Best cruises and cruise ships for families: How to find the perfect cruise

If you're planning a family holiday and haven't considered cruising, think again. Big, modern ocean-going ships offer an incredible array of facilities for children, teens and adults in one safe place that conveniently transports you to a variety of destinations. All the basics are included in the fare – accommodation, meals (no shopping, cooking or washing-up required!), entertainment and kids' clubs – and there are plenty of exciting activities to discover on the ship and ashore.

Sophisticated aqua parks, waterslides, rope courses, zip lines, surfing and skydiving simulators, bumper cars, rock-climbing walls and ice rinks are just some of the features you'll find on ships operated by companies such as Carnival Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean.

Cruise ships run dozens of age-appropriate activities, from cooking classes to karaoke, movie-making and arts and crafts. Younger children can meet cartoon characters, such as Dr Seuss' Cats in Hats and Things 1 and 2 (Carnival Cruise Line), Princess Fiona and Shrek (Royal Caribbean) and Mickey and his friends on the Disney ships.

Teenagers are probably the family members who are hardest to please on any holiday, so it's important to involve them in your homework before booking a cruise. Take into account the shore excursions you might want to do. Will the 14-year-old really enjoy exploring Roman ruins on a hot day? Several lines have "no adults allowed" spaces for teenagers and different programs designed for older and younger teens.

Bear in mind, too, that cruises from the United States have different alcohol policies, so while your 18-year-old can legally enjoy a drink on ships cruising in Australian, European and South American waters, you have to be 21 to be served alcohol on ships cruising out of North America.

Family cruising is not just about the kids. Cruise ships have plenty of attractions for grown-ups. You can enjoy adults-only retreats and pools, spas (which often offer mother-and-daughter pampering sessions), fitness classes, adults-only comedy shows, specialty restaurants and babysitting services, so you can enjoy an evening, leaving the young ones safely supervised.

WHAT'S THE BEST CRUISE FOR OUR FAMILY?

"WE WANT TO CRUISE FROM OUR DOORSTEP"

The Cruise Director says During the upcoming cruise season (October 2015 to April 2016), ships will sail out of every state. From November, P&O Cruises' Pacific Dawn, Pearl, Jewel, Eden and Aria will cruise around Australia year round. Carnival Legend and Carnival Spirit will sail out of Sydney year round. Celebrity Solstice, Diamond Princess, Explorer, Radiance of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas and MS Noordam will sail from Sydney for the season. Golden Princess will be based in Melbourne and Legend of the Seas in Brisbane.

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Destinations Pacific islands, Australian coast, New Zealand, Asia.

Cruise lines to check out Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean.

"WE'D LIKE TO SPLASH OUT ON AN OVERSEAS CRUISE"

The Cruise Director says The world is your oyster. You just need to pick a place and season and you'll find plenty of family-friendly ships.

The newest megaships offer the most whiz-bang facilities, and fares are usually more expensive than on a line's older models. Disney Cruise Line has four ships and the company is renowned for its younger-age kids' programs. Royal Caribbean's new Oasis-class and Quantum-class ships offer all the latest activities (see "What's New"). Carnival Cruise Line operates 24 fun ships (25 when Carnival Vista sets sail in May); Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Escape, being launched in October, and its slightly smaller sisters, Norwegian Epic, Breakaway and Getaway, are packed with exciting activities for kids. Princess Cruises' newest ships, Royal and Regal Princess, and its Grand-class ships have extensive kids' facilities. If you plan to splash out on an uber-luxury cruise, Crystal Cruises has programs for children from three to 17 on selected itineraries. Hapag-Lloyd's Europa 2 has kids' clubs for children from two to 15, plus facilities for babies on request.

Destinations Bahamas, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Alaska, Canada, Asia.

Cruise lines to check out Carnival Cruise Line, Crystal Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises UK.

"WE WANT A BUDGET-FRIENDLY OVERSEAS CRUISE"

The Cruise Director says Choose an itinerary on an older ship from the above lines. Also consider MSC Cruises. Children under 18 sharing a cabin with their parents travel for free, and MSC Cruises offers packages and good deals year round. It pays to monitor all the major cruise lines for "kids cruise free" deals (sign up for email alerts), and check out the budget-friendly cruise lines sailing from Australian ports to New Zealand, Asia and the Pacific islands. Captain Cook Cruises Fiji welcomes children aged five and above on its Discovery Cruises, which range from three to 11 nights.

Destinations Arabian Peninsula, Asia, Caribbean, Europe, Pacific islands, New Zealand, South America, South Africa.

Cruise lines to check out Captain Cook Cruises Fiji, Carnival Cruise Line, Costa Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, P&O Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line.

"OUR OLDER KIDS ARE LOOKING FOR WILDLIFE AND ADVENTURE"

The Cruise Director says Lindblad​ Expeditions specialises in adventure cruises for all age groups that focus on learning, hands-on activities and wildlife-spotting. Its National Geographic Endeavour ship operates in the Galapagos archipelago year round, while its other nine ships cruise in dozens of destinations around the world. Un-Cruise Adventures is another company that operates small ships staffed by expedition crew. Its Family Discoveries program is designed for kids aged "eight to 98".

Alaska is a popular choice for older kids because mainstream as well as adventure cruise lines offer exciting shore excursions, such as zip-lining over rainforests, kayaking among glaciers and dog-sledding.

