6 Ships That Are Surprisingly Good for Families

by Danielle Contray

6 Ships That Are Surprisingly Good for Families

by Danielle Contray

Sure, plenty of cruise ships cater to families as their primary audience — but less obvious choices, including river and expedition ships, have major perks for people traveling with children, too. While these ships don’t have water parks, character breakfasts, and kid-friendly musicals, they do have awesome programs designed to keep young cruisers entertained at sea and on land, many that involve the whole family. One caveat: While some of these ships welcome children year-round, others offer special family-friendly programs during the summer and holiday breaks.

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Biking along the Danube / Disney
Strudel making in Vienna
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1. AmaViola

River cruising has long been the domain of the more, ahem, mature set, with families relegated to oceangoing ships. In July 2016, AmaWaterways launched sailings on AmaViola that are designed for families, in partnership with Adventures by Disney. Even the staterooms are designed with the whole clan in mind: The ship has multiple connecting cabins, plus suites with convertible sofas. The family-friendliness goes well beyond those pull-out couches. These trips are a lot different from a Disney ocean cruise, though. You won’t see Mickey and Minnie on the ship, but you can expect to visit lots of castles.

Why Kids Will Love It: Shore excursions include strudel making in Vienna and romps through “The Sound of Music” movie locations in Salzburg. Families can also borrow bikes for rides along the Danube. Back on board there are Disney movie nights for the kids (and wine tastings for grown-ups).

The Details: Danube River cruises on AmaViola take place during July and August, plus there are two holiday-themed cruises with December departures that are timed with the Christmas markets. AmaWaterways is launching AmaKristina in 2017, which will host Rhine River cruises in partnerships with Disney during the summer months. Children age 6 and up are allowed on Disney cruises. Outside of these sailings, children 4 and over are allowed on the ship but there are no special programs for kids.

River cruising has long been the domain of the more, ahem, mature set, with families relegated to oceangoing ships. In July 2016, AmaWaterways launched sailings on AmaViola that are designed for families, in partnership with Adventures by Disney. Even the staterooms are designed with the whole clan in mind: The ship has multiple connecting cabins, plus suites with convertible sofas. The family-friendliness goes well beyond those pull-out couches. These trips are a lot different from a Disney ocean cruise, though. You won’t see Mickey and Minnie on the ship, but you can expect to visit lots of castles.

Why Kids Will Love It: Shore excursions include strudel making in Vienna and romps through “The Sound of Music” movie locations in Salzburg. Families can also borrow bikes for rides along the Danube. Back on board there are Disney movie nights for the kids (and wine tastings for grown-ups).

The Details: Danube River cruises on AmaViola take place during July and August, plus there are two holiday-themed cruises with December departures that are timed with the Christmas markets. AmaWaterways is launching AmaKristina in 2017, which will host Rhine River cruises in partnerships with Disney during the summer months. Children age 6 and up are allowed on Disney cruises. Outside of these sailings, children 4 and over are allowed on the ship but there are no special programs for kids.

Family cabin on Europa 2
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2. Europa and Europa 2

“Luxury ship” and “small children” don’t usually go together, but Hapag-Lloyd’s 400-passenger Europa and 500-passenger Europa 2 are particularly family-focused. If you are traveling with a baby, your stateroom will be stocked with diapers and wipes, plus godsends like a diaper bin and a baby-sized bathtub. The best perk of all: On sea days, you can arrange for kids to be picked up at 8 am to be taken to breakfast and then the kids club, while you go back to bed. Both ships have connecting cabins, while Europa 2 also has family staterooms with bunk beds and stuffed animals.

Why Kids Will Love It: Kids as young as two are welcome at the kids clubs on Europa 2, while Europa is open to kids four and up. Age-specific activities include a ball pit and sensory wall for little ones and photo workshops and spa treatments for teens.

The Details: Children eight months and older are able to cruise on Europa and Europa 2 in Europe, while cruises in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean require a minimum age of two years.

“Luxury ship” and “small children” don’t usually go together, but Hapag-Lloyd’s 400-passenger Europa and 500-passenger Europa 2 are particularly family-focused. If you are traveling with a baby, your stateroom will be stocked with diapers and wipes, plus godsends like a diaper bin and a baby-sized bathtub. The best perk of all: On sea days, you can arrange for kids to be picked up at 8 am to be taken to breakfast and then the kids club, while you go back to bed. Both ships have connecting cabins, while Europa 2 also has family staterooms with bunk beds and stuffed animals.

