Thinking of booking a family cruise? – Here’s everything you need to know.
I’ve recently stepped off a local (South African) MSC-operated cruise from Cape Town to Durban. I was under the impression that cruises are a wonderful, low-stress holiday for families – boy was I wrong!
Sure, there are some pros to cruising… cruise companies wouldn’t be the profit-making conglomerates they are if everyone hated cruising… but after our first family cruise, I’ve decided it’s not for us.
I’ve put together a list of pros and cons of cruise holidays below, trying hard to remain as unbiased as possible despite our negative experience. The information below is my opinion, yours may be very different. Also remember that I am solely looking at cruising from a family perspective i.e. travelling with kids. Adult-only groups may also find they have a different experience.
PROs to Family Cruising
Lugging around heavy suitcases, using public transport,and figuring out maps in an unfamiliar place are some of the travel hassles that are alleviated when travelling on a cruise itinerary. Your booking will clearly let you know which ports of call are included in your cruise, you get a pre-set amount of time at each port and excursions can be arranged in advance if you want to see a particular historical site at the stop over city.
Technically, you don’t need to reach for your wallet once you board the cruise. Food is abundant and served almost all day at the ship’s restaurants and snack areas. Drinks are not included. Save for water fountains and coffee in the buffet area ONLY. No drinks are included at the restaurants.
From deck parties to quizzes and games, the entertainment staff are there specifically to ensure people have a good time. They urge people onto the dancefloor in the clubs and lounges and facilitate competitions and games during the day.
The ship’s onboard theatre normally schedules a different show each night and this is usually a highlight for me.
Most cruise lines (local MSC included) have different age-appropriate kids clubs that can keep kids entertained, busy and SAFE, whilst parents enjoy some adult time.Our kids flat out refused to stay in a strange place with strange people without us present, and even the thrill of LEGO could not convince them otherwise. So if your children are also a bit clingy, this may not be an option.
CONs to Family Cruising
If you loathe large crowds, I’d strongly recommend staying away from cruises.
Unless you decide to stay in your stateroom and order room service the entire time, you WILL find yourself surrounded by people anywhere you go on the cruise ship.
There’s no two ways about it, if there’s thousands of people getting on the cruise, there’s will be queues to embark, queues to get into the restaurant, to activate your cruise card, to get a drink at the bar, to pay your bill at the end, to disembark etc etc etc…
And maybe your kids are different, but my kids are averse to queues…they just don’t understand why we had to stand in a 30-minute line to get into the onboard restaurant. Come to think of it, neither could we.
We found queues just about everywhere, and most annoying, long lines at every single elevator. It became extremely frustrating after a while.
When booking a cruise, please remember that you are at the mercy of the weather. The cruise company have significant terms and conditions that wholly cover them if they need to change/cancel itineraries and this can leave you with unexpected costs and lots of strife.
If your “kids cruise free” as cruise companies normally punt, it means your children (2max) will be sharing your cabin with you. Unless you plump for a balcony suite, you’ll struggle with cabin space. It’s shocking really just how cramped you are… imagine opening a large suitcase on the bed while your children and partner try to share the same tiny corridor you’re standing in. I could not cope with the lack of space to shower and dress in.
I think this depends on various factors, the speed the ship is travelling, sea winds, the captain’s skill, and your own body’s susceptibility to motion sickness. I’ve been on 2 Mediterranean cruises and have actually marvelled on how I felt nothing on the ship. The local MSC cruise however was dreadful in terms of sea sickness for me (and several of my family members). We were sick the entire time. The ship rocked and lurched so drastically, I could not stand in my cabin without holding on to something for support and safety. And now, two days since disembarking the ship, I still feel my head spin from that motion.
One of the biggest gripes for me personally was not being able to send a simple message to our family WhatsApp group to let them know I’m going to breakfast or going to the deck for some sunshine. We were a big group so keeping in touch was a hassle. And looking for someone on a cruise ship is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Parents with older kids might also find this challenging if they needed to easily locate their teenager, for example.
I mentioned this above but wanted to add this to the ‘con’ list, because even if you love your own kids and want to be around them all day…you most certainly don’t want to be surrounded by hordes of sugar-hyped kids for the entire duration of your holiday. And that’s precisely what I found on our cruise ship. Most people have taken advantage of the ‘kids cruise free’ offer and there were kids everywhere! Kids splashing noisily in the pools, pushing you at the buffet lines, babies crying as you try to read your book on deck…just kids literally everywhere. If you work at a daycare, it might just be your cup of tea, but otherwise…not so much.
I mentioned above that food is abundant, but what happens when you’re stuck on a ship and the food is just awful? That was my experience on our local MSC cruise. The food looked and tasted like mass produced fodder. Perhaps we were just unlucky with the food due to the delays, maybe the food was prepared for the ship in haste? I don’t know…but the buffet was inedible and I found the restaurant offering was actually just something from the buffet which was plated and brought to your table. I ate hardly anything at all. And to be honest I could not find a single passenger that enjoyed the food onboard.
Ok, I expected drinks, spa treatments etc to be quite costly onboard, but even I was shocked that an average cocktail could set you back $6 plus 15% tax. That’s over ZAR100 for a single drink. All onboard charges are in US Dollars which makes it tricky to work out the conversion rates before you charge something to your card.
A single jumbo-sized photo costs $10, plus an additional $10 for the (single) digital version. I think many people got a very nasty surprise when they got their bills on the last night to realise their few onboard swipes meant they were liable to pay thousands of Rands.
I’ll never say never, but I’d be VERY unlikely to book a cruise for our family again. Besides the nasty experience we had with MSC Cruise Lines (a story for another day), I found cruising extremely stressful and tiring, which is not what a holiday should be. The crowds and lines were impossible at times, and the lack of space was a definite turn off. Add to that inedible food and motion sickness…and well, no thanks!