Of the 14 million passengers who sailed from American ports last year, 1.5 million were children. Families are the biggest growth segment for cruise ship companies. Every ship being designed has children in mind. Some ships are planned entirely for families. (Some adults without children are clamoring for adult-only voyages; children have overtaken ships, especially during school holidays.)
Here are some tips for smooth sailing:
1. Pack a medical kit. A leading reason for parents visiting the ship’s infirmary is to obtain medications inadvertently left at home or ones you did not anticipate needing. Most common over-the-counter medications are available aboard. Some prescription items are stocked, but may be expensive, not covered by insurance and not identical to ones you use at home, possibly causing confusion. (See Medical Kit for tips on assembling a personalized kit.)
2. Does your health insurance cover shipboard medical expenses? If not, buy travelers’ assistance insurance. Such insurance includes evacuation to a medical facility on land. This rarely becomes necessary but can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Policies are available through major credit card companies. Policies have exclusions – pre-travel conditions and hazardous activities, parasailing and diving, for example, sports popular at some ports.
3. Update your children’s immunizations. Aboard ship there are passengers and crew from many countries; the crew are often from poor countries with lax immunization programs. Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have occurred aboard ship. Influenza vaccination is recommended for children six months and older (and adults). Shore excursions, even short ones, may require vaccines and preventative medications. Check with a travel medicine professional before your voyage.
4. Shipboard medical care is expensive. It is designed to treat routine illnesses and provide emergency care. Consultations can cost up to $100 for an initial visit. Most physicians are trained in emergency medicine. Injections, x-rays, lab work and “house” calls to cabins are extra. Fees may be waived for minor ship-related injuries. Most ships are equipped to electronically transmit x-rays, ECGs, digital pictures and other data to specialists on shore for immediate interpretation. If a family member has an ongoing medical problem or mobility issues, consult the cruise line’s medical department several weeks before sailing. In most cases, they can accommodate you.
5. Sunburns are common. Children burn easily. In the tropics, the sun is directly above, daylight is long, there is almost no haze to filter out rays, and rays reflect off water, increasing exposure. In temperate climates, don’t let cool weather and breezes lull you into complacency; neither reduces radiation. Taking ibuprofen immediately after excessive exposure and before burn symptoms occur may alleviate discomfort, but doesn’t reduce long-term skin damage. Use sunscreen of SPF 15 or above. Reapply frequently.
6. Seasickness is uncommon. Weather data enables captains to change course to avoid bad storms. Ships are equipped with stabilizers. If children feel “queasy,” stay on deck and tell them to keep their eyes on the horizon. Or stay in air-conditioned areas, have them recline, keep their eyes closed and heads still. Avoid large meals and food odors. Sip fruit juices. Transderm-Scop, a patch placed behind the ear, is effective, but approved only for children older than 14 years of age. It requires a prescription and has side effects. Oral medications and injections are generally available aboard. (See Motion Sickness.)
7. Most shipboard accidents are preventable. Leading causes are embarking and disembarking and the rolling of the ship. Inform children about risks related to steep stairs, wet decks, doorsills, and falling over items in the cabin. Leave a small light burning. Baby-proof cabins for toddlers. In many ports, ships remain at sea. Getting on and off launches, particularly in heavy seas or while holding young children, is dangerous. Allow crew to assist you.
8. Most serious cruise-associated accidents occur ashore. Riding motorbikes and parasailing are hazardous activities. In many ports there are no age restrictions. Tropical beaches have undertows and hazardous sea life. Lifeguards are rare. In developing countries, watch for broken sidewalks, exposed roots and unexpected steps. Many ports of call have only rudimentary medical services.
9. Cruises are a learning experience for children. Most ten-year-olds can be left alone to find their way around the ship (usually better than their parents). They can sign themselves in and out of professionally supervised programs. Parents, if they wish, can track them via beepers, walkie-talkies and other electronic devices. Confined activities are available for younger children. Cameras manned by security personnel cover most public areas. On many ships children less than 12 years old must wear wristbands listing muster stations in case of emergencies when alone. Crew can read the bands and guide children accordingly.
10. But even cruise ships are not totally safe. Child molestation and problems with teenage troublemakers and drugs are rare occurrences. Observe children’s shipboard friends. Establish rules in advance. Set times and places to meet during the day. Set restrictions and curfews – just like at home. Warn children never to accompany unknown adults into non-public areas or into cabins.
Next issue: Norovirus intestinal diseases aboard cruise ships.