Why Kids Will Love It: Kids as young as two are welcome at the kids clubs on Europa 2, while Europa is open to kids four and up. Age-specific activities include a ball pit and sensory wall for little ones and photo workshops and spa treatments for teens.

The Details: Children eight months and older are able to cruise on Europa and Europa 2 in Europe, while cruises in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean require a minimum age of two years.

Meeting a giant tortoise on Santa Cruz Island
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3. National Geographic Endeavour

Got a budding naturalist on your hands? Summer Galápagos sailings on this Lindblad Expeditions ship are tailored to families. While there are expert guides on board year-round, these sailings are staffed with additional guides who have experience working with children and design the programs to their age and ability level. The focus is on conservation projects — and kids are even offered the chance to pilot the Zodiac. Unlike many expedition ships, the ship has a small pool on board, where the whole family can get instructions on how to use the snorkeling gear or just take a dip together.

Why Kids Will Love It: What did you do on summer vacation? Oh, just snorkeled with sea lions and learned how to take expert iPhone photos with a National Geographic-certified instructor. No big deal.

The Details: Children age eight and up are allowed on National Geographic Endeavour year-round, but the additional naturalist and kid-friendly activities are only available in July and August. National Geographic Islander also hosts family-friendly Galápagos sailings during the summer. This ship is smaller than Endeavour (there are just 48 passengers on Islander versus Endeavour’s 96 passengers), so there will likely be fewer kids, and there is no pool.

Got a budding naturalist on your hands? Summer Galápagos sailings on this Lindblad Expeditions ship are tailored to families. While there are expert guides on board year-round, these sailings are staffed with additional guides who have experience working with children and design the programs to their age and ability level. The focus is on conservation projects — and kids are even offered the chance to pilot the Zodiac. Unlike many expedition ships, the ship has a small pool on board, where the whole family can get instructions on how to use the snorkeling gear or just take a dip together.

Why Kids Will Love It: What did you do on summer vacation? Oh, just snorkeled with sea lions and learned how to take expert iPhone photos with a National Geographic-certified instructor. No big deal.

The Details: Children age eight and up are allowed on National Geographic Endeavour year-round, but the additional naturalist and kid-friendly activities are only available in July and August. National Geographic Islander also hosts family-friendly Galápagos sailings during the summer. This ship is smaller than Endeavour (there are just 48 passengers on Islander versus Endeavour’s 96 passengers), so there will likely be fewer kids, and there is no pool.

Cookie decorating on Crystal Symphony
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4. Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony

While children as young as six months are allowed on luxury ships from lines like Silversea and Seabourn, and one year and over on Regent Seven Seas, you won’t find facilities on board their ships just for the younger set. These two Crystal ships both have dedicated kids clubs, and during the prime family vacation seasons you’ll find lots of multigenerational groups cruising together, getting sweet treats at the Scoops ice cream parlor and hitting balls back and forth at the paddle tennis courts on the sundeck. This is a luxury line used to special requests, meaning the chefs can whip up custom dishes for the pickiest of eaters.

Why Kids Will Love It: The kids playrooms have games and crafting supplies, plus an Xbox and PlayStation (there’s also a separate teen area with a video arcade). Children as young as three can participate in fun activities like cookie decorating, hide-and-seek, and pajama parties. There are also special tours of the galley and bridge. 

The Details: Children as young as three can participate in the Junior Activities offered during summer months and holiday cruises. Children must be at least six months old to cruise on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. The same age requirement applies to Crystal Esprit and the line's new river ship, Crystal Mozart, but neither ship has child-focused spaces or programs.

While children as young as six months are allowed on luxury ships from lines like Silversea and Seabourn, and one year and over on Regent Seven Seas, you won’t find facilities on board their ships just for the younger set. These two Crystal ships both have dedicated kids clubs, and during the prime family vacation seasons you’ll find lots of multigenerational groups cruising together, getting sweet treats at the Scoops ice cream parlor and hitting balls back and forth at the paddle tennis courts on the sundeck. This is a luxury line used to special requests, meaning the chefs can whip up custom dishes for the pickiest of eaters.

Why Kids Will Love It: The kids playrooms have games and crafting supplies, plus an Xbox and PlayStation (there’s also a separate teen area with a video arcade). Children as young as three can participate in fun activities like cookie decorating, hide-and-seek, and pajama parties. There are also special tours of the galley and bridge. 

