Here's what you should know about how safe your kids really are at sea.
Whether you've cruised before with your children or you're about to embark on your first family cruise, your child's safety should be your primary concern. Since cruising is innately different in nature from a land trip, there are plenty of questions about safety that parents ask me prior to their first family cruise. Below are some of the most salient questions along with answers that should put your concerns to rest so you can enjoy smooth sailing!
Q: My young child loves to climb. Are there railings on cruise ships to ensure that he doesn't climb overboard? Any tips for those staying in verandah cabins?
A: Yes, the large, family-friendly ships all have either plexiglass along the outside railings, or railings constructed of horizontal metal bars spaced close enough that a child could not fit his or her head through the railing.
Verandah cabins usually have plexiglass railings. However, a child could conceivably push a chair from the deck to the railing and climb to the top of the railing. Neither of my children ever attempted this, but for safety's sake, NEVER leave a child unattended on your verandah. Also, if you're in the shower and the child is alone in the cabin, make sure the door to the verandah is locked. Often the locks are at the top of the door so children cannot reach them.
Q: What happens if there's an emergency distress signal while my child is in the youth program and I'm not with him?
A: All youth programs inform parents at their open house night (the first night of each cruise) that they should report to their muster station in the event of an emergency and not to the youth room. For emergencies, youth counselors are trained to bring youngsters to their appropriate muster stations. All children (not teens) have to wear a safety identification bracelet during the cruise that lists their muster station, so youth counselors can quickly identify where kids need to go to meet their parents.
Q: My older child is not allowed to walk around town alone at home. Do most parents give kids a bit more freedom while on the ship? If so, what advice and ground rules should I give my child for when he's on his own?
A: Yes, most parents give their older grade-school children and teens much more freedom on a cruise ship than in their hometown. While there have been incidents of crime at sea, I always felt more comfortable allowing my daughter more freedom at sea than at home for a few reasons. First, there are usually uniformed personnel walking around that your child can go to if someone is bothering them. . Make sure you tell your child that if they need help or are lost, they can identify the ship's staff by their uniform and name tag. Also, there are phones in public areas where your child can call the front desk or your cabin in the event of a personal emergency.
That said, you should discuss safety issues with your child before giving them newfound freedom. Obviously, they should know the basics, such as never climb over the ship's railings and what to do in the event of a ship emergency distress call. But also discuss issues such as never going into anyone's cabin without your approval and what to do if they feel uncomfortable with someone who's in the elevator with them.
Lastly, walk the route from your cabin to the youth room with them on the first day to ensure that they know their way. Make sure they realize that they should not be roaming around in the crew's decks, which are usually on the lowest levels of the ship.
As children get older, you may also want to give them an evening curfew time based on your comfort level as well as the tween and teen programming taking place nightly.
Q. What is the sign-out policy for most family-friendly cruise lines?
A: All family-friendly cruise lines have a mandatory self sign-in/sign-out policy for those attending teen programs. (Some lines' teen programs start at age 12 and others at 13.) For those seven years and under, parents or guardians must sign their child in and out of the youth program. The majority of youth programs allow parents of children eight years and older the option of deciding whether their child can sign himself in and out at will. Here are some exceptions: on Royal Caribbean, children must be nine years and older; on Norwegian Cruise Line, all children under 13 years old must be signed in and out by parents. Note that Holland America Line just changed its policy so now it is in line with the majority of cruise lines: children eight years and older have the option of self sign-out but do not have to participate with the three to seven year old program if they opt for parental sign in/out. Note that some lines will advise you when you register your child for the youth program that you'll need a password or photo ID to pick up your child.
Q: How do I keep track of my "tween" and teenager now that they can sign themselves in and out of the youth and teen program?
A: For years, we brought walkie-talkies on board so we could communicate with our daughter when she was walking around on her own. You need to purchase good walkie-talkies that have a number of stations. On huge ships, there are some areas where walkie-talkies don't work, however. Therefore, as a backup, I suggest leaving a pad and pen on the desk in your cabin where you and your child can leave each other notes. Also, give your youngster a definite time when they have to return to the cabin or meet you at the buffet for lunch, etc.
Q: Should I allow my teenager to walk around port alone?
A: Never! On the ship, there are uniformed personnel constantly walking around the vessel who keep an eye on things. However, tourists can be a target while on land... especially young, innocent ones! While my teenager gets a lot of freedom to walk around our hometown as well as on cruise ships, I never allow her to walk around cruise ports for safety's sake. In addition, since it is a family cruise after all, port visits are prime times for our family to spend quality time together.