped in ancient history, but you may be able to squeeze a few beach hours in the Greek Isles.

If you decide to take a preschooler or young grade school child, choose an itinerary with plenty of options for independent visits to parks, zoos, boat rides, or beaches. London is a great city for children of all ages; choose either a Northern European or repositioning cruise. Not only does London have recognizable sights like the Tower of London, Big Ben, and Tower Bridge; it also offers activities kids will enjoy, like riding a double-decker bus, watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, visiting Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and spending lots of your money at Segaworld (the huge indoor interactive game zone). (Note that it is about an hour and 15 minute drive from the port of Tilbury to London; an hour and 50 minutes from Southampton; and two hours from Dover.)

Since shore excursions -- particularly in Europe -- could cost a family of four almost as much as an adult's cruise fare, do your homework in advance so you can explore independently via foot or taxi in some ports. For cities far from the port, opt for the motorcoach transfer sold through the ship, which generally drops you at a central point in the headliner city and picks you up later in the day. You can then independently explore the sights. These transfers are much cheaper than a guided shore excursion. While you shouldn't have to deny yourself the experience of seeing the Coliseum, Sistine Chapel, or Louvre, you can reward your kids after such major sightseeing by letting them pick the next activity, or unwinding in a park or at a street-side cafe.

Some helpful guidebooks include "Cruise Vacations with Kids" (by Candyce Stapen, Prima Publishing), which suggests cruise lines and attractions that interest children in Europe; and Fodor's "Around the Cities with Kids" series, which notes many kid-friendly activities in cities such as London and Paris.

If you do cruise in Europe with your kids, make sure they are old enough to remember this unique experience. Before your trip, buy them their own disposable camera, drawing pad, and journal so that they can record their once-in-a-lifetime family cruise. And remember: Kids are required to have passports too.

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