The Details: Children as young as three can participate in the Junior Activities offered during summer months and holiday cruises. Children must be at least six months old to cruise on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. The same age requirement applies to Crystal Esprit and the line's new river ship, Crystal Mozart, but neither ship has child-focused spaces or programs.

Paddleboarding in Alaska
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5. Wilderness Explorer

Alaska cruises are all about soaking in the natural surroundings, and this small expedition ship from Un-Cruise can squeeze deeper into the fjords and get closer to shore for wildlife spotting from the viewing platform. Summer sailings on this no-frills ship have extra programs designed for young cruisers, including guided hikes and arts and crafts projects inspired by the native Alaskan communities.

Why Kids Will Love It: Wilderness Explorer has an EZ Dock launch platform that makes it easy for kids to get out on the water on kayaks or paddleboards. The ship is also stocked with child-size paddles so no one is left out of the fun.

The Details: Kids age eight and up are allowed on Wilderness Explorer, which cruises in Southeast Alaska from May to September. The family programs are offered during the peak summer months of July and August.

Alaska cruises are all about soaking in the natural surroundings, and this small expedition ship from Un-Cruise can squeeze deeper into the fjords and get closer to shore for wildlife spotting from the viewing platform. Summer sailings on this no-frills ship have extra programs designed for young cruisers, including guided hikes and arts and crafts projects inspired by the native Alaskan communities.

Why Kids Will Love It: Wilderness Explorer has an EZ Dock launch platform that makes it easy for kids to get out on the water on kayaks or paddleboards. The ship is also stocked with child-size paddles so no one is left out of the fun.

The Details: Kids age eight and up are allowed on Wilderness Explorer, which cruises in Southeast Alaska from May to September. The family programs are offered during the peak summer months of July and August.

Playing shuffleboard on the sundeck
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6. Uniworld River Cruises

AmaViola’s Disney sailings aside, it is rare to find a river cruise line that makes families with small children a focus. Many lines have higher minimum age requirements than oceangoing ships — Avalon has a minimum age of eight, while Viking and Scenic require kids to be 12 — and most lack specific activities for kids. In contrast, Uniworld offers more than a dozen family-focused cruises on a variety of ships. The kids programs focus on the destination, with a “soda sommelier” who offers up a selection of local soft drinks and onboard visits by children who live in the surrounding area to do programs about local life. Kids can also choose to sit with their peers at dinner, where they get a lesson in the region’s cuisine. A separate shore excursion is also offered in every port for families, geared more toward the pace and attention span of younger passengers than, say, a two-hour walking tour of medieval churches.

Why Kids Will Love It: A special lounge stocked with a PlayStation, kid-friendly movies, and snacks is set up just for these sailings. The ship’s pastry chef also teaches classes to young cruisers. Expect to make some pretty epic gingerbread houses during the Christmas markets cruise in Germany.

The Details: Uniworld’s family sailings are planned for June, July, and August (with a special December Christmas market sailing) and cruise along the Danube and Rhine. The summertime Splendors of Italy trip combines a cruise on the Po River with time on land in Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice. Children age four and over are allowed on all Uniworld sailings, but there are no special programs (or anything really kid-centric at all) unless you are on one of the cruises specifically geared toward families.

AmaViola’s Disney sailings aside, it is rare to find a river cruise line that makes families with small children a focus. Many lines have higher minimum age requirements than oceangoing ships — Avalon has a minimum age of eight, while Viking and Scenic require kids to be 12 — and most lack specific activities for kids. In contrast, Uniworld offers more than a dozen family-focused cruises on a variety of ships. The kids programs focus on the destination, with a “soda sommelier” who offers up a selection of local soft drinks and onboard visits by children who live in the surrounding area to do programs about local life. Kids can also choose to sit with their peers at dinner, where they get a lesson in the region’s cuisine. A separate shore excursion is also offered in every port for families, geared more toward the pace and attention span of younger passengers than, say, a two-hour walking tour of medieval churches.

Why Kids Will Love It: A special lounge stocked with a PlayStation, kid-friendly movies, and snacks is set up just for these sailings. The ship’s pastry chef also teaches classes to young cruisers. Expect to make some pretty epic gingerbread houses during the Christmas markets cruise in Germany.

The Details: Uniworld’s family sailings are planned for June, July, and August (with a special December Christmas market sailing) and cruise along the Danube and Rhine. The summertime Splendors of Italy trip combines a cruise on the Po River with time on land in Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice. Children age four and over are allowed on all Uniworld sailings, but there are no special programs (or anything really kid-centric at all) unless you are on one of the cruises specifically geared toward families.

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