Mulitgenerational family on Allure of the Seas (Photo: Royal Caribbean)
Cruising with a group always presents challenges, regardless of who the group members are. Factor in family dynamics and a wide range of ages trying to book and successfully enjoy a multigenerational cruise together, and it becomes more complicated than ever.
How do you decide on a cruise that makes everyone happy? Who will coordinate plans and reservations? We have put together a collection of tips that answers these and other questions if a multigenerational cruise with family and/or friends is in your future.
Start with Communication
In even the most easygoing families, planning and surviving a multigenerational family vacation can disintegrate into chaos if communication is not clear and all-inclusive. That means there should be lots of talking -- more specifically, lots of questions asked of each other up-front.
In large or diverse groups, it may be wise to establish chains of communication where a handful of people are responsible for communicating with a string of people by whatever means those group members usually communicate through. That way if Grandpa talks on his cell but can't text email or chat, he still has someone assigned to keep him in the loop. This also works well for busy 20- and 30-somethings who can be difficult to reach. Make sure they fall into someone's communication circle, especially regarding important details like payment deadlines or online check-in.
Addressing the hard questions in the early planning stages helps avoid late-stage meltdowns. You most likely know your own family's trigger points, but here are a few specifics that may need to be discussed initially when planning a multigenerational cruise.
Who are the decision-makers?
Is there a committee? Is it a specific generation? It is often easier to begin with a small group making the big decisions, then later opening the discussion of minor details to more of the group.
Is the cruise exclusive to a specific family group?
Or may friends, roommates or significant others join? This is a bit more complicated for cruises than for land-based family reunions simply because a cruise is more attractive, meaning more people want to join the fun. It is always best to have an open discussion about this early rather than risk hurt feelings later.
How will financial matters be handled?
Who is paying for whom or what? For example, if the family patriarch generously offers to pay for everyone, perhaps a more expensive cruise line could be considered than if young families had to pay their own way. It also impacts the question of whether non-family members can join in on the fun.
Who is in charge of bookings?
Some families designate that the occupants of each cabin be responsible for their own booking, while others put one person in charge of all bookings. There are pros and cons both ways, so the question should definitely be discussed before the booking begins.
What is the child care situation onboard?
Groups with children should have this conversation pre-cruise. Will (or can) everyone's children participate in the onboard youth programs? Who is watching babies and toddlers too young for the onboard kids' clubs? Will different family members take turns staying in the cabin with children with early bedtimes, or will kids be allowed to stay up past their bedtime in group babysitting? There will be much disappointment if cousins of similar ages have different rules about activities onboard, and if parents of young children are always forced to stay in at night or entertain the kids, while their relatives get to relax by day and enjoy the entertainment and nightlife in the evening. Planning well ahead of the cruise takes the stress out of the situation.
Who is taking care of elderly family members?
If there are older members of the group who need assistance, discuss how the duties of hanging out with them will be handled. Perhaps several responsible adults divide up the days, or maybe there's one family member who is comfortable taking all responsibility. And don't assume that just because someone is advanced in years that they don't want to explore new places; let the older generation weigh in on their own needs for adventure versus relaxation.
Spread the Workload
Usually, nobody wants to feel obligated to oversee every aspect of planning the cruise; establishing a roster of who oversees which details makes the workload lighter for everyone and prevents unnecessary and confused email chains about who is doing what. Several people can divide up researching cruise lines, itineraries and travel agents, but you might want just one person to be the main point of contact with the agent you choose.
Once the cruise is booked, other "jobs" might include coordinating group dining reservations, researching group excursions in ports or planning onboard games and activities. If young adult children or elderly relatives need assistance with booking-related tasks, ask for volunteers to help them.
Pick the Right Cruise
Pick the wrong cruise and you dramatically reduce the odds of everyone enjoying the trip, but choose wisely and everything should fall into place smoothly. If you have previously traveled extensively with the people in your group, the choice for a particular cruise may be a simple one, but quite often that is not the case. Here are the top things to consider when choosing a cruise for a multigenerational cruise group.
How long do you really want to cruise with this particular group of people? Even the largest ships start to feel confining if there is any friction at all among group members. Elderly family members, new cruisers, young children and couples traveling with new babies all need consideration when the group chooses the length of the cruise.
If school-aged children or school teachers are part of your posse, timing of the trip will most likely be dictated by their schedules. To add an element of celebration to the trip, consider timing your multigenerational cruise near a significant date like a wedding anniversary of the senior family members. Birthdays, graduations and military leaves are all great reasons to get everyone onboard a cruise.
The larger the group, the more difficult it will be to find dates that work for everyone. With a large family reunion cruise, it may need to be stated up-front that there is a "majority rules" policy when it comes to selecting the date. Planning a year or more in advance can help eliminate some conflicts, but there will always be the possibility that someone might be left out.
It is easy for couples with no children to overlook the budget restrictions of larger family groupings, or wealthier siblings to forget that certain expenses might be hardships for less well-off family members. Unless the group has a benefactor that will be paying for everyone, approach financial topics openly early in the planning phases to ensure that everyone is comfortable with the result.
Cruises are an excellent choice for large families with a range of spending abilities. Family clusters can adjust their individual costs up or down with budget-appropriate cabin categories, add-on packages that suit their needs and shore excursions that fit within their budgets. The goal should be to find a cruise that works for both the top and bottom of the financial spectrum.
