How to Cruise with Family and Friends
By Pauline Wong

What’s your idea of an ideal vacation? Is it being adventurous- swimming with sting rays, climbing up a 600-feet river fall, hiking to a 12-mile glacier? Do you dream of snorkeling with sea turtles and colorful tropical fish? Visiting exotic ports and exploring Mayan ruins?

Instead, maybe you want to kick back and be pampered. You yearn to experience great service and be waited on hand and foot. You want to dress up and be served an elegant five-course dinner. Maybe you want to escape the hustle and bustle of work, or maybe you want to build special memories and spend time with family and friends.

Our family of four did all the above and much more on two fabulous cruise vacations during the summers of 1999 and 2003. In 1999 to Alaska , we had 19 family members and friends ranging in ages from 11 to 74 on Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas . This was the first cruise for our children, Jon and Vicky, who were then 13 and 11.

The next cruise was to the Western Caribbean on Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas with eleven family members, including grandmother, uncles, aunt, and cousins.

PLANNING THE CRUISE


We started preparing about ten months in advance for our Alaskan cruise. We talked to travel agents and people who had cruised before, obtained brochures, researched the Internet, and checked out books about cruises.
I bought travel videos for each of our destinations from Royal Caribbean for $9.95 each which were reimbursed when I booked the cruises. We decided when and where we wanted to go.

I found that Costco Travel had the best price compared to others. By booking more than 6 months in advance, we saved a couple hundred dollars. We chose Royal Caribbean cruise line because my husband and I had cruised with them before and had one of the best vacations we ever had.

After we booked our cruise, we looked for low airfare. We also reserved a hotel for an overnight stay. We arrived at the terminal by noon and soon after we’re having lunch onboard the ship with time to explore before the 5pm departure. We requested our cabins be close together and also requested two tables for our group of 19. The adults had a table, and the kids had their own table adjacent to us.

If you let the cruise line know that you’re celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or a graduation, they will bring a special cake to your table. We had more than our share of cakes.

EXPERIENCING THE SHIPS


It’s truly an amazing experience being on megaships like Rhapsody of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas. They are like floating cities at sea.

When you enter Rhapsody through the Centrum, you are dazzled by the soaring, seven-story atrium, live music, and glass elevators. It rivals the lobby of any five-star luxury hotel. We found the service on both ships to be excellent and its cruise staff to be energetic and friendly.

When Voyager was launched in 1999, it was the world’s largest ship with a capacity for 3,100 passengers. On the Voyager, the Royal Promenade, a horizontal atrium, is like a small upscale mall. It is four-stories high, two football fields in length and lined with specialty boutiques, a sidewalk cafe, and a British-style pub. One evening there was even a festive Mardi Gras parade down the Royal Promenade, complete with stilt walkers, jugglers, and Mardi Gras characters!

We were impressed by the classy three-tiered dining room with its grand staircase, balconies and huge crystal chandelier in the center of the room. This was the ship that changed the world of cruising with features never seen before on a cruise ship like the ice skating rink, rock climbing wall, and in-line skating track.

BENEFITS OF CRUISING


A cruise vacation with extended family and friends is especially nice because you don’t have to search for restaurants to accommodate your large group or have long waits to be seated. Each evening, our table and our waiter were ready for us. The best part of cruising, according to both Jon and Vicky who are growing teenagers, is that you can have all the food you want, like three servings of filet mignon or extra desserts, and food anytime you want it.

Besides the elegant dining room experience, they also enjoyed partaking the all-you-can-eat buffets, the afternoon snacks, the late night snacks, and the midnight buffet. On the Voyager, the Cafe Promenade offered sandwiches, pizzas, and pastries, and nearby was the self-service frozen yogurt machine. My husband was really glad to see the ShipShape menu with low-fat, low-cholesterol options in the dining room. We felt like we were in a luxury hotel, except we didn't have to pack and unpack each time we reached another destination.