Also look at shore excursions offered by all major cruise lines almost everywhere – horse-riding, snorkelling, caving and bike tours are just a few of the thousands of activities available that would appeal to older children and teenagers.

Destinations Alaska, Arctic, Australia, Canada, Caribbean, Europe, Galapagos Islands, Indonesia, Pacific islands, New Zealand.

Cruise lines to check out Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Line, Lindblad Expeditions, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Un-Cruise Adventures.

"WHAT'S BEST FOR OUR BIG EXTENDED FAMILY?"

The Cruise Director says Large resort-style ships are ideal for a multi-generational holiday, whether you're planning a cruise at home or away. They offer kids clubs, inter-connecting and quad share cabins, a good choice of restaurants, family and adult entertainment, and enough activities to keep all members of the group occupied both together and apart. Adventure cruises on smaller lines are another option, although expect to pay more because of their locations.

Destinations Alaska, Arctic, Australia, Caribbean, Europe, Indonesia, Pacific islands, New Zealand.

Cruise lines to check out Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Lindblad Expeditions, Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, P&O Cruises, P&O Cruises UK, Princess Cruises, Un-Cruise Adventures.

CONTACTS

Captain Cook Cruises Fiji see captaincookcruisesfiji.com

Carnival Cruise Line see carnival.com.au

Celebrity Cruises see celebritycruises.com.au

Disney Cruise Line see disneycruise.disney.go.com

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises see hl-cruises.com

Holland America Line see hollandamerica.com.au

Lindblad Expeditions see expeditions.com

MSC Cruises see msccruises.com.au

Norwegian Cruise Line see norwegiancruiseline.com.au

P&O Cruises see pocruises.com.au

P&O Cruises UK see pocruises.com

Princess Cruises see princess.com

Un-Cruise Adventures see un-cruise.com

WHAT'S NEW?

Here's a preview of the highlights of the world's biggest, newest family-friendly megaships.

NORWEGIAN ESCAPE

Launching in October 2015, Norwegian Cruise Line's first Breakaway-Plus class megaship will be the biggest in the fleet. The 4200-passenger Escape will have plenty to offer adventure-seekers of all ages, including Norwegian Cruise Line's biggest ropes course and aqua park. The three-storey ropes course includes three Sky Rails zip lines (two designed specially for kids) and two walk-the-planks. The aqua park features four water slides. The Aqua Racer involves tandem slides for competitive racing.

Itineraries Seven-night Caribbean round-trips from Miami.

MS KONINGSDAM

Holland America Line's newest, biggest ship will have 32 new oceanview family cabins that sleep up to five people and have two bathrooms. The Culinary Arts Center​ runs free cooking classes for under-eights and over-eights, and the Family Reunion Program includes upgrades and good deals when you book eight or more cabins. The 2650-passenger MS Koningsdam's maiden season starts in May 2016.

Itineraries Mediterranean, Baltic, British Isles and Northern Europe; Caribbean from November 2016 to March 2017.

OVATION OF THE SEAS

The third ship in Royal Caribbean's Quantum class will set sail in April 2016 and like its fleetmates, Quantum and Anthem of the Seas, will feature a skydiving simulator, Flow Rider surf simulator, bumper cars, circus school and the North Star viewing capsule that rises 90 metres above sea level. The 4180-passenger Ovation will have 16 family-connected staterooms that have separate bedrooms and bathrooms.

Itineraries Mediterranean until May, then based in China year round, plus Australia-New Zealand season December-January 2016-17.

HARMONY OF THE SEAS

Royal Caribbean's third Oasis-class vessel will take on the title of the world's biggest cruise ship when it launches in April 2016. New fun features include the Abyss, a 10-storey slide, the Splashaway Bay aqua park for younger children, and Kid's Avenue, a central area connecting all the spaces dedicated to kids and teens.

Itineraries Western Mediterranean until November 2016, then based in Fort Lauderdale, sailing seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises.

CARNIVAL VISTA

Carnival Cruise Line's 25th fun ship will have a special family zone called Family Harbor that will have family cabins, plus a lounge with games and TVs. The 3954-passenger Vista will host a couple of first-at-sea features: an IMAX cinema and the Sky Ride, an aerial cycling track suspended 150 feet above the ocean.

Itineraries Mediterranean from May 2016 until November 2016, then round-trip seven-day Caribbean and Bahamas cruises from Miami.

KIDS' CLUBS

All the major cruise lines have kids' clubs or youth programs that are divided into separate age groups. Most kids' clubs cater for children aged two to 17. For example, Carnival Cruise Line's program offers the Penguin Colony (two to five), Stingrays (six to eight), Sharks (nine to 11), Circle C (12 to 14) and Club O2 (15 to 17).

Tweens and teens often have dedicated "no adults" lounges (no adults apart from supervisors). Holland America Line's Club HAL has a loft exclusively for 13 to 17-year-olds to listen to music, play Xbox and watch movies.

At the other end of the age range, Royal Caribbean has playgroups for babies from six months to three years (accompanied by a parent), and offers babysitting in the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery for $8.60 to $11.50 an hour. It's advisable to check the opening hours, costs (most are free), space and facilities on the ship you're planning to cruise on, as there are many variations.

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