Raise Backpackers

Cruise ships: the cheat’s backpacking.

With less than two weeks to go until our cruise, I have been thinking a lot about cruising with kids. We have been on one before which was the inside passage in Alaska (just as amazing as all the rumours, might I add!). I used to think that cruise ships were:

a) out of my price range
b) for old people.

That was until we went on one. I don’t like package holidays but I make an exception for cruise ships. Why? It’s the cheat’s backpacking.

Here are my Top 10 reasons why I like cruise ships with kids.

1. Kid’s Club 

The kids club room.

The kids club room. 

Annabelle was a shy little kid, yet once we took her into the Kid’s Club alone at age 3.5, she would keep asking to go back. We didn’t have a lot of kids on our cruise so there was plenty of 1:1 attention, crafts, movies, colouring, music, you name it. They take them from early in the morning until lunch time, then you take them out for lunch then they can go back in there until 10pm. That’s right, 10pm. And then you can pay a cheap rate for someone to sit in your room while they sleep if you want to go “out”. There are provisions for little kids, bigger kids and teens (read: video games) and they even have cool stuff like Park Rangers come on board when you go past National Parks, to talk to the kids about the Park, with activities, prizes, certificates etc. And you don’t pay extra for any of it.

Note: Generally they will only take kids over the age of 3, so this is something important to consider before booking a cruise.

2. Rest or go hard

The beautiful view on the way off the ship.

The beautiful view on the way off the ship.

On a cruise ship you can choose to put your kids in the kids club and stay in your room with your husband in your pyjamas and drink room service cocktails all day. Or you can don your backpacks and take your kids hiking in a National Park or drag them around a city all day. Everyday port day you can make this choice and every sea day there are still many options.


3. Optional organising of activities

40 degrees below 0!  This is how cold it is during the Iditarod. (Can you spot the baby?!)

40 degrees below 0! This is how cold it is during the Iditarod. (Can you spot the baby?!)

Travelling with 7 of us, I tend to make my own itineraries for the shore visits because they average $100 per person per trip. I research the ship docks, how to get out of there, any scams at the docks, where to go, how long it should take and how much it should cost. Then we get off the ship and do our own thing. If you have the money, you can organise absolutely nothing, but go and book shore excursions where you get off the ship and there is a bus waiting for you to take you to a destination and back again. Or you can do a combination of both.

4. Living conditions

I wanted my older children to be able to see parts of Asia but didn’t necessarily want my younger kids drinking the water and eating the food in some of these places, sleeping with bed bugs and showering in dirty showers. This is a way I can have the best of both worlds, which isn’t true backpacking, but a modified child-safe version.

5. Adults activities 
It’s all there. Gyms, shows, day spa, bars, fancy restaurants, swimming pools, book clubs…so much to do, so little time. And they’re all so close together. Need to do a load of washing? No problem, it’s not going to be a half-day event to find the coin laundry.

6. Kids can wander around alone
It’s essentially a village but contained enough I can let kids go off by themselves. Certainly teenagers can take themselves to get some food or to the Teens Club. It doesn’t matter if they get lost, it’s not like getting lost in a foreign city or town. They get some independence that they couldn’t have if you weren’t on a cruise ship.

7. It’s sailing without the sea sickness
We have a bit of a thing about pirates in our house. I love the idea of sailing the seven seas and all that. Problem is, once I sailed just one sea, just between Panama and Colombia and that was probably one of the worst physical experiences of my life. But here we are, going across the sea without any sea sickness, fresh water to shower in, and completely out of the elements.

8. Value for money
Initially it looks expensive, but factor in accommodation, transport (both between and within destinations), meals, activities and general spending money. As long as you are careful to stick to a budget on shore excursions and don’t go overboard (excuse the pun) with things like alcohol or purchasing photos, it can be great value for a large family.

9. It’s just so freaking amazing
You just have to see it to believe it. I can’t stop thinking, if I drop a fork over the side of this cruise ship it will sink into the sea. And yet, here are nightclubs, restaurants, swimming pools and all these people floating up here. It’s so luxurious, so dazzling, you really should see it once in your lifetime.

10. The food

Everybody's happy!

Everybody’s happy!

And finally, the best thing of all about cruises is the food. Think about:
How many times you get nagged about food, or prepare food to have it thrown on the floor.
Trawling the internet hunting for healthy meals and snacks that your kids will actually eat.
Start preparing food to find you haven’t cleared up the plates and scraps from the last meal.
Scrubbing food off the tiles on your hands and knees.
You eat fish fingers and you and the husband go without curries, chilli or steaks because the kids won’t eat them.
You serve the baby the same thing 5 nights in a row because you’ve run out of ideas.
Your teenage daughter has decided to go vegan (this week) so you have to make her a separate meal.
Your teenage son is apparently allergic to fish now.
All the kids are finally asleep but you get to spend an hour cleaning the kitchen.

Am I making you crazy yet? NONE of this stuff matters on a cruise ship. You wake up, you go to breakfast and everyone can have whatever they want and throw it all over the floor if they choose to, and then you get up and walk away. The buffets are open all day. 3 year old is “hungry” again? No problem – pastries, fruits, snacks, all day. Same at lunch, same at dinner. In fact, after a few days on our first cruise, we would arrive at breakfast to find the waitresses had already set up a high chair with an assortment of soft fruits for 8 month old Juliet to chew on while the rest of us organised our food.

Kids don’t stop being kids while travelling, they still complain they are hungry all the time, they still refuse to eat stuff no matter how “hungry” they were before or how expensive it was. On a cruise ship you get a break from all that. An actual real break. And you never have to take out your wallet at the end of a meal.

Tip: there are two sizes of plates at lunch and dinner – take the small size. And only get dessert with your dinner. All the rumours about putting on 5kgs in a week are true.

What are the cons then?
It’s all very contrived on a cruise. The staff are falling over themselves to serve you and that kind of makes me uncomfortable. They are happy all the time and it can get a bit much, it’s not like the real world at all.

You only get one day in each place. If you like to explore a city for more than one day (every place really deserves more than one day) then a cruise isn’t going to give you that. However I use this as an opportunity to get a general feel for a place as a future destination. Our next cruise stops at Langkawi and as I’ve been researching it, I’m thinking it might be a cool place to go back to for a week or two another time, but I’ll know for sure once I spend a day there.

The cost of getting to and from the ports. We live in Perth so we can really only leave from Fremantle otherwise it’s 7 plane tickets, plus the cost of the cruise and 7 plane tickets home again. When we went on the Alaska cruise we were already in the US so the $600 each for the cruise tickets was a bargain but we’d never fly to the US just to go on a cruise. Kids pay the same as adults generally. There are no “free for under 4 years” or anything like that.

Maybe cruises are for you, maybe they aren’t, but don’t write them off, as always, do your research and you might be surprised.