For extended families who may live in different places and lead busy separate lives, a cruise provides a great opportunity to come together.
Picture this: a mother and daughter team learning to salsa. Father and son learning to cook together. The grandkids tempting their grandmother on to a water slide amid shrieks of laughter. Or the extended family watching a movie together on a giant outdoor screen, joining a deck party dressed as pirates, or having breakfast in their pyjamas.
Being on board a ship beats a beach house. After all, it has shows, activities, shore excursions and a range of hassle-free dining options to keep everyone happy, no matter what their age, personality or interests. In a holiday rental there's plenty of "we" time but not much "me" time. On a cruise, it's easy to get both.
No surprise, then, that multi-generational cruising is on the increase. Norwegian Cruise Lines says 15-20 per cent of its guests are now part of a multi-generational group; 30 per cent of P&O Cruises' passengers are families. The trend will only continue. Baby boomers are retiring, with large numbers of cashed-up grandparents keen to travel with the grandkids. Meanwhile, the youngest generation is better travelled than ever before. According to Cruise Lines International Association, some 2 million children below the age of 15 sailed on cruises last year.
While many of us are aware of the increasingly child-friendly nature of cruising, we're sometimes less sure how parents and grandparents are catered for. Sure, the kids are happy on family-oriented ships, but doesn't that leave adults surrounded by party balloons, water-bombing teens and staff dressed as furry creatures?
Not so. Increasingly, ships are looking to provide something for everyone. Changes to public spaces are allowing adults-only opportunities even on the most child-friendly ships: relaxation areas, spas, dedicated swimming pools and certain bars and shows. What's more, kids' clubs have increasingly long hours and are ready to take over when parents have the urge to turn the pages of a bestseller or dance the night away. P&O Cruises, for example, operates its teen club until 1am, keeping everyone happy.
Ships are also offering spaces that different generations can enjoy together. The active can enjoy a round of golf or basketball competition, the fun-loving can try karaoke or join family deck parties. Everyone can watch shows such as Hair Spray or high-wire acts. Ships' spas are rolling out special treatments. On Carnival Legend, granddaughters get ice-cream-scented lotion on their toes and eat ice-cream at the same time, while mothers or grandmothers enjoy their own pedicures.
Who says there isn't fun for everyone on board a cruise ship? The five cruise lines below are a stand-out for the multi-generational offerings. Here's why.
Royal Caribbean International
Best ships: Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas
Why: The world's biggest ships have space to pack in enough to suit everybody: rock-climbing walls, zip lines, surf simulators, ice-skating rinks. The kids' space is massive. Some shore excursion choices are family-friendly, such as dog-sledding in Alaska or a visit to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
For kids: Clubs divide kids into ages 3-5, 6-8 and 9-11, with interesting science-oriented activities, pirate parades, Barbie at Sea and dance evenings. There are also meet-and-greets with DreamWorks characters and interactive classes for tots accompanied by parents.
For teens: Rock wall challenges, dodgeball and open-mic nights for 12-to-14-year-olds, sports competitions, teen dinners, basketball and parties for 15-to-17-year-olds. Both groups can access the teen-only lounge and disco. The spa has special teen treatments.
For adults: Adults-only solarium retreat, massages in the Vitality Spa, and a wide range of evening entertainment, including a casino and jazz club. With "My Family Time Dining" kids are served quickly before heading off with staff, while parents stay behind to enjoy their meal.
All together: Poolside games, karaoke nights, theme nights and singing and ice-skating shows. Meet Shrek and Kung Fu Panda for family photo opportunities.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Best ships: Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Getaway
Why: Norwegian has added active and creative activities and circus workshops that cater to various age groups. There are some good shore excursions for families, and a "Port Play" program (extra charge) that supervises kids if only the adults go ashore.
For kids: Kids are separated into Guppies (six months to two-year-olds), Turtles (3-5), Seals (6-9) and Dolphins (10-12). The cruise line partners with Nickelodeon, whose characters and themed activities are featured. There's a kid-sized pool and slide at Aqua Park. Some ships have a dedicated kids' buffet with kid-sized furniture.
For teens: Teenagers (13-17) get a dedicated space with air hockey, foosball, arcade games and a lounge-nightclub. A circus workshop allows teens to learn juggling, plate spinning and stilt walking, then put on a show for parents.
