Las Vegas is going back to its racy roots and downplaying family tourism, but the cruise industry is taking the opposite tack. Many major cruise lines are chasing the family market...

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Las Vegas is going back to its racy roots and downplaying family tourism, but the cruise industry is taking the opposite tack.

Many major cruise lines are chasing the family market, luring kids and parents with all-day children’s programs, kids-only swimming pools, pizza parties, teen discos and more.

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For busy families with limited vacation time or for family reunions, cruises can appeal since everything — room, meals, entertainment — is all organized by someone else and all under one giant floating roof.

Cruises are not a budget vacation, of course. But by shopping around, families can find discounts, especially for last-minute cruises (which in the cruise world means booking weeks, not months, ahead) or in the off-season. And for Northwesterners, the boom in summertime cruises to Alaska from Seattle lets families avoid costly air travel to a port.


If you’re thinking of a family cruise, here are some things to consider.


The right ship


First, work out what you and your kids want. Organized, all-day children’s programs or more independence? Lots of shipboard entertainment or more outdoors-oriented sights and shore excursions? A new mega-ship or a more classic or smaller vessel? (The new ships tend to have bigger kids’ areas, including special play rooms and pools.)


compass


• The Web site of the Cruise Lines International Association, www.cruising.org, has information on major cruise lines, plus links to cruise companies and a searchable list of travel agents specializing in cruises.

• Some small-ship cruise companies are listed at www.smallshipcruises.com

It also has information on family cruises.

• Web sites with cruise-ship reviews by travelers include www.cruisecritic.com, www.cruisemates.com with useful tips on family cruising) and www.cruise-addicts.com

• Frommer’s Publications has useful cruise guidebooks, including some on ports of call in various areas. Its Web site, www.frommers.com, also gives tips on choosing a cruise.


Study cruise brochures and Web sites. Among those with formal children’s programs are Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess, Holland America and, of course, the Disney Cruise Line, the most family-oriented of them all. Also work with a travel agent who books a lot of cruises; a good, experienced agent can steer you toward the right ship and may be able to get cabin upgrades.


The right destination


For some passengers, the ship’s the thing; they just want to bask in its comforts and hardly bother going ashore. For others, the ports of call and shore excursions are what really matter.

If you want warm-weather cruising and lots of shore excursions, consider Hawaii, where Norwegian Cruise Line is becoming the leader in inter-island cruises with stops of a day (or more) at the major islands. Or take a cruise along Mexico’s west coast from Los Angeles or San Diego (but be aware that the short three- or four-day cruises can draw a party-hearty crowd ).

The Caribbean, a winter playground for most of the world’s major cruise lines including Disney, has a wide variety of itineraries. Some cruise companies have their own private islets where passengers play on the beach for a day.

If money is no object, small-ship cruise companies offer family-focused voyages in Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands and other exotic destinations, particularly during school holidays.

Wherever you go, the major cruise lines’ shore excursions can quickly bust a family’s budget since they’re not included in the fare. Save your bucks for the special shore excursions — such as a seaplane or helicopter sightseeing flight — and organize the more basic ones on your own. It’s particularly easy on Alaska and Hawaii cruises where the destinations are small-scale and there’s no language barrier. Take along a guidebook, reserve a rental car for the day and head off to Hawaii’s beaches, parks and towns on your own. Or devise your own walking tour in the small, easygoing Alaskan ports such as Ketchikan or Juneau.


The right stuff for kids


If you plan to use a children’s program, double check that it’s guaranteed to be available on the dates of your cruise. Some programs may be dependent on the season and the number of children aboard. Also ask about the children-to-staff ratio and the staff’s training, and the medical help that’s available on-board.

Some other basics:

• Comparison-shop for the rates on a third or fourth person in a cabin; sometimes there are very low fares. Some ships also have cabins that sleep five. But weigh the price against the greater space and privacy of adjoining cabins — and the pleasure of not sharing one small bathroom.

• Most youth programs are for children ages 3 to 17, although some cruise lines will take younger children. If you have a toddler, be clear on the toilet-training issue. On many cruise lines, the youth counselors won’t change diapers. Either the child can’t be in the program — or you might be paged to come do the dirty work.

• If you plan to use a lot of baby-sitting for a younger child, check the hourly cost (unlike many of the youth programs, it’s not included in the cruise fare). It could be more economical and convenient to bring along another family member — a teenage niece or nephew — to provide baby-sitting.

• Ask about the availability of cribs (and make sure you cabin has room for one) and guardrails for bunk beds.

• Outside cabins are more pleasant, but much more expensive than inside cabins. For families with older teens, parents could get an outside cabin and put the kids across the corridor on the inside. Many new ships have cabins with verandahs; that’s especially nice if you need to be with a young child who naps.

• Check on meal policies. Are there assigned times for dinner, or does the ship have the more relaxed, you choose-the-time-and-table restaurants. That’s much easier with young kids.

• Older children will want to run free on ships, but go over basic personal-safety rules with them. There have been cases of sexual assault on ships by crew and passengers, including one in August when a passenger from Washington was charged with the sexual assault of a 15-year-old boy on a Seattle-Alaska cruise.


Quieter options


If you’re traveling with older children and don’t want a formal kids’ program or the hubbub of a family-focused cruise, choose one of the luxurious cruise lines such as Crystal, Seabourn or Silversea. Be ready to pay: Per-person prices can easily be double the fares of mass-market lines such as Carnival or Norwegian.


Insurance


Whatever cruise you choose, consider buying trip-cancellation insurance, since childhood illnesses can strike at the most inconvenient times. You don’t want to have to miss the boat — and be stuck with paying for it.

Kristin Jackson’s Family Matters column runs the third Sunday of each month. Contact her at 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com