Best spring break cruises for college students and families

Step aside, Daytona Beach and Disney World. Spring break cruises are attracting both families and…

Step aside, Daytona Beach and Disney World. Spring break cruises are attracting both families and college students for memorable vacations in March and April because they offer easy planning, an array of price points and compelling attractions both on board and off.

College students can follow the party to ships laden with bars and late-night entertainment. On short, affordable Bahamas cruises, beachy private islands welcome stress-shedding coeds with waterside bars, shoreside DJs, sandy sports and even amusement parks.

Cruising is so popular that travel agencies run hosted group trips during the biggest spring break weeks to make it easier for college students to book sailings and meet fellow partiers.

Families can spend their week off from school enjoying waterslides, ropes courses, roller coasters, mini-golf, and go-karts – all found on cruise ship top decks. Instead of a week at Disney, a short spring break sailing on Disney Cruise Line combined with a park adventure lets families combine beach days with amusement rides.

However, there are some key policies the under-21 crowd needs to know before planning spring break at sea. Below we outline what you need to know about these March and April sailings and highlight the best spring break cruises for college students and families.

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Spring break cruises: What to expect

Castaway Cay cabana. KENT PHILLIPS/DISNEY CRUISE LINE

Spring break cruises take place during the typically slower shoulder-season travel months of March and April. However, spring break travel has become so popular that Bahamas, Caribbean and Mexico cruises during peak school holiday weeks are often priced higher than surrounding weeks and more crowded.

Families should know that the shorter cruises take on more of a party atmosphere, so stick to the longer sailings, which will be filled with school-age children.

Older or childless couples will probably want to avoid all the weeklong or shorter warm-weather sailings out of U.S. homeports if they’re seeking a more quiet getaway.

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Cruise lines also have policies that may surprise the 18- to 20-year-old crowd hoping to let loose on their college vacation. Here are some key things to know:

Age restrictions on bookings

Many popular cruise lines do not let travelers under the age of 21 book a cruise without a “chaperone” who is 21 or older. On Carnival Cruise Line, the responsible adult needs to be at least 25. This can present problems for a group of 20-year-olds who want to sail together. You’ll need to bring along – gulp – a parent or at least an older friend.

Drinking age

Regardless of the drinking age in the islands, the minimum age to drink on many cruise ships sailing from the U.S. is 21. That’s even true on MSC Cruises, a European company, on its sailings from U.S. ports. The only line we found among the popular spring break cruise lines with a drinking age of 18 or older is Margaritaville at Sea.

You also are not allowed to bring your own booze on board, whether you’re of age or not.

Related: Can I bring alcohol on a cruise ship? A line-by-line guide

Beverage packages

For the 21 and over college crowd, beverage packages can be an affordable option if you plan on drinking a lot on board. Be aware, however, that some lines limit the number of drinks you can order at one time or on one day.

Also, note that some lines adjust their drinks package policies during spring break. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line only sells its beverage packages to guests on embarkation day from March 1 through April 15. You cannot purchase the package after the first day of the cruise.

Smoking, drugs and bad behavior

Cruise lines have strict policies when it comes to smoking on board, and they include vaping and cigars. You can only smoke in designated areas of each ship, never in your cabin or private balcony. Breaking these rules can lead to $500 fines or even getting kicked off the ship.

You could also get into serious trouble if you try to smuggle drugs or marijuana on board. If you’re caught, you could be prevented from embarking the ship or forcefully disembarked mid-cruise. You’d then be on your own to get home, and the cruise line will not refund the costs of your missed cruise.

And, yes, cruise ships do have jails, called brigs, on board. Your ship’s security officers do not tolerate fighting and other bad behavior and will detain anyone who is out of line on board.

Kids clubs

Parents looking at a week’s vacation at sea with the kids will be thrilled to know that the onboard kids clubs are complimentary from morning until about 10 or 11 p.m. at night.

However, with so many kids on board during these holiday weeks, you might find that lines are long to check kids in and out, or that activities might have to move to other areas of the ship if the dedicated youth spaces get too packed.

Related: The 7 best cruise ships for kids

Spring break party cruises

COLLEGE PARTY CRUISE/FACEBOOK

For spring breakers who want to travel and party with hundreds of other college-age kids, look for travel agencies that run hosted spring break cruises during the most popular spring vacation weeks.

For example, College Party Cruise hand-picks the most fun cruise ships for the college crowd, books cabins to sell to as many as 1,000+ 20-somethings and offers special events and discounts at bars in port to group members. You can have fun with your college besties, but you can also meet like-minded young adults from around the country and make new friends on your cruise.

Travel agencies like CPC make the planning easier because they bundle taxes and gratuities into your upfront cost and take the work out of picking the right ship and destination. Most cruises are short trips out of Florida, but they have West Coast options, as well. (Note: Even with these charter sailings, you must have one person in your cabin who is 21 or older.)

