25 tips for going on a cruise with a toddler
By Helen Wright
Toddlers are tricky characters aren’t they? One day they wake up overjoyed at life and the next they have a total meltdown if their cookie is the wrong shape. It’s a ride for sure. I love travelling with my two children, Isobel (2) and Finn (4), but a cruise with toddler maniacs in tow? We had never braved one before and let’s just say, on the eve of our first sail I was definitely nervous…
However, I am pleased to report the experience was fantastic and I am ready to re-pack my bags and hop aboard the next ship leaving Southampton because we had so much fun!
Cruise with toddler: It’s easy as A, B, Sea…
At first glance, a cruise with a baby or toddler might seem overwhelming, but as far as holidaying with kids goes, taking a toddler on a cruise is actually easier than you might expect. Think about it; you’re boarding a literal floating palace of fun, packed with entertainment on every floor. Little eyes and minds will be wow’d by this huge, shiny and curious new space they get to explore. There is fun around every corner with first class facilities and activities designed just for them. Picky eaters won’t be a problem either, since they’ll have a choice of pretty much anything to load on their plate. Come on mum, don’t make them eat the broccoli. They’re on holiday, after all.
And finally, let’s talk kids clubs! FREE childcare. And, we’re not talking just any old, everyday crèche. Cruise ships have some of the most imaginative and elaborate kids clubs in the world. You won’t need to worry about your little ones being reluctant to go in, the main problem will be getting them to leave.
What is the best cruise for toddlers?
It probably goes without saying, but one of the most family-friendly cruises you can take with a toddler is the Disney Cruise Line. Captain Mickey or Minnie at the helm, a cast of Disney Characters on board and a horn that plays ‘when you wish upon a star’ – it’s a taste of the Disney magic at sea, which funnily enough was the name of the cruise we sailed on!
We boarded the Disney Magic at Sea in Southampton on one of the UK seacation sails that departed in summer 2021. These cruises were designed as a way to experience the joys of cruising in a Covid-safe environment. It was the perfect way to introduce Finn and Isobel to cruising, since this trip was not about the destination, but all about exploring what to do on board the amazing ship itself. With no flights to endure and only a short journey from home to the terminal. It was our first cruise as a family, but with Disney at the helm, I was confident it would be the perfect maiden voyage.
25 cruise with toddler tips to consider before your trip
I reached out on social media before the trip and was given some great advice, which really helped make our cruise with toddler experience a positive one. Below is a list of 25 tips on taking a cruise with a baby or toddler, including advice we were given and little extras we picked up ourselves during our time on the Disney Magic at Sea.
1. How to choose your cruise
There are a lot different cruises available for families, so how do you work out which cruise is best for you? Obviously destination plays a huge part, facilities that suit your family or group, duration and cruise schedule and price.
My advice is to start with the ships themselves. Do a little research about what’s on board, general prices and user reviews. Narrow down the brands you think match the needs and interests of your group. Then, take a look at where and when these cruises will be sailing. Remember to consider journey time. For some cruises, such as those in the Caribbean, you may need to fly long haul to board. Most packages include flights, but this may have a significant impact on budget restrictions, as well as the amount of time you need to take your cruise. Finally, do pay some attention to the average weather and temperatures in the area you plan to sail.
The other thing to consider is how much you want to explore the destinations you’ll be sailing to. A cruise with a toddler will almost certainly be a fun experience on board, but if your ship is docking in various ports, think about whether you’ll want to get off and explore? Toddlers will soon tire of plodding up steep European hills while you follow along bumping the buggy over the cobbles. I am all for exploring with little ones, but if you’re hoping for a more relaxing, low-stress break, a cruise with less stops and more time at sea might be best with a toddler.
Our first family cruise with toddler and a baby was on the Disney Cruise Line. We knew choosing Disney would guarantee incredible guest service and the theming and Character branding was ideal for our children’s ages (4 and 1). It was my daughter’s birthday during the sail, so adding a bit of Disney made the trip that little bit more magical. Post-Covid, Disney are currently offering a sea-cation sail, leaving from Southampton (and three other UK ports). Being able to sail from the UK with no flights to wrestle the kids on to and no threat of getting stuck somewhere on the red list was stress-free and very appealing. It was also a rare opportunity to have a mini Disney holiday in the UK, so it was a big thumbs up from us.
