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A primer for first-time cruisers

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A cruise? Why not? The kids have been begging for a year to go, thanks to the slew of commercials showing how much fun they can have onboard without their parents in sight.

So what if you never thought of yourself as a "cruise type"? I never did, either. Too many people, too much food, too rah-rah. But then I took a couple of cruises with various combinations of kids, teens, grandparents and cousins, and I realized what millions of other people have: This is one vacation that really can work for everyone in the gang -- without busting the budget.

No wonder more than 10 million Americans -- 1.1 million kids and teens among them -- are expected to cruise in the coming year, according to the Cruise Line International Association. And kids are going on cruises in increasing numbers -- there are more than twice as many kids taking cruises now than there were in 1998.

What a deal, kids

Even when you add the cost of port charges (from $100 to $300 a person for a week's trip), tips (typically $10 a day per person), drinks and shore excursions -- not to mention the casino and spa -- you're still getting a pretty good bang for your vacation buck.

"A much better value than if you took the kids to a resort," says Nancy Yale, a mother of three who, as president of Cruise & Resort Connection (www.bookavacation.com), sends families on cruises and resort vacations.

While there are cheaper deals advertised, figure on spending $900 or more per person (including port charges), less for kids sharing a cabin with parents, Yale says.

The Norwegian Dawn sails year-round from New York and carries more children than any other Norwegian ship -- as many as 700 kids a week, says Norwegian spokeswoman Susan Robison. Even in the off-season, the Norwegian Dawn averages 200 kids on board each week.

Not only are you guaranteed shipboard friends for your kids, but even the pickiest eaters can find something to eat any time of the day or night. And just like you, they've also got their pick of activities from the time they wake up until they go to sleep (presumably exhausted): basketball, pingpong, movies, huge arcades, swimming pools, supervised scavenger hunts, crafts projects and even kids-only shore excursions.

Even the most upscale cruise lines, such as Crystal and Radisson Seven Seas, offer organized children's activities during prime family vacation times, such as holidays.

The trick is to make sure the ship you choose has the programming you need, whether that means a teen lounge, late-night group baby-sitting, or day care while the ship is in port. Here are some examples of the ever-growing array of programs for kids:

• A teen-only area on Disney Cruise Line's private island.

• Cooking class for grade- schoolers on Norwegian Cruise Line.

• Special kids-and-counselors dinners on Carnival's Miracle.

• Experiments with sea life as part of Celebrity Cruises' "Science Journey."

• Day care courtesy of a British nanny on Cunard's Queen Mary 2.

The Webzine cruisecrazies (www.cruisecrazies.com) details what each cruise line offers for children. You can also see what other families say on the site's bulletin boards.

Nobody's perfect

Be forewarned that when kids are part of the equation, not even a luxury cruise will be perfect. That the cabins will seem small compared with a hotel room -- all the more reason to book a second, less-expensive inside cabin for older kids. Don't expect a lot of quality time with your kids, either. You likely won't see your teens at all, except for the few meals they deign to share and the shore excursions you force them to take. Grade-schoolers are likely to be busy in their camp programs, except for the time they want you to play with them in the pool.

The toddlers and preschoolers, meanwhile -- the ones you really could use a break from -- may balk at being left with strangers, no matter how stellar the program. The kids will get cranky and whine.

You never figured on bad weather. Someone may get seasick or worse. (There always seems to be a line at the clinic.) And when it's sunny, good luck finding a chair at the pool -- no different than at a busy resort.

Face it: The reality of shipboard life with kids will be as unpredictable as life at home.

They'll get tired and whine. You'll get aggravated and think about how much you're spending.

Then you'll take a deep breath of that sea air and grab that frothy cocktail. Who said you weren't the cruising type?


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