Calling all babies and toddlers: These are the best cruise lines and ships for kids under 5

Parents often approach me with the same big question: What’s the best cruise for little kids? 
care giver playing with toddlers on an MSC cruise
(Photo: MSC Cruises)

Plenty of parents in the market for a good family cruise have a basic idea of where they want to go but aren’t sure which cruise line or ship is the best fit. And even if you’re leaning toward a particular cruise line, it’s important to know that each ship can feel totally different depending on its size, the year it was built, and other factors. As a cruise expert and parent of two young kids, this is a topic I love to talk about.

Tips for choosing a cruise for families with young kids

Cruising with youngsters under five requires more than simply looking at what’s fun for families to do onboard. You want to consider special services like babysitting, cabin layouts, kids’ club minimum ages, potty training requirements, and other easily-overlooked details. 

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It’s also worth noting most ships these days offer flexible dining options, between the main dining room and various specialty restaurants. (You can bring breastmilk, formula, or baby food onboard as long as you follow storage guidelines.) Children’s menus and high chairs are easy to obtain, and most cruise lines offer a slew of baby gear items you can request at booking. 

Oh, and if you’re wondering: Do babies cruise for free? The answer is yes, on some lines, and at the very least they’ll get to sail for a discounted rate. 

My picks: Best cruise lines for kids under 5

If the sea is calling, here are the best cruises for toddlers and babies that I’d personally book as a mom of two littles under five years old. My favorite part about these ships? So much in terms of activities, amenities, and excursion opportunities are right at your statement doorstep that little planning is required. Plus, there’s something for every budget.

1. All Royal Caribbean ships (except those in the Radiance and Vision classes)

carousel in the Surfside area of the Royal Caribbean ship Icon of the Seas
Carousel in the Surfside area of the Royal Caribbean ship Icon of the Seas (Photo: Royal Caribbean)

Freedom-, Voyager, Quantum-Class, and Quantum Ultra-Class Ships

  • Ships: Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Odyssey of the Seas, and Spectrum of the Seas

All the fun without the FOMO is how I like to describe Royal Caribbean’s Freedom, Voyager, and Quantum classes. The ships are big—but don’t feel like massive, floating resorts—and they’re packed with just the right amount of fun for kids under five. 

Highlights include the Splashaway Bay water park, which also has a separate splash pad for littles in swim diapers; a mini-golf course; an ice cream parlor; and kids’ club. Select family-friendly cabins (depending on the ship) offer higher square footage, and families in need of more space can opt for a suite or connecting cabins. A wide variety of dining options cater to even the pickiest eaters.

Oasis-Class ships and Icon of the Seas

  • Ships: Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, and Wonder of the Seas

Not intimidated by the idea of sailing on the biggest cruise ships in the world? Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class has seemingly never-ending fun in store for families, spread out across various themed neighborhoods such as the Boardwalk. Here, you’ll find the bulk of kid-friendly activities in a Coney Island-inspired setting, with a classic merry-go-round, table games, traditional “boardwalk” bites, and more. The ship also includes fleet favorites like Splashaway Bay, the kids’ club, and mini-golf. 

The newer Icon of the Seas builds upon this platform, with even more geared toward those with younger children. Among the ship’s family-friendly amenities is the Surfside neighborhood, which replaces the usual Boardwalk of Oasis-class ships. This sweeping space includes a dry playground, tropical-themed carousel, more family-friendly restaurants and snack windows, and an amplified version of the Splashaway Bay water park and splash pad. Occasional family festivals liven up the scene with face painting, balloon animals, and other fun surprises. 

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Babies and toddlers (and therefore we parents and caretakers too) can sleep comfortably in an array of dedicated family cabins and suites, with tons of space and thoughtful layouts. (I recommend snagging a room closer to Surfside, since you’ll likely spend most of your time there.)