Another benefit was that people in our group could chose what they wanted to do and then we would meet for lunch or dinner. From early morning into the late hours, there were numerous activities going on. When Jon and Vicky wanted to go off with their cousins and friends, it was handy having FRS (family radio service) so that we could contact each other. We didn’t have to give them any money on the ship since the cost of the cruise covers all food (except for specialty restaurants), participation in youth and teen activities, sport tournaments, dance classes, craft classes, exercise classes, etc.

OUT AT SEA

On these mega ships, you needn’t worry about being seasick. The ships are so large with stabilizers that you’re not aware you’re at sea. If you are prone to seasickness, try to get a cabin that is located toward the middle of the ship.
With our days at sea, we found many activities to keep us occupied. We went to exercise class, learned to line dance, joined a scavenger hunt, played bridge, listened to a jazz band, played bingo, hit the slot machines, attended a wine-tasting seminar, looked for whales, hung out at the teen center, made new friends, ate a lot and participated in numerous other activities. Before dinner, a schedule of all the activities for the next day is left in your cabin. After a busy day on the ship, it was nice getting together as a group to share our experiences and make plans for the next day.

PORTS OF CALL

Rhapsody of the Seas took us to the Inside Passage of Alaska with ports at Juneau, Skagway, Haines , and Ketchikan . The towns are walking distance from the ports and many tour operators were located near the dock. In Juneau, we took public transportation part way to Mendenhall Glacier , an impressive sight, and walked the rest (one mile). At Skagway near the dock, we found a guide who took the older teens sea kayaking and a guide who took the rest of us on a tour of the area in a 15-passenger van. In Ketchikan, we walked to the Totem Heritage Center, Deer Mountain Eagle Center , and Tribal Hatchery for Salmon and Trout .

For the Western Caribbean cruise, the ports included Labadee, Ochos Rios, George Town , and Cozumel . Through the Internet, we booked a guide to Sting Ray City at Grand Cayman to swim with sting rays. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

We also booked a guide in Jamaica to take us to the 600 ft. Dunn’s River Falls, Brimmer Hall Plantation , and, of course, shopping. Climbing up rushing river falls is no easy task. Thankfully I had Jon to pull me up as we climbed alongside the cascading falls. In Cozumel, we found a guide near the dock who took us to a Mayan ruin, a drive along the coastline and shopping. Doing our own shore excursions saved us $15 to $25 per person.

VACATION COSTS

Total cost of our first seven-night Alaskan cruise vacation for four was $5100 for cabin, tipping, shore excursions, air, and hotel. The second cruise in the Caribbean ran $5800. Our price was based on an inside cabin that sleeps four. We chose an inside cabin to save costs because we knew we wouldn’t be in there very long. Typically, if you have a large group and book eight cabins, one passenger is free. Though the overall cost of a cruise may seem a bit high, it includes your cabin, meals, transportation to ports, the use of all the facilities onboard, great nightly entertainment on stage, programs for young children and teens, seminars, classes, and so much more. If you can go during the low or shoulder season, you can save a lot.

Our family thoroughly enjoyed the two cruise vacations with our family and friends. The cruise experience shared with family and friends made the vacations extra special The time together forged friendship and made memories that the group will not soon forget. Seven nights at sea ended too soon for us, but we brought home memories and pictures that will last a lifetime. Vicky is asking if we can celebrate her high school graduation in 2006 with another cruise with family and friends. Bon Voyage!

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NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES :
www.fodors.com/cruise  
: cruise how-to’s.
www.cruisediva.com
: reviews, ports of call, planning tips, packing list.
www.cruises.about.com  
: planning, destinations, ship profiles and reviews.
www.cruisecritic.com  
: planning, destinations, reviews, family cruising.
www.cruisereviews.com  
: reviews of cruises and discussion boards.
www.costco.com  
: link to travel, gave a 5% discount and upgrade for Alaska.
www.cruisesonly.com  
: gave us a discount for the Western Caribbean cruise, click customer service for FAQs.

Pauline Wong and her husband love cruising with their family. This is Pauline's first article for BAFT. She lives in San Jose.

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