Read about our experience on the Disney Magic at Sea Staycation sail
2. Which cabin is best for a toddler on a cruise?
The names and cabin types vary on every ship, but they roughly all follow the same pattern as the staterooms on the Disney Cruise Line of which there were four choices:
An inside cabin: The most affordable cabins on board as they offer no outside view. Although on some ships, inside cabins have a ‘magic porthole’, which is a screen that simulates the view outside on a small screen to help guests feel less closed in.
Oceanview Stateroom: A stateroom with a window but no balcony or outside access.
Verandah Stateroom: Comparative in size and style to an Oceanview stateroom, but with a small balcony.
Suites: These are ideal for larger groups (or larger budgets). They offer more space, separate bedrooms and larger balconies, sometimes with private hot tubs.
Benefits of booking an interior cabin with toddlers
It’s true that opting for an interior stateroom is a great way to save money on a Disney cruise, but for me personally, I would never choose an inside cabin. I enjoy the view of the water outside and feel a little claustrophobic with no windows.
However, these rooms do have some lesser-known perks. If you are cruising with a baby or toddler, they are really dark at night, so if your child is used to sleeping with a blackout blind at home, you may find an interior cabin is better to help them settle. Adults often say they always have a great night’s sleep too! The interior of the ship is often the calmest place to be, so guests with an inside stateroom may also be less affected by heavy waves (and seasickness).
TOP TIP: It’s worth noting that there are fewer inside staterooms on most ships and they are often the cabins that sell out first. So if you want to go in, you need to ‘get in’ quick and book your bed.
Why to choose a balcony stateroom on a cruise with toddler
I would always recommend guests traveling with toddlers book a Verandah stateroom. Cabins with balconies offer a better experience for parents once the kids (eventually) go to sleep. As with any hotel room, being able to sneak outside and sit on the balcony with a cheeky glass of wine after-hours, extends the day for adults and provides some sacred alone time. Plus, there is nothing like enjoying your morning coffee with a view of the horizon.
It’s understandable that parents on a cruise with toddlers may be worried about booking a balcony room for safety reasons. On the Disney Magic, the balconies have high, glass rails and are considered very safe for infants and children. Before your cruise, talk to your toddler about the dangers of the sea and push any furniture away from the edge. Obviously, it goes without saying to never leave children playing on the balcony unsupervised.
If you’d just rather eradicate the need to worry about balcony safety in your cabin, go for an Oceanview stateroom. These have the benefit of a large window and no risk of the wildlings going (or throwing) anything overboard.
Most staterooms will have a pull down bunk bed or a sofa bed for children to sleep on. If your baby or toddler still uses a cot, these can be requested from guest services. Read our review of the Deluxe Verandah Stateroom on board the Disney Magic with a four-year-old and a baby.
One last thing to consider when booking a stateroom on a cruise with toddlers: Most cabins come equipped with a shower-only, which can be a bit awkward with under-5s. However, some cruise lines offer staterooms with a bathtub (our Deluxe Verandah Stateroom on the Disney Magic did), so it is always worth enquiring if one is available.
3. Plan for a stress-free departure day
If you don’t live near to the departure port for your cruise, consider booking a hotel close to the terminal. This means you’ll be packed and ready the day before your cruise, and wont’t spend the morning faffing about and stressing about cases and preparing to leave. This lessens the stress for you and keeps your toddler calm and chilled before the trip.
Traveling can be stressful for everyone with unpredictable toddlers in tow, so reducing the amount you travel on embarkmentation day, is a good idea. When you board the ship before your cruise, you’ll wan’t your toddler to be excited and happy because tired and grouchy mini humans are not fun.
Our children had never seen a cruise ship in real life before. Even though we only live an hour and a half away from Southampton, we opted to stay in a hotel the night before. As well as extending the trip a little bit, we decided wanted an easy morning and to take the kids along the dock to show them the ships and answer any questions or anxieties before getting on board. It worked well. Finn, especially, had lots of questions (he is four; don’t they all?) By the time it was our scheduled boarding time, both kids were so excited to get on board, moving through the terminal was easy.
4. Boarding time tips for cruising with kids
It goes without saying, the earlier you can get on board, the longer you will be able to enjoy the ship and its facilities (getting the most for you money, you see). The departure time will be communicated in advance, but with the average cruise ship carrying over 3000 guests, that’s a lot of people and luggage to get on board.
For a cruise with toddlers, leave extra time for boarding. Have a look at when check-in begins as embarkation will likely start around an hour later. You will have been asked to select a port arrival time when you do online check-in prior to your cruise. Whilst it’s advisable to stay relatively close to this time, is not that strictly enforced. Think about when your toddler will need lunch or a nap. If you don’t think you will be on board by lunch time, pack some snacks or a pack up for them to eat in the departure lounge so they don’t get hangry.
