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Ahoy, Mamas! Ultimate Guide to Cruises: from Cabins to Kids’ Clubs to Shore Excursions and Buffets

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This cruise-loving mama spills the beans on her favourite mode of holiday travel. If you’re budget conscious but want to keep the kiddos occupied while also seeing lots of sights, a cruise ship is just the ticket, mama!

Curious about cruise ship travel but don’t know where to start? A mama who’s cruised from four continents weighs in with all the deets, from how to score the best deal, to the range in food and beverage plans, to shore excursions and kids’ activitiesRead on for all her tips, and her top picks for the best cruise lines from Singapore!

If you’re a busy parent and hate the thought of planning your next vacation, consider a cruise. A cruise ship is a floating resort with all the amenities found at all-inclusive clubs – from gourmet food, to live entertainment, kids’ clubs, and spa services.

Cruises are great for families, especially multigenerational ones traveling together with children, parents and grandparents. The ships do a great job planning activities and arranging shore excursions; the family unpacks once but gets to visit many places. There’s truly something for everyone on a cruise ship, from casino time or disco and karaoke, to quiet time to read a good book.

Best of all, most ships will have a kids’ club to entertain children from preschoolers to teens. Meals are available in a formal dining room or a casual buffet so depending on your style – fancy or low maintenance – there is something to satisfy everyone. Cruises can also be the cheapest way to travel, often with deals under $50 a day per person. It’s difficult to rent a hotel room on that price and with meals included, it’s a win-win for the traveling family.

Cruises come in many styles, price points, and length of travel but the following rules tend to apply:

  • Shorter cruises (under 5 days) tend to attract a younger party crowd
  • Longer cruises over 7 days (for example, 14 days) will tend to attract retired couples and senior citizens
  • Families, therefore, tend to fit in the middle, typically looking for a trip under a week so they can work around school schedules and vacation balances.

How to find out about cruises, check prices and schedules? Expedia has the best cruise search site we’ve seen. You can filter by dates, port location, etc. and narrow down the perfect cruise.

Here are other important features to look out for:

cruise kids travel free tips

Kids Cruise Free

For families, take note that many cruise lines offer a “kids cruise free” option, as on Costa Cruises and MSC (including accommodations and food, but excluding taxes). On upscale Crystal Cruises, children pay 50% as the 3rd and 4th room guest. Other cruise lines will offer promotions where kids cruise for free, so check with your favorite travel agent or cruise website to see what deals they can locate for you. This can make a cruise vacation very budget friendly, and you should consider different cruise lines and destinations that would require an airplane flight. It might turn out to be cheaper to fly to Rome and cruise than sail from Singapore.

Royal Caribbean’s Royal Suite Class room

Tell me about cabins!

On a cruise ship, the cheapest cabin is an interior windowless room that can sleep 1 to 4 persons. Then the ship increases the fees based on amenities of the room – Ocean View, Balcony, Suite, etc. You’ll pay more for an ocean view room than a windowless interior, and even more for a balcony or suite.

Some people rave about the experience of a balcony room, and feel it really makes the experience of cruising special. Truly there is nothing more beautiful that watching the sun rise over the ocean when coming into the port of a new city. However, that experience comes at a cost and it may raise the cost of your cruise out of budget. Everyone is having the same cruise no matter what room selected.

While kids can cruise for free, before booking, look at putting 2 passengers in a cabin across 2 rooms, rather than 4 people in one cabin. We’ve found that it can be almost the same cost to book 2 cabins than 1 for a family of 4. As cruise cabins are notoriously small, you will be happy to have the extra room. More expensive cabins may come with additional amenities like spa services, room service, priority boarding and such. So consider these perks as you book your room.

Food on the Norwegian Cruise Line

What costs extra on a cruise ship?

Included on the ship will be meals eaten at the restaurant and buffet, filtered water and some flavored fruit drinks and the cabin accommodations. Also, the adult entertainment (bands, magicians, party games, etc) and kids’ club are usually free for children who are potty trained and older. Like any resort, the cruise ship will offer its customers extras for an additional fee.

Additional items to budget for on the cruise:

Some Beverages including alcoholic beverages, premium coffee, bottled water, fruit juices will all come with an additional fee. The ship will probably offer you a drinks package and you can decide if it makes financial sense to buy the package vs. pay for drinks a la carte.

European-based cruise lines tend to charge extra for bottled water, even in the dining room so research in advance before you book. Water on the ship is not drinkable so you will need some bottled water for teeth brushing and staying hydrated. American-based cruise lines generally make filtered water available for free at the restaurants and buffet. See if your travel agent can get you a discount on the beverage packages if you book in advance.

How does tipping work?

At the end of the cruise, you will be billed $16-23 SGD a day a person as tips to the housekeeping staff and other service staff. You can pay more or adjust the tip but be sure to consider that when budgeting your cruise vacation.

family travel cruise shore excursion

Shore Excursions

The cruise line will prepare tours at every port of call. These can be city tours, adventure sports, shopping and a variety of other interesting things to see and do. The price will range from 50-100+ SGD per person depending on the city, shore excursion selected and other factors. You can always DIY and hire your own guide or even grab a guidebook and take public transport around.

Besides the expense, the downside to a ship shore excursion can be an unpleasant experience of being on a group tour in a huge bus. However, the major upside to a shore excursion is that the ship plans the transportation, and guarantees that you will make it back to the boat on time. The ship will not wait for passengers who are late and don’t make it back to the ship on time for “all aboard.”

