The facts are staggering: Every day 10,000 baby boomer Americans retire, and one out of five leisure travelers is a grandparent.
According to MMGY Global, a leading marketing firm specializing in travel and leisure, about one-third of these folks have traveled with grandchildren over the past year, which helps explain the explosion in multigenerational vacations.
Boomers are eager to celebrate milestone events, enrich family ties through shared experiences and bring far-flung family members together. In addition to children and grandchildren, “family” often includes siblings, cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews, ranging in age from toddlers to octogenarians.
It’s no surprise that cruise lines are responding to this lucrative market by ramping up efforts to woo multigenerational travelers, a diverse group characterized by different needs and interests, energy levels, sleep habits, food preferences and budget constraints.
(MORE: Top 10 Multigenerational Vacation Destinations)
Sailing the High Seas
If you’re considering a big family cruise, check out these five reasons to hoist anchor:
1. There’s been a positive sea change in cabin configurations. Whatever their age, every family member needs privacy as well as a good night’s sleep while on vacation. Traditionally, cabins on cruise ships were designed to sleep two people (except for larger, more costly suites). But the rules are changing: Older ships are reconfiguring existing sleeping arrangements, and new ships are offering innovative designs that allow large families to occupy separate but connected spaces.
A few examples include Disney Cruises’ Fantasy and Dream. Both of these new megaships have 500 doors connecting adjacent staterooms so families can stay together but with privacy. Many have partitions between verandas that can be retracted to create shared balconies, and both ships offer signature bath-and-a-half designs with an extra sink and toilet.
Last summer, ultra-luxury Crystal Cruises refit 18 staterooms on its Crystal Symphony to make nine adjoining family suites. Several have third berths for families with more than two children.
On two of their ships (Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Breakaway), Norwegian Cruise Line has created unique one-person studio staterooms designed for solo travelers, or a family member seeking a break.
Aqua Expeditions, which operates two five-star river vessels in the Peruvian Amazon, has four interconnecting suites for families on both the Aqua Amazon and Aria Amazon. Each cabin can accommodate up to two adults and one child.
(MORE: The Hottest Trends in Boomer Travel)
2. Flexible dining options cater to everyone. Feast-like dinners, where no one has to shop, cook or wash dishes, are one of the perennial joys of cruising. To make mealtime even more relaxing, some cruise lines are moving to open-seating options, so passengers can dine within a three- or four-hour window with no reservations required.
Have picky eaters (or food allergies) among your group? Chefs and crews are more attuned than ever. While smaller ships have fewer dining rooms, specialty restaurants, bistros and coffee bars, their crews go to great lengths to personalize service at every meal.
3. There’s something for everyone. Regardless of ship size, cruises allow a mix of unstructured time to relax as well as a plethora of onboard activities and shore excursions for stimulation (and to provide a break from too much togetherness). Modern cruises have expanded to include more diverse offerings for all ages, in education, exercise and entertainment.
Just one example: Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship, Norwegian Getaway, set to launch in Miami in February 2014, has partnered with Nickelodeon to provide interactive entertainment experiences for younger children, including meeting characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.
Teens and active adults can use a three-story sports complex with five water slides, two swimming pools, a ropes course with 40 different elements and a zip track, in addition to a rock-climbing wall, bungee trampoline and spiderweb.
When the kids are asleep, adults can enjoy the glamour of tropical-themed bars and lounges. And for family fun, everyone can compete on the nine-hole miniature golf course.
On smaller ships, excursions often focus on ecology, wildlife and/or history — with personalized small groups and hands-on experiences with trained experts. Parents report feeling better about giving their children more freedom of movement on these ships because kids are less likely to escape from view.
4. Itineraries include more exotic options at smaller ports. Cruising is hardly limited to the same-old Caribbean ports of call. Active and adventurous boomers are opting for off-the-beaten-track adventures. You can tour iconic cities like Barcelona or Stockholm or trace ancestral roots in France or Germany. Accordingly, boats are creating special family-friendly itineraries during vacations and holiday periods when larger groups are more likely to be on-board.
On two small ship cruises from Athens to Venice this summer on L’Austral and Le Soleal, Compagnie du Ponant will feature an oceanographer who’ll recount mythology and stories of the sea. During summer, Mediterranean itineraries offer a Ponant Kids Club.
Luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent charters Ponant expedition ships for its Antarctic voyages. One popular family itinerary includes three days on South Georgia Island, which boasts the highest level of biodiversity of any single island in the world. Themed lectures, workshops, and privately guided excursions enhance the experience for passengers of all ages.
5. And the best selling point of all: competitive pricing. As one of the most all-inclusive or mostly inclusive ways to travel, cruises can be more economical than many land-based vacations. Additionally, some cruise lines are offering extra discounts and incentives for families traveling together.
The Crystal Family Memories Program offers free berths, shore excursion credits and other amenities for family groups. Periodically the line offers a Kids Sail Free promotion.
Ponant offers Kids Sail Free promotions as well, and on any sailing, children aged three to 11 who stay in a parent’s stateroom are free (only paying port fees/taxes). Kids aged 12 to 18 pay 50 percent. From time to time, second staterooms are offered at discounted rates.
On MSC, kids 11 and younger sail free with two full-fare paying guests; children 12 to 17 sail at reduced rates. There are also some junior discounts offered on shore excursions.
Using a travel agent who specializes in cruises can help families identify and take advantage of special group perks. At the same time, the agent can serve as a single point of contact for questions and advice that are bound to arise in planning a group trip.
Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.