Cruising From New Jersey: An Easy Departure for Families
By Kate Hartshorne
Every parent knows this scene: Standing in the airport security line with a screaming toddler struggling to free himself from your grasp as you attempt to simultaneously remove your older child’s shoes, fold up the stroller to fit it through the tiny x-ray machine, and tuck away the goldfish crackers as the surly man in the TSA uniform asks you to please dump out your sippy cup.
It happens repeatedly as parents attempt to vacation with their children. Long lines awaiting airport check in, dragging suitcases, strollers, pack n’ plays, toys, and other baby paraphernalia through the airport, layovers in unfamiliar cities, delayed flights, all hassles that start and end any vacation with undue stress. I decided to forego this messy scene while still getting the kids out of New England with a cruise from the Northeast.
Living through Northeastern winters can be challenging at times. I have always believed that a great way to fend off the winter blues is to head south, take the kids on a tropical vacation for a week during the coldest months to rejuvenate and make winter a little more bearable.
Unfortunately, traveling with kids can be not only difficult but also quite costly. Airline travel, in addition to hotel and food costs for a family of four, can really add up, another reason why a cruise can be the perfect solution. Cruises from New York can be more expensive than southern ports, but when adding up the cost of airline travel and accommodations, it is almost always possible to save money.
Several cruise companies including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Celebrity offer Caribbean cruises from Northern ports in New York, New Jersey, and Boston. There are often discounted resident rates for families living in New York or New England.
Cruising Out of Bayonne
Our cruise vacation began in Bayonne, New Jersey, at the Cape Liberty cruise port, aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas. We traveled for five nights to King’s Wharf, Bermuda. I was joined by my two children, Nathan (four years old) and Sofie (15 months), and my good friend Jane.
We were apprehensive about the idea of cruise vacation at first. “Are we really cruise people?” Jane asked when I mentioned the idea.
We both come from families that would not be caught dead at a theme park or a chain restaurant, whose cruising experience has consisted of an afternoon on a sunfish.
The idea of spending five days aboard a ship with 3,000 other people seemed daunting and way out of our element.
It took me all of five minutes onboard to realize that the benefits of a cruise as a family vacation are endless. Shockingly, the ship never felt crowded, even when we were standing in line to board.
The staff onboard the ship were beyond friendly. It was as if every time we walked into a room we were the first guests to ever set foot aboard. Everyone we met greeted us with a jolly “Good Morning! How are you today?”
It’s hard to believe they work seven days a week for five to eight months at a time. The ships go from one cruise to the next, dropping off passengers in the morning, and picking up a new round of over 3,800 guests in the afternoon, but you’d never know it. Everyone at Royal Caribbean did a great job of making us feel as though our vacation was the one and only.
Boarding a cruise ship is exponentially easier than flying, with or without children. When cruising from Cape Liberty, a local family can drive to the port, park, and be onboard within an hour. No need to be afraid of packing too much; you’ll never have to carry your bags!
The cruise port is organized so that you drop off your luggage before parking the car, bringing only a small carry-on bag with you.
I recommend packing your clothes in collapsible suitcases. There is not much room in the cabins, but we found we could store empty suitcases under the beds. An over-the-door shoe rack was helpful for keeping small things organized.
A stroller is a must for boarding with babies (make sure it folds up), just tuck your diaper bag under the basket and roll through the line and onto the ship. Most ships will provide portable cribs and highchairs if you need them, but other baby gear is often hard to come by, so call ahead and make sure if there is something you really need.
Diapers and formula are not often sold on cruise ships, as was the case for the Explorer of the Seas, so be sure to pack what you need for the duration of the trip.
Staterooms vary in size but are close quarters regardless, so a good way for a family to splurge is to opt for the balcony. Our balcony room gave us the option of sitting outside and enjoying the sounds of the waves while the kids were asleep, and room service provided us with Mai Tais and snacks so we never had to leave the room after the kids were down for the night.
Our tablemate at dinner (seats are assigned for the duration of the cruise) Carolyn, a fourth-time cruiser from Connecticut traveling with her family, pointed out, “With the money I saved on the airline tickets we upgraded from an interior stateroom to a balcony cabin, and it was definitely worth it!”
Our room was cleaned twice a day by the jolly Maritza, whose dutiful housekeeping abilities put my own to shame. Whenever we opened our door, Maritza would pop out of nowhere to ask us if we needed anything. We started to suspect that we were the only ones she was attending as she was so quick to jump at any small request.
How’s the weather?
Cruises from the Northeast are remarkable for their dramatic change in climate during the cruise.
“This is the only ship in our fleet that sees snow and palm trees in the same week,” says Melody, a Royal Caribbean staff member from Maine aboard the Explorer. Pack accordingly if traveling from the north to the south. You will need a variety of clothes and jackets as the weather can be unpredictable.
Cruises to Bermuda begin in April and continue through the summer. During the summer and fall, guests can cruise from the Northeast to Canada and northern New England to take advantage of the gorgeous fall foliage. Many ships travel to Florida and the Bahamas from the Northern ports, allowing families to experience Orlando attractions for a day and then move on to other adventures.