Inside Norwegian Cruise Line’s Mandara Spa

Spa Services

Like any resort, having a massage or spa treatment will cost extra. These services tend to be a bit expensive on a cruise ship, although they will offer discounts and promotions. Larger ships might have a spa with adult Jacuzzis, heated ceramic beds, saunas, etc. This can be a relaxing getaway for those days at sea. Check on spa packages on your first day at sea or with your travel agent in advance. You might be able to buy a day pass or get membership into the spa for the duration of the cruise. This can be a great quiet place to escape to, especially if you are a quiet book reader vs. disco party animal. Also, take note, most ships have a hair salon and we’ve found the prices on cut and colour to be cheaper than Singapore salons (especially for expat hair).

Specialty Food

There might be a premium restaurant on the cruise ship where you can eat an additional fee. Some ships will charge extra for room service, pizza, ice cream and pastries at the coffee shop. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it to pay extra to get extra, but of course you can always just eat the food available at the main ship restaurant or buffet.

Also, in my experience, cuisine tends to depend on the nationality of the cruise ship line. So, even if you’re sailing from Singapore, you’ll have European-style cold cuts on a Costa ship, rather than a lot of Asian options with rice. That said I have noticed lots of good vegetarian options.

MSC Cruises Baby Club

Miscellaneous Extras

It shouldn’t surprise you that Wi-Fi, babysitting infants, bingo, gambling, shopping, and video games will run you extra on a cruise ship. Set your phone to airplane mode because you can incur steep charges roaming on the ship’s mobile signal.

Trust me: you can have a great time on a cruise ship and only pay for tips and the initial cruise fees. This will mean that your family drinks water and flavoured fruit cordials only, carries a water bottle and regularly refills it. You can take part in the on-board free entertainment, and eat at the included restaurants, which are all generally well executed and meet most people’s tastes. Planning your own shore excursions are easily done today with access to the Internet and the destination chamber of tourism is always ready with information for travelers.

Of course, having a glass of wine at dinner, a premium steak, or a relaxing massage can ALL add to the enjoyment of the trip. Decide for yourself if you are a budget traveler or a big spender (or somewhere in between). Set a budget and stick with it as the temptation to indulge once on the ship will be hard to avoid.

Japanese food on Costa Cruises

What’s the culture on a cruise ship?

Cruising has gone international and a good number of ship passengers will be from the home country of the disembarkation point and the remainder from the home country of the cruise line. If traveling on a European cruises line, you will hear announcements in multiple languages with English coming near the end. The American cruise lines have taken serious care to adopt food to the palates of Asian travelers, however European cruise lines often cater to the tastes of Europeans with additional options for Asians. To generalize, most food will be Western but with many international options available to suit a range of tastes. Fellow travelers range from friendly to ill-mannered (with some adopting different cultural rules for waiting in line, saving seats, being on time, etc).

How long do you get in port?

This depends on the cruise line and the itinerary planned. Review carefully, as you could arrive at 7am and leave at 9pm but sometimes will have a shorter or longer turnaround. Some boutique cruise lines offer multiple days in port, while less expensive ones tend to have a shorter window. Shorter port times will make it challenging to DIY shore excursions, but still possible with organization skills and research.

What if I get sick?

Don’t worry about getting seasick as a large ship will handle the waves generally much better than smaller boats. In the event of other maladies, an on-call ship’s doctor can provide medicine or other treatment.

Surfing on board Royal Caribbean

Top Recommended Cruise Lines

Royal Caribbean regularly sails out of Singapore and offers fun trips to nearby Asian destinations. Running the numbers, their cruises tend to be more expensive than some of the others, but then SG-based families can also save on airfare. Compare the cost of a Royal Caribbean cruise against other options to see if the lack of airfare puts it in budget. Look at the ports of call and decide if your family is keen to cruise around Southeast Asia or wants more exotic destinations.

Norwegian strikes a balance between the posh vs. party experience of cruising.  They are known for “freestyle cruising”, which adopts no fixed dress code, no fixed dining times, a wide variety of dining options, complete with a kids’ club for the littles. Because of the freestyle cruising, you avoid the longer lines and crowded events experienced on other cruise lines. Currently they operate ships in Asia and Australia / New Zealand — a compelling option to consider for a longer school holiday.

Costa is an Italian cruise line where children cruise for free. Reading up on Costa, the line gets some negative reviews, which we feel are undeserved and mostly written by English-speaking Americans who were surprised by the cultural differences in Italian food and service. While pizza and ice cream aren’t free flow and the ship begins all announcements in Italian, we loved our recent cruise on Costa. Because the kids cruise free, we could afford a balcony room at the same cost of an interior cabin on Singapore based cruise. Costa runs ships around the world, but most will cover the Mediterranean. A cruise in and around Italy for Spring Break is a great way to spend your holiday. Imagine going to 5 different European cities in a week and only unpacking once! To get an idea of what a Costa cruise is like, check out the show Cruise Ship Diaries which airs on NatGeo here in Singapore (and can also be found on YouTube).

MSC is another Italian cruise line where children cruise for free. They have boats based around the world, including a ship that cruises out of Dubai. We’ve found that the cost can be half that of other brand name cruises like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. The line gets good reviews and we are keen to try it out for our next vacation.

Booking your cruise

Booking directly online with the cruise company is always an option. But we’ve found a travel agent can often get a better deal, help organize complicated cabin arrangements, pull in extra discounts, and make the process easier. Check online at the cruise company’s website, model a booking on Expedia and ask an agent for a quote. Then you can make the booking with the best possible information. Below are some travel agents our families have used for cruises and can recommend.

City State Travel (authorized Costa agent)
[email protected]
+65 6222 9222

Cruise Connexions (authorized MSC agent)
[email protected]
+65 6678 6518

Prime Cruises (authorized Norwegian agent)
[email protected]
+65 6507 3734

Good luck, and have fun cruising!

Lead image, Kids Cruise Free image and Shore Excursions image sourced via Getty; Norwegian Cruise Line food image by Brie B. via Facebook;

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