Our friends finally convinced us to take a cruise vacation, and we are going to do it!
My wife and I are finding it all a bit daunting and don’t know where to begin because of our one daughter with PDD and our younger son who was recently diagnosed with autism.
Any tips for newbie cruisers you can share with us would be greatly appreciated.
Marco Di Carlo
I’m glad to hear that you are choosing this adventure for your family.
Cruising is becoming more accessible for special-needs families, and there are many benefits to a cruise vacation.
Families can enjoy sightseeing, comfortable lodging and dine out without having to pack and unpack suitcases, check into hotels or look for places to eat.However, as you might have guessed by now choosing the right cruise vacation for families with autism isnt as simple as one may think . So, to help you enjoy your first family cruise here are some tips.
Scrutinize the duration and itinerary
The length of time on a cruise matters, especially to families like yours trying it for the first time.
Many parents I’ve spoken to over the years are afraid their kids may become claustrophobic staying in a cabin for a long time and hate the trip.
Families sailing for the first time might want to consider booking a shorter cruise build their way up from there. With that said, longer cruises do offer a sense of stability for children with autism. Longer cruises allow children to sleep in the same bed for extended periods of time and get better acquainted with the staff. As always, this is all up to personal preference and what you think your children can handle and manage.
Another pertinent issue to address before booking is what type of itinerary is best suited for your family namely more days at sea or more ports of call.
Like the first dilemma, this one is complicated.
Of course visiting several ports of call can be exciting. However, it can also be tiring and somewhat overwhelming. In an ideal situation, parents would know the right balance between the amount of time spent at sea and the port stops on land but that takes time and experience.
For our family, we’ve discovered that the best itinerary involves visiting not more than two ports in a row with a day at sea afterward to rest and regroup.
My advice to you is to choose a simple itinerary that involves no more than three ports of call for your first time and see how it comes.
It is important to choose the right cabin
Choosing the perfect cabin comes with several pitfalls that you should try to avoid if possible.
I have to tell you that the walls of most cabins are thin. There can be repetitive sounds that can become annoying and frustrating. If noise-sensitivity is an issue for your special-needs kids, a stateroom on a deck nowhere near the restaurants or entertainment areas would be the safest choice.
If you have no choice and your cabin is close to pools, restaurants or gym areas, be sure to bring ear plugs to block out early-morning sounds if you plan to sleep later. Night time sounds of theaters and lounges can continue until after midnight sometimes, so those ear plugs will come in useful if you need an early evening.
Royal Caribbean‘s ‘Freedom,’ ‘Independence’ and ‘Oasis’ ships have promenade-facing cabins with sound-proof windows. They are ideal for children with autism who can watch parades from afar without being affected by the noise.
If your kids are sensitive to light, I recommend getting a cabin without balconies or windows. On some cruise ships, they offer virtual picture windows or balconies, and this too can be too stimulating. If your room is one of those make sure you call the cruise line in advance and verify that the system can be switched off completely when your family needs to sleep.
Safety on board the ship is a major concern for parents of special needs kids, especially if they tend to wander off somewhere on their own. I wouldn’t recommend a cabin with a balcony especially if your kids are physically able to open the door locks and would try to climb on the railings. Nor would I suggest adjoining rooms for families with younger children.
Many cruise companies offer budget-friendly choices of quad-rooms that can sleep up to four passengers.The rooms might feel slightly crowded with their upper bunks, but you can keep close tabs on the kids. It is up to you to decide if that is an option for you.
Ask for Special Needs Accommodations
Cruise lines like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Disney are front runners in catering to families and special needs travelers. They make things easier for every aspect of the trip, from boarding to dining to entertainment seating arrangements. These cruise lines also offer family friendly activities such as ice skating, bowling, rock climbing, and zip-lining.
Whichever cruise line you decide to try I strongly recommend that you contact the cruise line’s special needs desk at booking to make sure they can accommodate your kids’ specific needs.
Don’t miss out on the activities.
I suggest you speak with the cruise director on the first cruise day to explain your kids’ capabilities and behaviors. From our experience, they want to make the vacation enjoyable for everyone. Therefore, having them know the details will be advantageous so they can customize the accommodations for your kids.
Take your kids for a walk around the vessel, familiarize yourselves with the available activities and book them in advance to avoid unnecessary disappointment.
If possible, see if you can arrange the activities before or after the specified hours to avoid crowds. Also, be sure to ask the staff how this is best done. As you know, kids with autism do better with individual attention away from crowds. From our experience, a good time to try onboard activities is when the ship is in port, and many guests are on land.
I hope that your kids will be encouraged to try all the activities and the entertainment offered. The shows are good for education and enjoyment; just make sure that your family is seated close to the exit so you can make a quick getaway in the event it needs to.
Finally, I would recommend blocking their sea pass card charging capacity to avoid unplanned expenses. This step is important to take if they wander off and purchase nonreturnable items from the ship’s stores. We have had our son with autism invite several teens to play at the ship’s arcade with him. Unfortunately, he unknowingly was charging their games to his card. Moreover, I would get an itemized bill every day from guest services to keep a close watch on any expenses charged on your kids’ cards.