For adults: A cigar bar, ice bar and the Spice H2O adults-only beach club with pool, outdoor buffet and evening dance floor. The active can try basketball, rock-climbing and a ropes course.
All together: Whacky poolside games, games shows and challenges such as tug-of-war and bowling tournaments encourage kids and adults to compete with each other. Cupcake-decorating and pizza-making are also aimed at multi-generations. The Blue Man Group show is suitable for everyone.
Carnival Cruise Lines
Best ships: Carnival Breeze, Carnival Magic
Why: Great kids' clubs and a good variety of high-energy, fun activities designed to get family members involved. Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend have a big range of interconnecting cabins.
For kids: Toddlers (2-5) enjoy sing-alongs, colouring and drawing; it's unusual on ships to have a program for kids as young as two. The rest are divided into ages 6-8 and 9-11 and participate in scavenger hunts, talent shows and painting. A "Night Owls" program continues into the evening, though at extra cost.
For teens: Twelve-to-14-year olds can join Circle C for outdoor movies, games, dance parties. 15-to-17-year-olds hang out in Club O2 for sports, video games and karaoke sessions. Unusually, there are teen-only shore excursions on some ships.
For adults: Reading, playing cards, food and wine demonstrations or relaxing at 16 bars and lounges. Serenity retreat and Cloud 9 Spa are both adults-only.
All together: Plenty of activities for families, including the Dr Seuss Green Eggs and Ham breakfast, comedy shows, an outdoor cinema and game shows. There's plenty of fun at the aqua park, swimming pools and mini-golf course. Special family afternoons include an ice-cream-eating competition.
Disney Cruise Line
Best ships: Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy
Why: No surprise that Disney is child-oriented, with probably the best facilities afloat for kids. That doesn't mean adults can't have a good time too. Multi-generational cruising is central to Disney's operations, with activities and amenities crafted to suit. That includes long operating hours for children's activities, allowing adults more flexibility.
For kids: Under threes can attend a nursery. Kids 3-12 play musical instruments, do training exercises, train to be pirates, watch puppet shows, meet Mickey and dance with Snow White. The freedom to select from any of 100-odd experiences means younger kids can join with older siblings.
For teens: Tweens 11-14 can enjoy movies and hi-tech entertainment. At teen club Vibe (14-17), members can use a private deck area, join in karaoke and watch teen-oriented shows.
For adults: The latest movies, fine-dining restaurants, an adults-only pool and a rejuvenation spa with couples massage treatments. Paleo fine-dining restaurant is adults-only, as is nightclub entertainment.
All together: Shows and movies, themed deck parties and fireworks at sea. "Dine and Play" allows families to enjoy dinner together before youth counsellors take over the kids, letting adults spend the evening in adults-only parts of the ship.
Best ships: Royal Princess, Regal Princess
Why: Princess' latest two ships are very family-oriented, with larger kids clubs and more activities and dining options, as well as family suites. Its more adventurous shore tours include good options for multi-generational families, such as canoeing and fly fishing.
For kids: The program is divided into two age groups, 3-7 (Pelicans) and 8-12 (Shockwaves). The former can join arts-and-crafts projects, watch movies and cartoons and have pyjama parties and kids-only dinners. The older kids will enjoy interactive science activities, yoga, video games, foosball and a junior chefs program.
For teens: Thirteen-to-17-year-olds get their own deck parties, hip-hop classes, late-night movies and sports and singing competitions, as well as a formal get-together over dinner. A "Teen Makeover" program teaches make-up and skin care techniques.
For adults: Get some "me" time away from offspring in the luxurious Sanctuary area.
All together: A flexible dining option means you can eat any time between 5.30pm and 10pm in some restaurants. "Movies Under The Stars" offers a great chance for the extended family to get together on the pool deck for a Hollywood blockbuster. Kids over 13 can join adults in the Lotus Spa.
Choose your cruise
While the above cruise lines are steaming ahead when it comes to multi-generational cruising, every family is different, so don't rule out other companies. Here are a few questions you should ask before booking a multi-generational cruise.
• Does the ship have separate public areas for kids, teenagers and adults in which each age group can have its own space.
• Are there on-board programs and activities that are specifically for the whole family, rather than just for children.
• Are all children lumped together in the kids club, or are they divided up into narrower age groups, in which they'll have more in common.
• Are parents or grandparents allowed access to kids' zones, and can they involve themselves in kids' activities?
