Three summers ago, my now-11-year-old daughter Alex and I checked out our first seasonal youth program on a small ship -- and we've been hooked ever since. While we certainly enjoy all the bells and whistles aboard the mega-ships, most of which offer year-round youth programs, Alex and I have had very memorable voyages aboard a number of small ships during the past few summers too. These smaller ships afforded us unique family fun as we held a monkey during a Cruise West expedition in Costa Rica, flew a kite from the deck of a Delta Queen Steamboat Co. cruise on the Mississippi, and hoisted the sails aboard a Windjammer Barefoot Cruises ship in the Caribbean. We also had some time to pursue our own interests, since each of these three cruise lines, as well as those mentioned below, have specific activities for children and teen activities during the summer months.
This year, there are more seasonal family programs than ever. Some are truly exotic such as Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' hands-on learning program for children in Tahiti in conjunction with the Cousteau society. Read on for details, including a number of substantial price incentives for children.
This summer, family cruises depart on June 18 and 25, and July 16 and 23. Children ages 12 and under sharing a cabin with an adult save 50%; those age 13-21 save 25%. You can also save $125 per person on deposits received three months prior to departure. Most shore excursions are included (except for activities such as zip lining through the rainforest). These inclusive activities add up to substantial savings for families when you compare your costs to the big cruise lines and their pricey shore excursions. Children can dine on kid-food an hour before the adult open seating for dinner.
The majority of large cruise lines with year-round youth programs do not take children off the ship for land experiences. As the parent of a child who spends 10 months of the year primarily inside a stuffy school building, I find it a big plus that Cruise West allows its naturalists and children's activities coordinator to guide kids through nature's hands-on classroom -- the jungles, beaches and tide pools of Costa Rica. www.cruisewest.com
Crystal's youth program is offered fleet-wide during summer, on holiday cruises, and when there are at least 10 children aboard. Youngsters must be 3 to 17 years old to participate in the Junior Cruisers program. Some program highlights include galley, backstage and bridge tours just for kids, as well as a Junior Cruisers menu with kid-favorites. Crystal receives the most families aboard its summer European cruises.
Once again this summer, children under 12 years can sail free on eight (May 30; June 11, 23; July 5, 17, 29; August 10, 22) of the line's Alaska cruises when sharing a stateroom with two adults. Crystal Harmony departs San Francisco for the 12-day cruises to Alaska. The "kids sail free" promotion is limited to triple stateroom accommodations; the ships also have a number of connecting staterooms and suites available for families of four or more.
For the third summer in a row, Crystal is offering Cotillion classes for youngsters in Alaska. Children are taught -- in a fun setting -- social and dining etiquette as well as ballroom dancing. Another feature of the kids' program in Alaska is a special talk by a park ranger when the ship is in Glacier Bay National Park. The Junior Activities Directors include teachers on summer holiday as well as camp counselors; there is an impressively low ratio of 12 children to every counselor.
All three Crystal ships have a dedicated youth room equipped with Sony Playstation games and computers with kid-friendly software. Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity also feature a teenagers' video arcade called Waves. Other kid-friendly amenities on the ships include a library with a selection of children's books and family-friendly videos to rent (there are VCRs in every stateroom); a pool; putting green; and paddle tennis court.
Private babysitting is available for $7.50 per hour for one child; $10 per hour for two children, and $12.50 per hour for three children. www.crystalcruises.com
DELTA QUEEN STEAMBOAT CO.
For the second year in a row, Delta Queen is featuring a family program to be offered June through August and during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holiday weeks. "Family Riverventures" promise to take families back to a simpler time aboard the 436-passenger American Queen and 416-passenger Mississippi Queen river paddle wheelers.
During Family Riverventure cruises, a "Riverlorian" presents programs geared towards families, giving insights into the river culture and lore of the south and heartland. Throughout the cruise, there are references to the Mississippi River's most famous trio of kids – Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.
This year, a few family excursions are included in the cruise fare such as a Child's Day on the Plantation, which entertains both young and old with Cajun dance lessons and some old-fashioned chores like shelling corn and washing clothes on a washboard. Other family excursions are offered at lowered rates for children. Additional perks include a free board game during their cruise that families can bring home, as well as a complimentary family portrait.
Once again, children under 18 travel free. Since the ships have many triple cabins but not quads, families with two children get a second stateroom of equal or lesser value for free with a room at full price. There are also additional early booking savings as well as two-for-one adult fares on select sailings booked by June 30. www.deltaqueen.com
GLACIER BAY CRUISELINE
Glacier Bay Cruiseline offers seven family departures. These expedition-style cruises in Alaska feature sea kayaking and nature walks, key components in exploring untouched spots at sea and on land. This year's sailings are June 18, 25, July 1, 16, 23, August 6, 13.
Each family cruise has at least one youth counselor to coordinate special activities for kids. There are many active things for kids to do off the ship, like beachcombing, exploring tidal pools, kayaking and whale watching. On board, the youth coordinator arranges activities incorporating the natural world such as soap carvings of Alaskan wildlife, making glaciers out of ice cream, or earning a junior ranger certificate.