A multigenerational family cruise, by its very nature, is supposed to be more about being together than the destination, but the choice of where the ship sails should still be part of the initial discussions.
Keep mobility issues in mind -- in the form of baby strollers, walkers, canes, scooters or wheelchairs. Ports where tenders are required to go between ship and shore present challenges, as do a predominance of activities involving busses or extensive walking.
Communicate openly about the types of activities everyone enjoys. Food and wine lovers might prefer a European cruise over one to the Caribbean. Water sports enthusiasts and beach lovers may have no desire to don jackets for a mid-summer Alaska cruise. Families with young children might prefer a departure port that's close to home rather than one with a long flight.
While choosing a line that suits all ages and temperaments is critical to the success of a multigenerational cruise, the choice should come only after the previous four things have been considered. This is the point at which a travel agent with cruise expertise may be a good idea if there is not already a consensus.
In general, mainstream cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Norwegian and MSC Cruises offer the largest variety of staterooms, dining options, entertainment and activities to keep everyone in a large group happy. They have activities for kids and adults, and offer an array of price points on the same sailing, with everything from inside cabins to suites and family-specific accommodations. Smaller or more luxurious ships are better suited to multigenerational groups with large budgets, older children and less of a need for a broad range of activities.
Once you have the cruise booked and the itinerary planned, it may be time to lay out some ground rules that keep things running smoothly. This is where your early conversations about babysitting (the young, the old and goofy Uncle Bill) and financial matters really come into play. Here are some possible rules to consider:
No add-on costs that affect everyone once the cruise starts
Things like last-minute plans to dine at the specialty restaurants onboard can be budget busters for some, causing hard feelings for those that were not prepared for the extra expense. Address additional onboard expenses in advance, and make spur-of-the-moment purchases optional for group members.
Everyone comes to dinner together X number of nights
Cruise ships are crazy fun places with so many unexpected things to enjoy. With everyone doing different activities by day, you might never spend some time with certain members of your family. If there is a plan in place -- such as big group dinners every other night -- you balance together time with letting people be spontaneous with evening plans.
Everybody is entitled to some free time
On the flip side, some members of the group might expect the entire family will spend every available moment together. Stating free time expectations up-front in the form of a rule helps with those moments when parents must excuse themselves from a card game because it's a toddler's nap time, when the teens are tired of hanging out with the adults or when people disagree about the best tour to take in port.
Staterooms are for privacy
There are obvious exceptions to this -- like teens or tweens in a cabin of their own, or when someone in the group has booked a large suite specifically for entertaining. But overall, having an expectation that your cabin is your refuge is a wise peacekeeping choice.
Parents are responsible for parenting their own children
There is nothing worse than having your every onboard parenting decision questioned by the whole family group. It's best to make sure everyone has the comfort to parent as they see fit without group pressure. Having said that, it is also wise for everyone to be vigilant about keeping an eye on the safety of all the children in the group and to volunteer to entertain the kids from time to time so parents get a break.
Communicating is a must
Because Wi-Fi can be spotty and expensive, onboard communication can get tricky, and it's easy to lose track of people onboard and not see them again until dinner. Agree on a communication method for all members of your multigenerational cruise. Some groups put magnetic whiteboards on cabin doors to notify others of their whereabouts; others arrange morning coffee gatherings at a set time each day to outline where people will be throughout the day.
Plan the Fun
Just as land-based reunions, vacations and parties are enhanced by planned activities, multigenerational cruises are as well. A few pre-planned moments of fun go a long way toward the success of the entire cruise. Once again, dividing the workload for the activities prevents an undue burden on any one person. Here's a list to get you going.
Breaking the ice
Because families expand through generations and marriages, there may be members of your multigenerational group who have either never met, or are not normally in close contact. Increase the comfort level of diverse groups with a quick meet-up after everyone is onboard on embarkation day. Usually between lunchtime and the afternoon safety drill is an ideal time, but keep it brief for those that want to explore the ship. You can keep it simple with hugs and handshakes gathering on the promenade, but this is also a great time to hand out lists of cabin numbers and discuss any scheduled activities.
If your cruise centers around a life event or a holiday, a gift exchange will likely be part of the fun you already have in mind. But gift-giving also works well for smaller groups who don't see each other often enough to celebrate birthdays in person. Perhaps an "everyone's birthday party" is in order. Exchange names before the cruise-- maybe even post a video of the drawing of the names on a Facebook group page, then pick an evening for the party and the gift-giving. The mere act of researching and shopping for gifts can bring the gang closer together even before the cruise arrives.
Group photo ops and matching outfits
Cruises offer plenty of opportunities for group photos. Formal nights when everyone is already dressed work well. The large cruise lines offer a wide range of photography options onboard. Check with the photo shop early for ideas and scheduling appointments. And don't forget impromptu moments for photos with people you rarely spend time with.
Group T-shirts, color-coded outfits and theme dressing are also fun ways to bring the group together; just be sure to get photos. Embarkation day is an especially good time for families to sport matching T-shirts, handed or sent out in advance, both to get excited about your upcoming reunion and to help spot family members who have arrived separately.
While it is usually best to allow each family cluster or individual to make their own plans for shore excursions, there may be times when there is enough consensus among group members that an excursion for all is a viable option. Planning your own tour or activity in a destination exclusively for your gathering may not only be more fun than joining a ship's excursion, it may be cheaper per person as well. The key to success is to never assume that a group member wants to participate without asking.