Catching up with the family for Christmas or to celebrate a special event can be enormous fun - but it can also be fraught with stress, as you try to balance the interests of everyone from small children to wayward Baby Boomers. Seasoned cruisers who are in the market for a family reunion are taking to multi-generational cruising in a big way: having experienced life on the ocean waves, they realise it beats the shared holiday house scenario hands down.
Major cruise lines are seeing a huge upswing in multi-generational family bookings. "It's one of the fastest-growing segments in our market," says Stuart Allison, vice president of Princess Cruises Australia & New Zealand. It's the same story at Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and P&O Cruises.
To find out if a multi-gen cruise would work for your family, check out our six top tips from past passengers and industry experts.
This month, Brisbane-based Reginald Hovell is heading off to the Pacific Islands on Pacific Dawn with 20 family members. It's their second group cruise and this one is to celebrate Reg's mum Meri's 60th and sister-in-law Rani's 50th. The youngest child in the group is six, the oldest adult 74 and there are six under-18s. The family lives in Brisbane and Auckland; Reg co-ordinates plans for the Brisbane clan and one of his brothers does the same in Auckland.
"We have a family reunion every five years and cruising is a lot less stressful to organise than a land-based holiday," says Reg. "All the food, entertainment and activities are already in place, so you have more time to enjoy being together as a family."
Cruise lines come to the party with celebration cakes, drinks receptions and group discounts; a CLIA Australasia cruise agent can make group bookings as painless as possible, access perks and advise on the best ship or itinerary for your group.
All the experts agree that it's essential to book as far ahead as possible, particularly when you want inter-connecting cabins and cabins close to everyone - these are the first to go during school holidays.
CHOOSE YOUR CRUISE
It sounds obvious, but groups need consensus. Big resort-style ships have the biggest choices of accommodation, restaurants, entertainment and shore tours - however, don't overlook smaller operators. Captain Cook Cruises has excellent family packages in Fiji and further afield, Lindblad Expeditions and Un-Cruise Adventures run family-friendly adventure cruises on small ships in exciting destinations such as Alaska, the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica. Kids must be eight or over for these cruises, however.
River cruising is another option for multi-gen groups. Uniworld has Generations itineraries in Europe that feature family-friendly shore tours, on-board activities and menus designed for kids aged between four and 17, and family hosts to entertain the youngsters. A White Christmas in Europe is a magical experience for all ages - and under-18s cruise for half price. Tauck's Bridges program includes family-exclusive river cruises in Europe; the company is renowned for its guides and the itinerary and shore excursions are tailored to suit three generations travelling together.
HOME SUITE HOME
Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas is the largest ship sailing Down Under this summer and its Family Connected Junior Suites are specifically designed for multi-generational groups. The Haven on NCL's Norwegian Jewel has three-bedroom villas that sleep up to eight people; there's also the option of senior family members staying in The Haven while the younger ones put up in more budget-friendly cabins.
Carnival Spirit has 86 inter-connecting cabins and Carnival Legend 106; P&O offers several inter-connecting cabin configurations, ranging from quad-quad (eight people) to twin-twin (four people).
EACH TO THEIR OWN
Mark and Leanne Weston, who as Carnival Diamond members have spent more than 350 nights cruising with the line, recently took a Pacific Islands cruise with their three children, their partners, and five grandchildren aged from six months to 17 years old. Mark says cruising as a family group is a lot of fun and his top tip is to "plan some activities together that everyone is interested in, but don't smother the family and let them have their own special time".
As Adam Armstrong, Royal Caribbean's managing director, Australia and New Zealand, says, "There really is something for everyone on board our ships. We find people from every age group enjoying action-packed features like our FlowRider surf simulator, skydiving simulator, bumper cars and ice-skating, as well as more relaxed spaces like our solariums, spas, pools, lounges, restaurants and theatres."