You will be able to push your buggy through the departure terminal but if your child is napping in the pram, they will need to be lifted out for cruise security to have their photo taken. So, my advice would be to hold off boarding until after snooze time for happy, well-slept toddler cruisers!
5. Make light work of packing
If you have read my post on traveling and flying with a baby or toddler, you will know that I always recommend packing as light as possible. More stuff means more stress, so pack cleverly and sensibly and make your experience as pleasant as possible.
We travelled on the Disney Cruise Line, which has some of the largest rooms in the cruise industry, but cruise cabins are more compact than an average a hotel room. If you are taking a short cruise (2-4 days), opt for a small suitcase, or even better a soft bag which can be more easily stored in your stateroom. Bigger, chunky prams are not practical, so go for a travel pram that can be folded down and stored under the bed.
For a cruise with toddler, I would avoid bringing ‘fun’ luggage, such as Trunkis because they don’t fit much in and are cumbersome and hard to store. Once on board, your children won’t be interested in it with so many other things to do.
6. What to pack for a cruise with a toddler
I try wherever possible to pack light, but the cruise had me in a bit of flap because they needed swimwear and towels, dressy evening wear, day clothes, costumes and waterproofs, as the weather was being a bit unpredictable. It’s also wise to pack a separate day bag for embrakmentation day (more on that later).
I got there in the end, so here is a brief checklist of essentials you may want to pack with a cruise with toddler:
Passport and birth certificate if you are not travelling with the child’s shared parent.
Umbrella pram or compact foldable stroller.
Preferred snacks. There is plenty to eat on board, but we carried on breakfast bars, raisins and snacks that they might ask for when in the cabin. Be aware that fresh fruit and vegetables are usually not allowed to be taken on board.
Sun lotion (even if the weather is cloudy).
Any medicine you might use, such as Calpol, antihistamine, skin cream. Plus your nappy and changing bag (if required).
Swimwear, PJs and two outfits per day (or, with my daughter, we packed three per-day because she gets into a mess so easily and I wanted her to look nice in photos!)
One evening outfit, similar to what they might wear to a wedding. There is usually one formal dinner or evening on board a cruise and it’s a great opportunity to dress up!
Rubber sandals or water shoes because if the sun is out, sometimes the deck can feel very hot under their feet.
Baby body wash and lotion because sometimes hotel / cabin toiletries can be harsh on sensitive skin.
A baby monitor. Most ships have walls and doors made from metal and this interferes with the signal, rendering them useless.
Too many toys: I doubt you will spend much time in the cabin, and there is not much room for bulky items
7. Pack a first day bag
When you check in for your cruise, usually your suitcases will be taken from directly from security to your stateroom. You wont have access to your room until much later in the afternoon (times differ per ship), so it’s wise to pack a day bag for your first day on board. This is similar to the sort of bag you would pack for a day out at the beach with your toddler. Pack everyday essentials, such as a change of clothes, swimwear in case you want to use the pool, drink cup or beaker, teddy bears or comforters for naps, camera, hat, sunglasses and jumpers in case it gets cold. It’s also a good idea to carry any medications and some snacks you might need.
8. Be cool and head to the pool
It makes sense to have lunch on board, since it’s all included on the price. But, if you can handle a modest sandwich to keep you going for a while, you can take advantage of a top toddler cruise tip: Head to the pool! With most guests using the time to get their grub on, the swimming pool, water slides and splash areas will be almost empty, making it the perfect time for younger children to have a dip before all the adults and teens jump in. If there are slides or rides on board, take advantage of the half-empty ship and use the early hours during embarkmentation to ride over and over again.
This is also a good time to become familiar with the map and have a mooch around the ship to get your bearings. Less guests on board means better selfies too… so, go go go!
9. ‘appy holidays
You may be required to do this anyway, but before boarding the ship, download the ship’s dedicated app. This can hold all your boarding information, room info, bookings and safety messages. At the click of your finger, you can make restaurant, kids club and excursion reservations, get help and advice and find the answer to frequently asked questions.
The app will also be used to send alerts for special events and real-time cruise updates. If you wish, you can upload your billing information to the app and specify charging privileges for your room. This allows you to move around the ship cash and card free throughout your cruise, add optional tips and gratuities and keep an eye on how much you are spending on board.