Related: How to get free or cheap drinks on a cruise

Best college spring break cruises

Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean offers many relaxed options for dining, like the Lime and Coconut on the Oasis of the Seas. TIM AYLEN/ROYAL CARIBBEAN

CPC often charters Royal Caribbean ships for its college spring break cruises because they’re huge, filled with thrilling attractions like rock-climbing walls and surf simulators, and offer plenty of bars, nightlife venues and onboard entertainment for young adults.

Spring breakers should consider three- or four-night cruises to the Bahamas from Florida ports on the line’s megaships, such as Independence of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, or Liberty of the Seas. You’ll definitely want a stop in the line’s private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay, with its water park, zip line and an adults-only beach.

West Coasters may prefer three- to five-night cruises from California to Mexico on Navigator of the Seas. We hear the margaritas are great in Ensenada and Cabo.

Carnival Cruise Line

Bolt rollercoaster on Carnival’s Mardi Gras. CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE

Carnivals’ “Fun Ships” are known for their themed bars, abundant and included casual dining (Guy Fieri’s burgers and Shaq’s fried chicken sandwiches, anyone?), and pool deck fun and games. College students will feel right at home in this casual atmosphere, especially when trip costs won’t threaten to add to their student debt.

Three- and four-night cruises to the Bahamas, or four-night Western Caribbean cruises, from Florida are ideal for college spring breakers with visits to cruise line private islands, various Bahamian ports, Mexico or Key West. If you’re out west for school, Carnival’s three- and four-night Baja Mexico cruises to Catalina Island and Ensenada will provide the same amount of fun in the sun.

Related: The ultimate guide to Carnival Cruise Line

The only potential downfall? Carnival requires guests under the age of 21 to travel with someone aged 25 or older.

Margaritaville at Sea

MARGARITAVILLE AT SEA

Margaritaville at Sea offers quick and cheap two-night cruises between Palm Beach, Florida, and Freeport, Bahamas. Even better for spring breakers is that the drinking age is 18+ while at sea and in the Bahamas, and guests need only be 18 to book a cruise (though 21 or older if you wish to lengthen your trip with a cruise-and-stay package featuring a hotel stay in the Bahamas).

The Jimmy Buffett-themed ship knows that it’s always “5 o’clock somewhere,” perhaps at its 5 o’Clock Somewhere bar. Between beach breaks on Grand Bahama Island and beer breaks on board, don’t miss the “Tales from Margaritaville” show, based on Buffett’s book and featuring his greatest-hit songs.

Virgin Voyages

Sea terrace on Virgin Voyages cruise ship. VIRGIN VOYAGES

This relatively new cruise line is sure to be a hit with spring breakers for one very important reason: No kids allowed. All of Virgin Voyages’ ships are 18 and older, and programming has decidedly adult themes. You can get a tattoo on board, attend a sex-themed cabaret and get a little naughty at late-night pool parties.

Cruise fares aren’t always the cheapest, but they include meals in all restaurants from Korean barbecue to Mexican tacos, Wi-Fi (which is pricy on other lines), nonalcoholic drinks (coffee, soda, juice), gratuities for the crew and fun and fabulous group fitness classes. You really only have to worry about your bar bill. To keep costs down, book a Social Insider cabin that sleeps four. Space is tight, but you’re really only in your cabin to shower and sleep.

Look for four- and five-night cruises on Virgin’s Scarlet Lady to destinations like the line’s private beach club on the Bahamian Bimini Island, Key West, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Always a rebel, Virgin only recommends that one person in your group be 21 or older; anyone can book a cruise as long as they’re 18 when the ship sets sail. The drinking age on board reflects that of the destination (it’s 18+ in international waters), so choose your itinerary carefully.

MSC Cruises

CONRAD SCHUTT/MSC CRUISES

Skip the expensive spring break trip to Europe and instead take a quick Bahamas cruise with an international flair on MSC Cruises’ MSC Divina or MSC Meraviglia. Both ships offer three- and four-night cruises to Nassau and Ocean Cay, MSC’s private island, and both attract a multinational, multilingual crowd. Also, MSC’s fares are consistently affordable relative to other cruise lines.

There is not much to do on Ocean Cay other than soak up the sun on your choice of beaches, enjoy refreshing drinks at beachside bars and snack on burgers and French fries at beach shacks and barbecues around the island — the perfect way to decompress after a stressful semester. In Nassau, you could get your snorkel on or simply park yourself at Senor Frog’s for the day. We recommend ordering some local conch fritters to help soak up all the alcohol you consume.

Back on board, MSC has some of the best pizza at sea, plus sushi and tacos if you feel like a splurge. Do an onboard bar crawl to find your favorite, or try out all the arcade and virtual-reality experiences, including a Formula One race care simulator. If your epic spring break moves you to song, know that MSC offers karaoke in myriad languages.