More details:

  • Kids Club: Each ship mentioned above offers a free-to-access kids’ club with special games and activities for 3- to 5-year-olds, as well as a nursery (available at an hourly rate) for kids under 3. Afterhours care for babies and toddlers also is available for an added fee. In-room babysitting is not available. 
  • Baby items available for rent: Pack-n-plays
  • Price incentives for families: Kids 12 and under sail free on various dates throughout the year, as long as they’re booked with two adults.
  • Minimum age to sail: 6 months (12 months on any cruise with at least three consecutive sea days, as well as Hawaii, South America, and other select itineraries)

2. All Disney Cruise Line ships

The Toy Story Splash zone water play area onboard Disney Wish
The Toy Story Splash Zone onboard Disney Wish (Photo: Disney Cruise Line)

You don’t have to be Disney devotees to enjoy sailing on a Disney Cruise Line ship. Whimsical decor, themed restaurants that serve up a feast for the imagination, multiple children’s pools (complimentary floatation vests are available), splash zones for the swim-diaper crew, toddler-friendly water slides and rides, the fireworks show, and Broadway-style musicals fit for all ages are only some of the highlights across Disney Cruise Line’s fleet. 

Perhaps the most magical place onboard is the kids’ club, open to ages three and up at no extra charge. Pulling inspiration from some of Disney’s most-loved films, these spaces offer design, programming, and activities that are equally fun and educational. A nursery offering group babysitting for a fee is available for littles under three years old.

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Cabins and suites have been designed to ensure youngsters can sleep through the night. A variety of layouts come with features such as separated sleeping areas, privacy curtains to further customize your space, split bathrooms with shower-and-tub combos and under-bed storage. Kids also receive special treatment during turndown service. 

More details:

  • Baby items available for rent: Complimentary strollers, cribs, playpens, diaper disposal units, bottle warmers, and bottle sanitizers
  • Price incentives for families: Any children in a cabin with two adults receive a discounted rate.
  • Minimum age to sail: 6 months (12 months on Hawaii, Panama Canal, South Pacific, and Transatlantic itineraries)

3. Carnival Horizon, Carnival Celebration, Carnival Vista, Carnival Jubilee, Carnival Panorama, and Mardi Gras

family with young kids relaxing in a Carnival Cruise Line Family Harbor Suite
Carnival’s Family Harbor Suite (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

Families have always been welcome on Carnival Cruise Line. But only within the last 10 years has the company made a bigger push for those cruising with young children. On select ships in Carnival’s newer Vista, Excel, and Excellence classes, my favorite feature is the Family Harbor room (inside, ocean-view, balcony cabin or suite) and all the perks that come along with it:

An exclusive, nearby lounge serving buffet breakfast, ice cream, and snacks throughout the day? So convenient. Kids eat free from specialty restaurants’ children’s menus? Yes please. Free nighttime babysitting? OK, now I’m sold. 

Outside the Family Harbor enclave, families will appreciate the thoughtfully designed kids’ club, available gratis, which welcomes toddlers as young as two. (Bonus: Two- to five-year-olds are not required to be potty trained.) Evening babysitting is available for an additional charge, for ages 6 months all the way through 11 years.

Although there are no pools or splash pads for those in swim diapers, kids who are potty trained have access to several pools and water-based activities (as long as they meet height requirements). Little ones also will love the ship’s two-lane mini bowling alley, mini golf, outdoor movies by the pool (complete with popcorn and a star-studded sky), and the playfully designed Dr. Seuss Bookville reading space.

More details:

  • Baby items available for rent: Strollers (for a fee) as well as complimentary cribs and playpens
  • Price incentives for families: Any children in a cabin with two adults receive a discounted rate; kids under 2 are not required to pay gratuities.
  • Minimum age to sail: 6 months (12 months on trans-ocean and remote itineraries, as well as any cruise with more than two consecutive sea days)

4. MSC Cruises’ U.S.-based ships

View of interior of the baby club onboard MSC Seaview
Baby club onboard the MSC Seaview (Photo: MSC Cruises)

Partnerships with big names like LEGO and Chicco baby gear are much more than a buzzword for MSC Cruises, which routinely goes above and beyond for families. The Mediterranean cruise line has a handful of ships based in the United States, and all of them utilize the partnership brands in intentional ways onboard, while also offering an incredible bang for your buck, especially if you have multiple kids. (Note: The reason I single out the line’s U.S.-based ships is because English is the first language on these sailings, unlike on international itineraries. On these itineraries, English is the primary language of things like ship-wide announcements.

