The first time we took to the seas with the family, we had a toddler and an infant. It was chaos! Long boarding queues, potty trips during dinner time, getting lost on the ship, tantrum fits in the buffet line, and mad dashes along corridors that could rival Hollywood chase scenes. Man, a toddler can run fast!
This time we had two toddlers and an infant. Talk about being suckers for punishment. Why on earth would we do this to ourselves? Well, there are many reasons. Not only do we learn so much about ourselves as parents, but we get to see a completely different side of our children. More importantly, we get to share what we experienced and get to help other parent-travellers plan better for their holiday.
On this cruise we were aboard the MSC Musica. In case you were wondering, this is a 92-ton vessel, 293 metres in length, with 16 decks. It roughly accommodates about 1 000 staff and 3 000 guests. You might ask me what a ship’s dimensions has to do with parenting or travel. Let me explain.
It’s important for parents to grasp the magnitude of taking a cruise. You are about to step into a massive hotel with restaurants, bars, shops, numerous entertainment areas and a casino. Once embarkation takes place, you can’t pick up your tantrum toddler, get into a car and go home. You are home for the next week.
Make no mistake, this will be an adjustment for all of you. Besides planning, the only things you really need to consider revolves around the essential requirements for your children: eat, sleep and play. Here are a couple of points that might help.
Speak to other parents who have done a cruise. Read articles about taking children on a ship. I am a firm believer of just doing something, instead of over-thinking it. However, I have also found that a bit of research and planning can make your holiday cruise that much more fun. For this reason alone, our second trip was far more enjoyable than the first one.
Go through all information very carefully. Jot down anything that seems important. You will find many things that can simplify your life a whole lot. Print a detailed ship layout and go through it. We normally keep all paperwork, slips and passports in a separate folder and close at hand.
A week or two before the trip, start varying your routine at home with subtle changes to the norm. Bathe them a bit earlier, eat a bit later, do evening church service, pick them up from school a bit earlier. You want to prepare for slight variances. They are still trying to understand the world around them, so the last thing they need is to be thrown into the deep end.
Once aboard the ship, find out where to register your little ones for their kids’ club. The registration should be a quick and painless process, but a vital one to get out of the way. Remember, you are there to holiday and don’t want to complete paperwork at a later stage. It also gives you an opportunity to meet the people who will be taking care of your little angels. Make sure you understand the times of the club and the different age groups.
Ah, the biggest stumbling block. Kids need food. I have yet to meet a happy hungry child. Not only are they unable to properly express themselves, but given the degree of hunger, they could turn into a screaming monster in front of your eyes. Eating arrangements can become a nightmare if one child has a mid-meal tantrum, but knowing what to expect could make the situation more manageable.
After registering your child for kids’ club, go find your dining table. Familiarise yourself with the layout around your table and try to imagine the scene when about 500 people sit down to eat. Ask yourself the typical parenting questions. Where is the closest loo? Does it have a baby changing station? What would you need to bring with to the table?
“If you can get lost in a new shopping mall, then a cruise ship can be fundamentally complex.”
Find out if you will be dining the first seating or second seating. First seating should be around 6pm, while the second seating can be around 8pm. The latter being a bit late for toddlers, you might be playing with fire. We went through a very challenging supper before switching to the earlier seating.
Likewise, on your first exploratory walkabout, go check out the buffet halls where breakfasts and lunches take place. Since one parent would be queue-bound while the other tends to the children, this is a parent-relay event. Get your food, adding extra for the kids, then relieve your partner so they can go dish up. If they finish eating before you, which is normally the case, then it might be wise to offer them surprise tablet-time.
Know your ship
Ideally you need to get the lay of the land, or ship, in this instance. You need to know what is where, when does what happen and how. A lot of time is wasted in the corridors and the lifts and it can be disorienting. If you can get lost in a new shopping mall, then a cruise ship can be fundamentally complex. Add a child or two, and you could find yourself whimpering in a corner somewhere, at breaking point and in fear of having stumbled into the twilight zone.
Make serious work of finding quick routes. From your cabin to your dining table. From your cabin to the kids’ club. From buffet hall to various play areas or pool areas. From anywhere to the medical centre or reception. This will save you buckets of time in the long run.
With all this in mind, it sounds like a lot of work to take a cruise. In fact, you probably think it better to lounge at home and take the kids to a play park or the beach. But will you be robbing your children of an experience? Absolutely.
On a typical European cruise, you will be surrounded by about 60 nationalities, which makes it a uniquely international experience. While studies have shown the benefits of toddlers being surrounded by different cultures and dialects, there is so much more to do with them. You will be breeding a culture of fun and travelling from an early age.
According to Big Ambitions, South African travellers are finding their sea legs, with demand for local and international sailings and river cruises up 35% at the Flight Centre Travel Group’s annual Travel Expo. “Cruise sales have grown in popularity year on year, and the 2019 Travel Expo was no different, with cruise sales up 35% on last year,” commented Andrew Stark, Flight Centre Travel Group Managing Director, Middle East and Africa.
“For South Africans travelling on the rand, cruising represents one of the best value-for-money holidays available,” said Stark. “A cruise includes accommodation, meals and entertainment, which is incredible value for any budget. Cruise ships of today are floating hotels, giving travellers on multi-city cruises an easy and efficient means to see multiple destinations in just one trip.”