Everyone knows the big mega cruise ships with their playrooms, water slides, climbing walls and ziplines are pleasure domes for families with kids of all ages, from 6 months on up to the terrible teens. But what you might not realize is that there are a raft of wonderful small ship cruises out there that can also be awesome options for families with kids if you choose the right ones. I’ve taken them all, big and small, and so have my twin boys (now 13), and I know what I’m talking about.
First, a few caveats about small-ship cruises:
There are no playrooms or cartoon characters marching around, zippo
There is no babysitting of any kind
Wifi may be weak or non-existent depending where you’re cruising, think of it as a blessing
Even the family-friendliest small-ship cruises aren’t geared to kids younger than about 8 years old, for safety reasons
Now the great news about small-ship cruises:
They’re super memorable, one-off, bucket-list box tickers that you’ll talk about for years after
The focus is on the destination, not gimmicky on-board features, so kids will really learn something
Small ships are intimate, so your family will meet and mingle with the crew and the other passengers
They’re authentic travel experiences, not staged or predictable
Best Small-Ship Regions & Cruise Lines for Families with Kids ages 8 to 12
Galapagos: Tame wildlife including adorable seals and blue-footed birds combined with pristine nature and opportunities to snorkel and hike make this one of the best small-ship family options in the world.
- Celebrity Cruises Xpedition
- G Adventures
- Lindblad Expeditions
- Un-Cruise Adventures
Alaska: Ditto the Galapagos, wildlife and nature (check out those glaciers!) are the big draws.
The Amazon: Cue the exotic wildlife, especially birds, fish (watch out for those piranhas!) and other marine creatures.
The Polar Regions: From tens of thousands of adorable penguins to jaw-dropping ice formations, the Polar Regions are out of this world (well, almost), and your family will never forget it (and neither will your wallet).
South Pacific: Here it’s all about snorkeling, swimming and stunning soft-sand beaches, with interesting local culture on top of it (think grass skirts and folk dancing).
Sea of Cortez & Baja California: Whales, dolphins and lots of birds. Did I mention whales?
Costa Rica & Panama: National Parks packed with wildlife including monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws and more plus lots of watersports options, from snorkeling to paddle boarding and kayaking
Europe: New food experiences in places like Greece, Italy and Croatia combined with ancient historical sites make small-ship Med cruises priceless family holidays.
Best Small Ship Cruises for Families with Tweens and Teens
All of the above, plus these, in the Caribbean and/or Mediterranean Seas:
Star Clippers. On this trio of cool tall ships, when at anchor there are watersports like paddle boarding and water skiing, plus you can climb the masts (in a harness) and pull in the sails on cruises in the Caribbean and the Med.
SeaDream Yacht Club. The big plusses are a mini watersports marina for kayaking, sailing, water-skiing and more, plus a small pool and hot tub. Cruises stick to the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
Island Windjammers. Great casual sailing experience for older kids in the Caribbean.
Travel Writer Heidi Sarna is the co-founder of QuirkyCruise.com, a guide to small-ship cruises under 300 passengers, and she’s written about cruises and travel for everyone from Conde Nast Traveler to USA Today, CNN.com, Afar.com and Travel Weekly. She’s taken more than 100 cruises and traveled to 75 countries and counting. Heidi lives in Singapore with her husband and twin 13-year-old sons.