The calendar of ship events will also be on the app, as well as a ship map and live opening and closing times for facilities and areas. We sailed post-Covid and the Disney Cruise Line Navigator App also has a daily health questionnaire that all guests are required to complete to ensure continued safety from the virus while on-board.
10. Make a cruise with toddler plan
Most bookings for large cruises are taken months in advance, so you’ll likely have plenty of time to plan your days on the ship. A cruise with toddler can be overwhelming for both parents and children, so a bit of advance planning can help reduce any stress during your trip.
You will be asked to book a meal rotation before you board (early approx 5:30pm, or later approx 7:30pm). Choose the dining time closest to when your toddler eats at home. Then you can work the rest of your days around when the family wakes up, has breakfast and lunch, and then bedtime.
Most major cruise lines have so much for you and the kids to do, on a shorter cruise you may not be able to enjoy everything on offer. Make a list of the must-do attractions, events, restaurants and character or music appearances you don’t want to miss. Then jot down any extras you would like to do, if possible. Shows, fitness classes, spa treatments, kids clubs and other entertainments often need to be booked in advance, so go through the choices as family and start getting organised and excited at the same time.
TOP TIP: Even though you’ll want to get the most out of your experience as possible, don’t compromise on your toddler’s nap schedule or let them skip proper meals. Even though you want your little one to have as much fun as possible, pushing them too hard or trying to do too much will only lead to the classic meltdowns we all know too well.
11. Cruise with toddler: make time for the grown ups
Kids clubs on cruises are some of the best, most innovative and elaborate play areas in the world. The The Oceaneer Club on the Disney Magic at Sea has a Marvel Avenger Academy and a larger than life recreation of Andy’s Room from Toy Story which shrinks kids down to the size of toys for the full Toy Story toy box experience. Supervised kids clubs on most cruise ships offer free childcare for potty-trained children aged three and over. In-room babysitting may also offered for an extra free, so check in advance before you book your cruise.
Parents get very little time to themselves; so with a free-of-charge, state of the art children’s nursery on board, this is the ideal time to snatch some kid-free alone time. Make a reservation at the adult-only bar or restaurant, book a spa treatment, soak in the hot tub, go to the gym or even just have a sleep in the quiet of your cabin. The ship is your oyster!
12. Be weather ready when cruising with a toddler
Even on a Caribbean cruise, that tropical weather could be unpredictable, so pack for all eventualities. For toddlers on a cruise, I would recommend packing their proper waterproofs (splash suits or rain coats). If the weather is seriously bad but you still want to go up on deck, adults can buy disposable plastic ponchos if they really need them, so don’t really need to pack proper raincoats. However, children tend to get annoyed and frustrated with this type of waterproof. They are always too long and hot, flap around in the breeze and impede their ability to play.
They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I am a big Crocs fan and these are idea for inclement weather, as well as sunny days. Toddlers can usually take them on and off without help, making life easier for parents and they are waterproof, sandproof, heatproof and easily cleaned.
13. Sun cream in the shade
I highly recommend a high-protection sun cream for all passengers, but especially for toddlers on a cruise. Breezy days on deck can feel cool, but the sun can burn sensitive skin very easily, even when it’s cloudy and doesn’t feel hot. And, even in the UK! Remember to pack some in your day bag too, as you don’t want to get caught out.
14. Bring a skinny stroller
You can bring pushchairs on a cruise with a toddler or baby but larger, non-foldable prams are not practical at all. Opt for a lightweight, compact buggy that folds small. We use the GB pocket, and highly recommend it. It can actually fold small enough to go in the wardrobe!
There is not usually a pram park on board and you are not allowed to leave your pushchair in the hallway outside your stateroom. As we touched on before, staterooms are less spacious than an average hotel room and with a toddler in the cabin, you’ll want as much room as possible for them to play.
Umbrella fold buggies and foldable double buggies can be stored under the bed. We also use the Joie Twin Stroller, which folds flat and is fantastic for travelling with two children under five.
Alternatively, some cruise lines let you rent or borrow strollers on board (the Disney Cruise Line certainly did. Free of charge and subject to availability). This saves you travelling to the Cruise Terminal with a buggy and gives you the option to collect one for naps only, if that’s all you require it for.
Do you need a pram for a toddler on a cruise?
Even though they do take up space in the cabin, my answer would be yes. If your toddler needs a nap or a place to sit down, having a lightweight buggy with you on the cruise will be very handy. It also allows younger children to nap without the need to return to your stateroom. This was especially important for us, as we also had our four-year-old toddler on the cruise and he wanted to spend the day playing, not sitting in the stateroom waiting for his sister to wake up.