LEGO sets the tone for the layout and programming at the kids’ club, sparking creativity and active play for ages three to six. Meanwhile, Chicco is featured in the offerings for those under three, who have their own dedicated baby club replete with toys and activities (think baby music and cooking classes).

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Parents and caretakers can choose to either attend with their little ones, or drop them off during one of the designated time slots available daily. Both services are free.

For those with babies still on milk or formula, bottle warming stations can be found throughout the ships. Swim diapers are not permitted, but potty-trained toddlers can get their fill of the pools and water park. Options for dry fun might include bowling, 4D cinema, and a Formula One simulator, depending on the ship.

In terms of accommodations, there isn’t one standalone cabin designed specifically for families. However, those who want more space can book in the “Superfamily” or “Superfamily Plus” connecting-cabin category, which accommodates up to six and 10, respectively. Multi-room suites also are available.

More details:

  • Baby items available for rent: Complimentary strollers, cribs, and bottle warmers
  • Price incentives for families: Kids 6 months and up sail free as third and fourth passengers, except in Yacht Club staterooms.
  • Minimum age to sail: 6 months

5. Explora Journeys’ ships

view of interior of Nautilus Club for Kids -
Nautilus Club for Kids (Photo: Explora Journeys)

Luxury cruise lines aren’t known to be the most family friendly, as they historically have catered to older travelers. But Explora Journeys is changing that notion with its new ships. 

For families who prefer a more upscale experience, the line’s smaller ships forgo mainstream bells and whistles for a more intimate feel and inclusive pricing (meaning all food, drinks, Wi-Fi, gratuities, and other extras are wrapped up into the cruise fare). What truly sets apart Explora Journeys from other cruise lines is its dedicated kids’ club (a feature almost non-existent on other luxury ships) and slew of family-friendly offerings.

In the nature-inspired kids’ club, youngsters three to five can participate in age-appropriate games, crafts, and activities, including an enrichment program focused on marine conservation. (Note: Those younger than six must be accompanied by their parents; however, activities can be truly tailored to the needs of those onboard a given sailing.) The line also provides in-room toys for ages six months to two years old. Kids are further pampered with mini bathrobes and slippers, and treated to special menus in the restaurants.

When it comes to shore excursions, families can opt for Destination Experiences created just for families. These excursions, which do come with a price tag, are more easily accessible and designed with a fun, educational twist. Examples include a farm visit or even a space center tour on which kids get to hear from a real astronaut.  

Back onboard, families won’t feel out of place. Children of all ages are welcome and embraced, including by other passengers, many of whom are families themselves. With a 1.25:1 passenger-to-crew ratio, the staff also starts to feel more like extended family. All accommodations onboard are suites—hello, extra space! While there are no specific family categories, those with kids who need more room to spread out can book connecting cabins or select a suite with a double sofa bed.

More details:

  • Baby items available for rent: Complimentary cribs, as well as baby blankets, sheets, and pillows
  • Price incentives for families: Babies and toddlers aged 6 to 23 months old sail free; children 2-plus years old in a room with two adults at a rate of up to 50 percent off.
  • Minimum age to sail: 6 months 

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Gina Kramer
Flip through Gina's passport, and you might be surprised to see that her extensive stamp collection excludes a lot of major cities. Her appetite for exploring more underrated destinations complements her work in the cruise industry, in which she has more than 10 years of experience – most notably as an editor and video personality at Cruise Critic. Now as a mother of two toddlers, Gina and her family continue to seek out “hidden gems,” whether they’re cruising or musing on a landlocked adventure.