• Do shore excursions appeal to three generations, and more specifically to your own family's interests.
• If adults decide to enjoy shore excursion by themselves, will kids be supervised on board in your absence.
And a few tips to ensure you get the best out of your multi-generational holiday:
• Start planning well in advance, as it can be tricky getting the whole family to agree on the same schedule and to organise time off.
• It's a generalisation, but cruises in the Pacific (especially Hawaii), the Caribbean and Alaska are often more child-friendly than those in Asia and Europe, especially when it comes to shore excursions.
• A big group is more logistically challenging than a twosome. Plan before (or immediately after) boarding and pre-book shows, shore excursions and specialty restaurants to ensure there's available space.
• If you want to rendezvous in the same dining room at the same time every day, talk to the manager and pre-book a table for each night of the cruise to ensure you're always seated together.
• If your family group is large, you might not have to stick to pre-organised activities and tours. Some ships will create personalised experiences for groups, whether an on-board yoga class or a tailored shore excursion. P&O Cruises, for example, has special family reunion plans if you're booking more than 16 passengers.
In the last few years, cruise companies have turned their attention to the extended family, rolling out adaptation to ships, facilities and shore excursions. Here are some changes making the experience of cruising more suited to multi-generational travellers.
Bigger ships: Put simply, bigger ships can offer a wider range of activities to suit a wider passenger age group. Water parks and water slides, surfing simulators, rock walls, outdoor movie shows and even nine-hole golf courses now provide fun for everyone.
Better dining options: Open seating, flexible dining times and kids' menus make it easier for multi-generational groups. There's also a greater variety of dining venues, including casual outlets such as bistros, cafes and gelato stands. So if one sister likes sushi, the other steak and their mother is satisfied with a sandwich, everyone is happy.
More varied entertainment: Ships are offering shows to suit both kids and adults. Carnival, for example, has early family-rated shows that everyone can enjoy together, but more adult-oriented shows later in the evening.
Better shore excursions: Until recently, shore excursions were seldom specifically family-themed. That's changing even in Europe. Disney is the leader of the pack for its family-friendly excursions that might include visits to water parks, a butterfly farm or puppet show.
More quiet spaces: Facilities for kids have exploded, but until recently little attention was given to providing adults with peaceful retreats from the excitement. Now ships are increasingly offering quiet areas and adults-only swimming pools and lounges.
More family cabins: Staterooms and suites are being designed with the extended family in mind, either by inter-connecting or providing enough space to sleep five or six. Even luxe Crystal Cruises now has family suites; Disney's megaships have adjoining staterooms and convenient bathroom-and-a-half.
More kids' categories: It was once all in together in kids' clubs whether you were 12 or 17. Now cruise lines often have separate facilities and activities for tweens (12-14) and teens (15-17), and younger kids are also being divided into narrower age groups. P&O's Ventura, for example, has four age groups in its expansive kids' club.
Better pricing: More incentives are being offered to multi-generational families, and might include free kids' berths, junior discounts, credits for shore excursions, or even "kids sail free" offers, such as those from MSC and Ponant.
All in the family
Mark and Leanne Weston know cruising: they're veterans of 57 voyages. In a testament to multi-generational cruising, they attended their daughter's wedding on Carnival Spirit last year. Their son is getting married on the same ship next year.
Names: Mark and Leanne Weston.
We really enjoy family cruises. We can all be on board together, but don't need a plan every day. We can sleep in if we want, go into port, or enjoy the entertainment. Everyone has a fantastic time, and we can always catch up over dinner. You only live once so if you can do it, don't hesitate.
Downside: Maybe hoping the kids don't overspend.
Name: Karlie Ottoway.
Cruising with family is great because we live away from each other, and can catch up. We do lots of family holidays but, with cruising, you can be with family yet not under each other's feet. There are lots of activities, shows and things to do together but, if not everyone wants to join in, that's cool too.
Downside: Dad telling me to watch what I drink!
Names: Tanisha and Jerome Mvoyi.
We're 12 and 14 and we really enjoy cruising with nan and pop because they cruise a lot and know a lot of people on Carnival. It's great being all together, but we can also do lots while the adults lie by the pool or sit at the bar. The waterslide is awesome!
Downside: Only when we have to go to bed at 3am, but at least we outlast our parents and nan and pop.