EAT AND MEET
Most families tend to meet at breakfast, decide what they're going to do that day - either separately or together - and reconvene for dinner. Kids' menus are provided in the main dining rooms and buffets, and special meals are laid on to keep the kids entertained. Carnival's Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast is served with visits from the lively Dr Seuss characters and P&O does a kids-only dinner every night in The Pantry, featuring special appearances from TC & Skipper, the kids' clubs mascots. On Royal Caribbean's Ovation and Voyage of the Seas, which are both cruising from Sydney this summer, DreamWorks characters such as Shrek and Fiona and the penguins from Madagascar pop up all over the place, including the dining rooms.
Booking dining tables in advance is highly recommended by all cruise lines, to make sure you can all be seated at adjoining tables throughout the cruise - most dining rooms seat up to 10 people per table. Bookings for specialty restaurants is essential, whether you're going en masse or for a grown-ups-only evening.
Advance planning is the key to success here. Decide before you go whether you all want to do one or two excursions as a family, involve the older children in discussions and book well ahead - some ship-organised tours sell out quickly. In the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand (the most popular cruises for local multi-gen families), there are plenty of shore excursions that appeal to all age groups and fitness levels. A day at Noumea's Amedee Island, for example, takes in turtle-spotting from a glass-bottom boat, snorkelling, swimming, exploring the lighthouse and relaxing on the beach - with lunch included.
Princess' Stuart Allison suggests taking a private shore excursion tailored for your group and Royal Caribbean has a dedicated group shore excursion team that can customise tours for groups of 20 and more based on your interests and budget. Alternatively, you can design your own tours using private companies, a travel agent or, if you really love organising, hiring minibuses and local guides independently.
I'll leave the last word about highlights and challenges to Carnival cruiser Mark Weston. "Cruising with your family is a great opportunity to spend time together. We were able to enjoy the different entertainment and shows as a family each night, spend time relaxing by the pool and doing fun activities at each port, followed by dinner together. Our biggest challenge was getting the kids to be on time; not the grandchildren but our kids!"
FIVE MORE BIG CRUISE TRENDS
A recent report from Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) found that Millennials are expressing more interest in cruising than ever before. High-end river cruise company Uniworld is already on trend, launching U by Uniworld for active, fun-loving travellers aged 18 to 45. Two slickly redesigned, 120-passenger ships will sail eight-day itineraries on Europe's waterways from next April. Who will follow next, we wonder?
Princess Cruises is introducing the Ocean Medallion on Regal Princess, a coin-sized device that's designed to streamline and "personalise" the cruise experience. Passengers carry or wear the medallion, which interacts with the Ocean Compass system installed around the ship, allowing instant access to on-board activities as well as opening your cabin door on approach, ordering drinks to be delivered wherever you fancy them and a whole lot of other functions. It will be rolled out across the fleet over the next two years.
Longer and overnight stays in port, mid-cruise off-ship trips for a day or two and post- and pre-cruise add-ons are featuring on several cruise lines' itineraries. Azamara largely started the destination immersion trend with its AzAmazing Evenings and has extended it with the Cruise Global Connect Local program. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have multi-day adventures in select region, while Regent Seven Seas offers (included) pre- or post-cruise three-night land programs in Asia, South America, Europe and the UAE.
CLIA's most recent stats show that there was a 60 per cent increase in Australian passengers taking cruises of one to four days. This season there are plenty of short sampler and repositioning cruises on offer, from all the major cruise lines. P&O has by far the largest selection, with five ships sailing out of ports in most state capitals on itineraries of two to five days. However, Celebrity, HAL, Princess and Royal Caribbean are all offering more short regional cruises this season.
MORE EXTRA CHARGES
Charging for more on-board services while keeping fares down is one way mainstream cruise lines make profits. Most lines provide free room service, but you now have to pay for it on P&O, Royal Caribbean and NCL. Carnival and Royal Caribbean charge extra for dishes such as filet mignon and lobster in their main dining rooms, and expensive, slow internet access is still the norm.