Best spring break cruises for families

Disney Cruise Line

DISNEY

Whether you’re going for a weeklong Caribbean cruise on Disney Dream or Disney Fantasy or a short Bahamas cruise on the new Disney Wish followed by half a week at Disney World, families know Disney will deliver an amazing spring break vacation.

Disney Cruise Line’s ships go above and beyond, with cabins designed for families to share, restaurants that double as entertainment venues so no one is ever antsy at dinner and, of course, plenty of opportunities to interact with your favorite Disney, Pixar and Marvel characters.

Families can splash in the pools together and zip down the water rides by day and then watch first-run Disney movies and the brand’s famous musical shows together at night. While kids pilot the Millennium Falcon or attend Marvel Super Hero Academy in the ships’ expansive kids club, parents can enjoy a night of fine dining at multiple adults-only restaurants or grab a drink at a Star Wars-themed bar.

Related: 11 ways to save money on a Disney cruise

Disney’s Castaway Cay private island is a can’t-miss port stop, with lots of beach-day fun and an on-site barbecue buffet. And no matter where you sail in the Eastern or Western Caribbean, you know Disney will have shore excursions vetted specifically with families in mind.

Royal Caribbean

ROYAL CARIBBEAN

While the college spring breakers gravitate toward Royal Caribbean’s shorter cruises, families will want to book weeklong Caribbean and Bahamas trips on the line’s largest ships at sea: Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas. Three of the ships sail from Florida ports, with Allure of the Seas cruising from Galveston, Texas.

These megaships feature enormous kids clubs and teen hangouts where kids can make friends while parents get a much-needed break. They also have plenty of fun spots for families to play together, including water slides, escape rooms, mini-golf, rock-climbing walls and carousel rides. The whole family can enjoy shows that include Broadway musicals, ice skating shows, high-diving acrobatic events and parades down the central indoor promenade of each ship.

Plus, Royal Caribbean’s two private destinations — Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas and Labadee in Haiti — offer a mix of gorgeous beaches and attractions, ranging from mountain coasters to water parks, perfect for families. The other ports give families the opportunity to teach the kids to snorkel or kayak, enjoy boat rides and aquariums, or spend even more time playing together on the beach.

Related: Labadee vs. CocoCay: Which Royal Caribbean beach is right for you?

Carnival Cruise Line

Available on the top decks of many cruise ships, mini-golf is a fun way for passengers to pick up clubs without polluting the ocean. CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE

Families on spring break should check out Carnival’s newest Vista- and Excel-class ships because they cater to families more than any other ships in the fleet. All have Family Harbor cabins that come in a variety of sizes and prices but are all designed for families and come with access to an exclusive lounge with games, snacks and concierge assistance.

On your sea days, the entire family will have a blast racing down waterslides, splashing in watery playgrounds, trying thrill rides like an onboard roller coaster and suspended cycling ride, testing their fear of heights on a ropes course and playing rounds of basketball, foosball and ping pong. Fuel up with nonstop pizza and soft-serve ice cream.

When kids head off to the kids, tween and teen lounges for video games, socializing and organized activities, parents can slip off to the spa or the Serenity adults-only sun deck.

For a week’s vacation, families have lots of choices. Carnival Horizon, Carnival Celebration and Mardi Gras explore all over the Caribbean from Florida; Carnival Vista sails to the Western Caribbean from Galveston. Carnival Panorama offers West Coasters a cruise to Mexico from Los Angeles. No matter where you go, you’ll find plenty of beach time and water sports, plus active and cultural adventures ashore.

Norwegian Cruise Line

STEVE BEAUDET/NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE

NCL offers its share of Caribbean and Bahamas sailings, but families looking for something different should consider the line for its weeklong Hawaii cruises aboard Pride of America.

Sailing weekly from Honolulu, the sailings hit all the top spots: the Big Island with access to Volcanoes National Park, an overnight in Maui where guests can view sunset or sunrise from atop Haleakala or go on whale-watching excursions, and another overnight in Kauai to tour the stunning Waimea Canyon or cruise along the Napali Coast. That means you can see it all without packing and unpacking, changing hotels or figuring out transportation.

Related: 5 best destinations you can visit on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship

On board, the casual vibe means families don’t have to worry about packing formalwear. Multiple dining venues offer the choice of when and where to eat; you won’t find assigned tables or dining times here. Pride of America may not have the go-kart tracks and laser tag found on other Norwegian cruise ships, but you’re really only using it as a floating home base for your Hawaiian exploration.

Bottom line

No matter which kind of spring break experience you’re looking for, you’ll find the perfect getaway at sea. College students can let loose with other young adults on easy and affordable trips, while parents can treat their kids to a memorable week of vacation.

Know the rules and prepare for crowds, and you’ll be all set for a spring break that will make all your friends jealous.

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