A pram for slightly older toddlers is also helpful if you want to stay up a bit later and enjoy a stroll on deck or the evening entertainment, depending on how well they sleep.
15. Invest in a sun shade
There are many baby items that are gimmicky or not really necessary, but we use our sunshade both when travelling and at home and it’s a must-have for us.
As well as the obvious use of a sun shade (to block out sunlight), the sunshade also makes the space inside the pram a much darker and calmer environment for sleeping.
Isobel has a blackout blind at home, so this really helps her prepare for sleep when she is napping on the go. The sun shade is made from a lightweight material that is more recommended to cover a pram in hot weather than a blanket or other, thicker covering.
Even though you can see through the material, the shade also blocks out some distractions from the outside world, allowing your baby or toddler to relax and drift off to sleep.
And, dare I say it, if your child does want to watch an iPad or tablet outside, the sun shade helps them better see the screen and keeps the ‘screen’ away from others around you. For babies with sensory sensitivities, a sun shade will also provide them with their own environment
16. Do some sole searching
If you are taking a cruise with toddler, pack some water shoes or rubber shoes for the trip. In the sunlight, the ship’s deck can become very hot and can feel burning under little bare feet. Water shoes mean they can go in and out of the pool without getting the soles of their feet toasted.
Water shoes may also be required on some beaches if your ship is docking in various ports. In Croatia, the beach had shingle sand which actually hurt our feet walking into the sea, so water shoes for the whole family would be a good shout.
17. Toddler packing: Don’t pack too many toys
If you’re taking a toddler on a cruise, it’s good to have a few toys for them to play with in the cabin (if only so parents can have a shower in peace!). However, you don’t need to pack everything they own ‘just in case’. There will be so much for them to do on the cruise and you’ll likely spend very little time in your cabin anyway.
Opt for non noisy toys that encourage imaginative play. These will keep your toddler entertained for longer and you can take them along to dinner with you to play with at the table. We usually travel with a small set of Duplo, which can be built and rebuilt into something different each day.
18. Pack wine in bag
Each ship and port has different rules, so check with your cruise booking before you travel, but you can save money by bringing some wine on board to drink in your cabin. For our sail on the Disney Magic at Sea, we were allowed two bottles of wine per adult, so we took advantage and packed a couple of bottles to enjoy on our balcony after we put the kids to bed. Obviously you can buy wine on board but it wont be as cost-effective as bringing you own!
19. Bring your own refillable water bottle
For your toddler, bring their usual drinking cup so they have something familiar to drink from. The all-inclusive nature of cruises means soft drinks are free on board. I always think it’s worth bringing a refillable bottle of water for both kids and adults, so you can carry it around with you to stay hydrated, especially when it’s hot. This also enables you to bring extra water to your cabin.
20. Pre-load your tablet
We all said we were going to be a no-screens parent, but lets face it, modern luxuries like travel, dining out and road trips are a lot easier when Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol and Disney+ come along for the ride. It goes without saying that a toddler-friendly cruise will offer your little one plenty to do, but there will still be times that you might benefit from having a tablet to offer them. In particular, during embarkmenation and if you have different-aged children in your party and no all kids can get involved in every activity.
WIFI on board can be expensive, weak or non-existent, so be sure to pre-load your toddler’s tablet with their favourite programmes, games and films before you board.
21. Pack some ‘magic’ Fairy Liquid
It sounds like a line from the ‘pack everything but the kitchen sink’ gag, but all jokes aside, on a cruise with toddlers it’s a good idea to pack a small amount of washing up liquid for your cabin. This allows you to wash bottles, beakers, bowls and bibs in the stateroom sink. Fairy Liquid also doubles up as fabric soap if you get a spill on something you might want to wear again.
22. Sanitising hand gel is your friend
Even before Covid-19, regular cruise passengers already knew the benefits of using hand sanitiser on board. Lots of people in one space is always going to mean a high risk of picking up colds, bugs and tummy bugs like Norovirus. Guests are now strictly tested for Covid-19 before sailing but that doesn’t mean you wont pick up a cough or a runny nose on board.
Toddlers are at greater risk of picking up bugs because they put their hands in their mouths and tend to lick handrails, etc. Before and during your cruise, continue with regular hand-washing as you did at the height of the pandemic and use hand sanistiser after using shared facilities and before entering the buffet. Even if you forget your own, ships will likely have sanitiser dispensers throughout the vessel.
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