On the above family cruises, children age 5-18 who are traveling with an adult sail at half price. (See promotion 5008 on the line's web site.) These family cruises also include a children's option on the menu each night. www.glacierbaycruiseline.com
While Lindblad Expeditions has special sailings with youth counselors in the summer and at other peak travel times, it encourages families to travel with the line year-round, since naturalists and expedition leaders provide hikes and activities for children at any time. Both the family sailings and regular cruises offer early mealtimes, visits to the bridge for children, and other special provisions such as shorter hikes for kids. The difference is that designated family departures have a family coordinator on board who is a naturalist trained in early childhood education, and thus can add kid-friendly activities.
This summer, the family voyages include: Alaska on a weekly basis from June 26 through August 7; Baja on June 25 and July 2; Costa Rica on July 23, August 6, and 13; and Galapagos on July 1, 16, 22, and August 5, 12. On these cruises, some of the children's activities include snorkeling, navigation, microscope use, nautical knot tying, zodiac driving, dissection, stargazing and artwork. There are also children's dinners and movie time in the lounge while the parents eat dinner.
Each child cruising receives a $500 discount. This offer applies to all "children" up to age 21. www.expeditions.com
RADISSON SEVEN SEAS CRUISES
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises offers a summer youth program in Alaska, Europe, the Caribbean and Bermuda. It's for children age 6-17 and is overseen by youth counselors. Activities focus on integrating the region's heritage and natural environment through crafts and games. Club Mariner also offers kids-only tours of the ship.
In addition, this is the second summer that RSSC will offer a unique children's educational program in Tahiti. Called "Ambassadors of the Environment," it will be held on the 320-passenger Paul Gauguin in conjunction with Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society. Utilizing education methods pioneered by Cousteau, the program gives young cruisers age 9 to 15 direct interactive experience with marine and island ecosystems. According to Cousteau, "kids make better decisions as adults if they've been exposed to the natural world" when they are young. His ultimate goal is that youngsters who participate will become "ambassadors" and teach others about the need to preserve our ocean and the life within it.
The main points emphasized in Ambassadors of the Environment include the importance of coral reefs, sustainable lifestyles, and Polynesian culture. Children will learn by hands-on experiences such as hiking through a rainforest, exploring coral reefs, learning from Polynesian youth how to paddle an outrigger canoe or dancing Polynesian style. The youth counselors on these Tahitian sailings have degrees in natural or environmental sciences and have been trained by Cousteau. There is a $199 fee for the program, which covers six to seven shore excursions.
In addition to the Paul Gauguin, the Club Mariner youth program is offered on the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator, 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager, and her sister ship, Seven Seas Mariner. Check with RSSC's reservations department before booking to make sure the youth program will be operating during the summer or Thanksgiving/Christmas cruise you choose. Another kid-friendly plus is that a child's menu is offered on Club Mariner sailings.
RSSC offers a 50% discount for one child who shares a stateroom with two paying adults. The line's ships can accommodate a number of triples but not quads, unless there are two small children under seven who can share a sleeper sofa. In that case, both children receive the 50% discount. The line recommends booking a connecting cabin or two-bedroom suite for families of four. www.rssc.com
WINDJAMMER BAREFOOT CRUISES
Families can kick off their shoes and experience such unique activities as hoisting the sails aboard Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' summer sailings on the Polynesia, Legacy and now the Amazing Grace. (The latter is not a masted ship; the two other ships are.) The line's Junior Jammers youth program is for kids age 6-12, while the teen program is for those between the ages of 13 and 17. The Legacy sails from Miami on four, five and 8-day cruises to the Bahamas; the Polynesia sails weekly to the Netherlands Antilles; and the Amazing Grace offers seven-day adventures on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and Panama. The Junior Jammers program continues to grow in popularity -- last year a third ship was added and a fourth one might be added next summer.
What's unique, though, is that on these cruises kids as young as 6 can learn to dive. For children ages 6-8, SASY (Supplied Air Snorkeling for Youth) is available as a way to introduce kids to diving through using breathing equipment, snorkel and flotation devices. Kids ages 8 to 12 can graduate to Bubblemaker, a first scuba experience with real dive equipment. The next step is a PADI Seal Team where children can go on Aqua Missions. Lastly, Junior Discover Scuba enables youngsters to dive in water up to 30 feet deep. Both SASY and Bubblemaker programs are supervised by certified PADI instructors.
Once again, kids can sail free during these summer cruises. One child age 6 to 11 sails free when accompanied by two full fare adults. If you're sailing with two children, the line will take 50% off each child's fare. Children pay half fare when accompanied by one adult in standard cabins. www.windjammer.com
OTHER FAMILY INCENTIVES
While Metropolitan Touring's cruises to the Galapagos Islands do not feature special family departures, all the ships have activities geared toward children when there are some aboard. The ships include the 90-passenger Santa Cruz and the 40-passenger Isabella II. On a year-round basis, children between 6 and 12 sharing a cabin with a parent receive a 25% discount. The same policy exists for packages on mainland Ecuador except the discount is 50%. www.metropolitan-touring.com
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