Cruises can be all things to a family

Family members of all ages increasingly find sailing an ideal way to celebrate reunions, anniversaries and holidays.

When Don and Sandy Breckon of Parkville, Mo., were approaching their 40th anniversary a few years ago, a cruise seemed like a good way to celebrate.

So they gathered their four daughters and their husbands from various points across the country and set sail for the Bahamas.

The Breckons liked it so much that the family is going to cruise again - this time with seven grandchildren, too. For their 50th anniversary in 2009, the Breckons and 15 family members are going to Alaska.

"The great thing about cruise ships is that there are so many activities for all the different people that you don't have to worry about keeping everybody busy all the time," Don Breckon says.

Extended families have taken to sailing - celebrating anniversaries, gathering for family reunions or just trying to get away and find a little time together.

"Family reunions and the family-cruise market in general is the fastest growing segment of our industry," says Vance Gulliksen of Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest. "This year alone, we're expecting to carry 575,000 children under the age of 18. . . . That's roughly six times what we carried a decade ago."

Dean and Ginny Trenter of Kansas City have become firm believers in cruising as a way of getting their far-flung family together.

The Trenters have been on three cruises with their adult children and their families, who live in Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis.

"You get on the ship, and you absolutely relax," says Dean Trenter, a retired accounting supervisor. "You want to get in the pool? Fine. You want to watch a movie? Fine. Everybody can do their own thing in the daytime, but whatever we do, we always get cleaned up and meet for dinner. We have a big table and sit all 11 of us together."

If the fun starts when the ship sails, it doesn't mean there aren't plenty of challenges in planning a big family cruise.

Just how do you get a family of 11 or 17 or 35 together?

"The first thing I tell people is that one person has to make the decisions," says Susie VanderKamp, co-owner of the Cruise Connections travel agency in Kansas City. "One person has to decide when they're going to go and where they're going."

When several family members are trying to make decisions, the likelihood is that the cruise will never happen, VanderKamp says. The larger the group, the more conflicts there will be in vacation schedules, destination preferences and cruising styles.

In some cases, the person who's paying for the cruise gets to make the decisions. End of discussion.

Once you've selected a family planner, he or she can start winnowing the choices in cruise lines, ships and destinations. The first decision: when to go.

Veteran travelers and cruise counselors advise that you begin planning nine months to two years ahead. The lead time improves the odds that everyone will be able to participate.

"You certainly have to let the kids know so they can protect their calendars," says Breckon, who was about to embark on his 40th cruise and had already booked three more after that.

Early planning is essential for several reasons:

Better prices. "If you're planning to go during spring break, over the holidays, or in the summer, those are the most popular times to go, and they tend to be expensive," VanderKamp says. "If you book them when they first come out or close to that, you're going to get a better deal. . . . As the cruise fills up, I've seen the price go way up."

On the other hand, when the cruise line drops its price, the travel agency also will drop its price, she says.

Getting the best rooms. "If you want to get certain kinds of rooms, balconies or whatever, they tend to sell out first," VanderKamp says. "Some people want be in the middle of the ship. Some people want to be on the end of the ship. Booking early ensures you will be able to get what you want."

Some families want rooms close to one another.

"We get three balcony cabins right together, one for each family," says Dean Trenter, a veteran of 14 cruises.

Making payments. "The farther out you go, the more people are able to make payments on a monthly basis," says Mark Comfort, owner of Cruise Holidays of Kansas City.

Every year brings new itineraries for cruise lines. Some ships sail to exotic destinations in the Pacific, such as Tahiti, Vanuatu or Fiji. In fall, some lines ply the coast of New England and Canada. Some cruisers prefer Mediterranean ports or European capitals.

"You can never go wrong with the Caribbean," Comfort says. "That's why it garners so much of the family reunion business. . . . Statistically, the Caribbean is where a good 65 percent to 75 percent of multigenerational families go. Alaska is about 30 percent. The rest go to Europe or Hawaii."

Another thing to consider is the cost of shore excursions.

"If you do someplace like Alaska or Europe, the shore excursions are going to get expensive," VanderKamp says. "The Caribbean will be the cheapest place you're going to get, unless you can do a 14-day cruise to Hawaii," which includes more days at sea.

"Traditionally, destinations have been the deciding factor," says Harrison Liu of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. "But with these larger and larger ships with all these things to do, the ship is becoming more of a destination than all of these geographical destinations."

Royal Caribbean boasts the world's largest cruise ships, Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas, whose attractions include the FlowRider surfing pool, rock-climbing walls, in-line skating tracks, ice-skating rinks, and basketball courts. Some Princess ships have huge movie screens on pool decks. Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Pearl has a bowling alley.

"The thing you have to remember is the age of the people who are cruising with you," VanderKamp says. "Do we need to have good children's programs? Are the majority of the people seniors? Look at your demographics to see what's going to work best. If you put people on a ship that's mostly for seniors and you have a lot of kids, they're going to be unhappy, and their parents are going to be unhappy."

Groups with children should ask about the variety and range of children's programs.

Royal Caribbean, for example, offers activities for children in five age groups, Liu says. "Kids from one age group to the next don't necessarily want to hang out with each other."

But adults count, too. On the Fantasy and other Carnival ships in that class, the children's pool areas are being redesigned for adults, with hot tubs, teak decks and drink service. "It's nice and relaxing," Gulliksen says. "It's a quiet area."

By cruising as a group, you might save some money. Although policies vary among cruise lines, the general rule is that for every 15 people who cruise together, the 16th person sails free, based on bookings of eight cabins or more.

"Holland America has come out with a program for family reunion groups," Comfort says. "It will upgrade the family member of choice, which is usually Grandma and Grandpa, with a cabin upgrade."

In cabins that can accommodate three or four people, the third and fourth passengers pay substantially lower fares.

Groups get other perks, too. A good travel agent can work with the cruise line to arrange special offerings, such as wine or chocolate-covered strawberries, or events.

"We think of things you don't think of," VanderKamp says. "It makes a big difference. If people want to have a cocktail party or a pastry party in the morning, we think of those things and make them work."

Once the cruise starts, just remember: Don't complain.

"It's not good to complain because if one person does, there's a domino effect," VanderKamp said.

Besides, big family cruises, just like other family gatherings, are about making memories.

"One of the things the kids still talk about is snorkeling in the coral reefs," Don Breckon says. "It was spectacular, and for some of them it was the first time. It was amazing."

Ginny Trenter remembers the dinners.

"I just got a big kick out of our 12-year-old grandson, who eats anything and everything. He would order New York steak, duck, everything," she says. "Then our other little grandson would say, 'I'll have the same thing.' "

A Family Checklist

Are there activities on board for every age range in our group?

What baby-sitting programs are available?

Can our cabins be grouped together?

Are large-family cabins available (affordable)?

Is the ship's onboard entertainment appropriate for my family?

What are the advantages and disadvantages to buying airfare from the cruise line?

Is it important to fly to our port a day before the ship sails?

Do we want to eat together every night?

Can our travel agent arrange gatherings just for the family?

What's more important, the destination or the ship?