A warning from the crew to those traveling out of a northern port: the waters can be choppy for the first day leaving port, so come prepared with Dramamine. If you are prone to seasickness, it could be a bit of a bumpy ride getting started. Remember that everything costs more if you buy it onboard, so bringing the anti-seasickness meds is a good idea.
Our first sailing day was smooth sailing out of New Jersey. We never felt a single wave, but we did feel the roar of the motor beneath our heads as we slept in our cabin at the back of the ship. If you are prone to seasickness you might want to opt for a cabin towards the front.
What about the kids?
Cruises are best for kids over three. I found this out the hard way by chasing Sofie around on deck for most of the day during our trip.
Most cruise ships do not allow babies under six months old to board, and many do not offer much for young toddlers. If you are traveling with a baby, be sure to research what is available for childcare and entertainment.
Babies in diapers are not permitted in swimming pools or hot tubs on our ship (and they take this rule very seriously) so Sofie had to make due with splashing in a puddle on deck. Following your toddler around while she tries to get in the pool can get old fast, so be sure you are prepared for what your cruise has to offer.
Many ships also require that children are toilet trained before they can join in the child care activities, so if their participation is important to you then do your homework to avoid unexpected surprises.
Royal Caribbean did offer in-room babysitting for children over one, so we took advantage of this and booked ahead for three nights of our cruise. The cost is $10/hour (cash) and worth every penny.
Wendy, a young woman from Costa Rica who worked at the pool deck by day, came to our room every night to babysit a sleeping Sofie while Jane and I had dinner, went dancing, and soaked in the hot tub, undeniably the greatest treat for me during the whole trip.
Nathan, four, spent most of his time in the kid’s camp “Adventure Ocean.” The childcare staff aboard the Explorer were trained, friendly, and dedicated to making each child’s experience a good one. They did art projects, held a pirate parade and a talent show, and played countless games together.
If your child enjoys socializing with other kids, then they will have no problem making friends onboard. For more timid children there is always the option of staying with mom and dad and joining in the many family-friendly activities. On the Explorer we made our way through mini-golf, ice skating, a scavenger hunt, inline skating, ping pong, and even rock climbing. The activities were endless and, at times, exhausting. Five days onboard a ship with this much action felt more like a month.
Feeding the Family
One thing that is never lacking on a cruise is food. What they might lack in quality is more than made up for in quantity. There is more food than anything else onboard, and that becomes obvious as the days go on and your pants get tighter.
The food is generally pretty good, and offers a large variety to meet everyone’s needs. It was easier for us to eat with the kids at the buffet, as the dining rooms offered a more formal approach to meal time.
Most cruises offer a formal night, where guests dress up in everything from cocktail dresses to tuxedos to dine. We chose this night to feed the kids early at the buffet, and left them with the babysitter while we dined with the adults — good thing as the meal took over an hour and a half.
Many ships are now offering a more flexible dining option for families, allowing you to choose the time you’d like to dine, but this option fills up quickly, so choose it when you reserve the cruise if you don’t want to be tied down to eating at the same time each night. We did sample lunch in the dining room one afternoon and found it to be faster and less crowded than dinner, but for my kids the buffet was a hit every time.
A Few More Tips
To fully enjoy the cruising experience, some small items will make life a little easier. Be sure to pack reusable water bottles with tight-fitting lids. The Explorer offered a plentiful supply of water, but only in the dining rooms, so reusable bottles would have prevented us from having to shell out for overpriced bottled water or going thirsty in our stateroom.
Plastic bags in varying sizes were helpful for dirty laundry, diapers, snacks, and other incidentals, especially when in port for the day.
If you are visiting a beach and don’t want to worry about finding food, pack a small lunch or snacks from the buffet to bring with you. This can prove to be very helpful if you don’t know the area well; your kids won’t be hungry while riding the bus or finding your way to the beach.
Bring cash and one-dollar bills for tipping for services such as room service and baggage handlers, and be careful about the amount of money charged to your room. Most cruise transactions while onboard are done with a little card that feels a lot like free money, a mistake I’m sure has gotten a lot of cruisers in trouble more than once.
Cruises have something for everyone, including kids of all ages. Whether you choose to lounge by the pool with a margarita, soak in one of the many hot tubs, take in a show, join in a conga line, climb a rock wall, go shopping, or gamble onboard, there is something to fit anyone’s interest.
All in all, cruises from the Northeast offer a variety of choices for the whole family while cutting out the hassle of airline travel. If you’re in the mood for a great vacation but want to avoid the stress, hop aboard the big ship and listen for the “whoooooot whoooooot” of the bon voyage whistle. Cruising from the Northeast is the way to go.
Plan Your Cruise!
royalcaribbean.com to book your cruise aboard the Explorer of the Seas or call Royal Caribbean directly at (866)-562-7625.
To find out more about cruising from Cape Liberty cruise port visit cruiseliberty.com
Kate Hartshorne is a maternity room nurse and mom who lives in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children.