I recently survived a cruise to Canada with 15 other adults and three children, and no one got hurt. No, really!
To add to the drama, two of them had food allergies and I’m prone to motion sickness.
I slapped on a ReliefBand ($89 on Amazon, and I swear by it) and we alerted the crew ahead of time to the possible food-related medical emergencies, then headed out.
The idea of spending five days in the middle of the Pacific with that many family members might sound … daunting. Possibly nightmarish. But I actually had a blast.
I kept one rule of thumb in mind the whole time, which is what really saved me. But here are a few tips before you call up all your cousins.
First, go for a one-way cruise. Sound crazy? Hear me out.
We departed Long Beach, Calif., on the Ruby Princess on a Tuesday in May. We were “at sea” — meaning we saw no land — for two days. On Friday, we docked in Victoria, British Columbia. We spent the afternoon sightseeing and had enough time for a long lunch before getting back on the ship. By dinnertime, the ship departed; we arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Saturday, where we disembarked and spent the weekend. On Monday morning, we took a flight back to Orange County.
It was like having three mini vacations in one, and we weren’t even gone a whole week.
Checking into a hotel on land is cake compared to cruise registrations, but the internet helps. Princess Cruises has 18 ships with multiple worldwide destinations, but once you’ve put in your personal info online, you’re able to customize preferences such as extra pillows and whether you want a robe (I, of course, did). This is also where you choose dinner table reservations, which means it’s your first chance to warn them that you’re a picky eater — or like my cousin Barbara, allergic to gluten.
If you’re an avid traveler, this might be a no-brainer, but for a large group vacation, you absolutely need an itinerary. It needs specific departing and arrival times as well as addresses, because one of you might try to “lose” the grumpy brother-in-law, and he’ll need to be able to find his way back to the hotel in time for dinner.
We rented vans to tour Victoria, but it took a small bus to cart all of us and our luggage from the ship to the hotel in Vancouver. For such a large group, trying to hail a taxi or car service on command isn’t feasible — unless of course your Uber guy is really good at “Tetris.”
When you’re on the ship, you’ll get detailed info about cruise activities. Let your group know which ones you’ll be at, so they can avoid you if you forget to pack deodorant. (Seriously though, they sell deodorant in the duty-free shops.)
Take heed: “Kid center time” is cruise-speak for grown-up drink time. You should absolutely take advantage of this amenity, which means you just drop off your offspring for a few hours. When you get them back, prepare to ooh and ahh over their paper-plate art projects.
When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, you lose cell service.
Let me repeat: You. Will. Not. Have. Cell. Service.
Princess Cruises offers a messaging app via its onboard website. It does not send your phone a notification when you have a message, but it can still be useful if everyone in your group knows to check it periodically. (Just don’t expect Aunt Karen to ever get the hang of it.)
Otherwise, you just need prearranged meet-up spots.
Our ship had 19 decks and I could never remember which way to turn off the elevators to get to our cabin. The only reason I knew forward was because I quickly developed a habit of looking outside to see the direction of the waves. It’s like wandering the halls of a hotel, except there are multiple “lobbies” and no exit doors. I logged an average of 12,000 steps on my Fitbit every day of the cruise, and I’m certain half of them were because I got turned around trying to get from 12th deck port side to top deck starboard bow for more pizza. So make multiple meeting locations, and give yourself at least 10-15 minutes to get to and from places.
You should also develop a rapport with the servers and crew members. The servers were the same for every dinner we had on the ship, so they easily got to know us and were able to accommodate our requests for gluten-free, low-sodium or kid-friendly feasts.
A band was performing in a lounge one night, and we took up a large chunk of the seating area next to the dance floor. The kids were dancing, the adults were being goofy and eventually our party became the party. Strangers started joining in. We brought the crowd!
For bingo — a very serious and very necessary part of your cruise experience — we would show up early and stake out multiple tables. You’re supposed to be quiet during bingo, so be respectful, but there’s really nothing better than wasting away an afternoon on a boat, sipping a Bloody Mary while hoping the Aussie bingo caller with the punny jokes will say “G-14” so you can stand up and claim your prize before Uncle Mark wins again.
GET ALONE TIME
Within a few days (or maybe a few hours, depending on your tolerance level), you’re going to need a break from your cousin’s whining and your aunt’s tendency to overshare details about the ‘70s, so make sure to plan a break from the group.
After 10 p.m., the ship goes pretty quiet, so my partner and I would explore. We strolled around outside when it wasn’t too cold, and sat at a bar for a drink when we needed to warm up. Mostly it was just nice to feel alone on a ship you knew was actually packed with people.
My absolute favorite activity was movies under the stars. A huge movie screen loomed over one of the pools on the top deck. During the day they played family-friendly flicks, but on some nights they screened grown-up movies. We watched “The Martian” while cuddled up under soft, red blankets and being served warm popcorn and chocolate-chip cookies.
If you take just one piece of advice from me, take this: Be willing to go with the flow (pun intended!). In large groups you might never have a say. But if you hate what you’re doing, just excuse yourself. Being missing for an hour is better than sitting there being grumpy (I’m looking at you, Uncle Chris).
Allow yourself some time to do absolutely nothing, and don’t plan out every single meal together — that way you can opt for ice cream for lunch if you want.
My overall saving grace, though, was simple: I was on a ship! A massive, 960-foot-long vessel floating in the ocean. Anything I did, no matter how ordinary on land, just seemed infinitely more fun to do on a ship. Tipsy by 2 in the afternoon? Shrug. I’m on a ship! Eating burgers by the pool? So fun. I’m on a ship!
Laughing over dinner with a bunch of my favorite people? Wonderful. I’m on a ship!