How I Turned a Romantic Honeymoon Cruise Into a "Familymoon"

honeymoon-with-kids
honeymoon-with-kids

Can you have a fun and romantic honeymoon with your five-year-old daughter in tow? Absolutely — if you plan it right. (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

Here’s a sure-fire recipe for hot honeymoon romance: Insist to your fiancé that your honeymoon wouldn’t be complete without your 5-year-old daughter. After all, if the travel industry can trade on marketing buzzwords to peddle its wares (see “babymoon,” “mancation,” “glamping”), why shouldn’t a familymoon be a roaring success?

Related: Wanna Take the Family on a Cruise? Here’s How to Save a Few Bucks

Now, after setting that idea in motion, propose that your honeymoon take place on a luxury cruise — just the three of you, all together in a single room. That’s right: 12 fabulous, conflict-free nights sailing the Adriatic and Mediterranean on the newly beautified Crystal Serenity. Under the wrong circumstances, this could be considered a gross miscalculation. For one thing, the Crystal demographic doesn’t exactly skew toward the kindergarten set; we’d have to opt out of shore excursions that had age limits; and — hello! — it was our honeymoon.

crystal-serenity
crystal-serenity

The Crystal Serenity (Photo: Crystal Cruises)

But I pressed the issue. After all, Emily is a cruise veteran, having sailed with her heretofore single mom since 6 months of age, just so I could get a break and a little childcare. Plus, I argued, she and I had never been away from each other for more than a couple of days. How could I properly enjoy a cruise without my mini-me?

young-child
young-child

Meet Emily, a five-year-old cruise veteran and the third member of this honeymoon familymoon journey (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

Perceiving that this could become a barrier to getting me down the aisle, this sensible man relented. The short ending to our familymoon saga is that we had a mostly wonderful time on one of the world’s most sophisticated cruise ships with our child, and we are still married. The long story is that having survived the longest two weeks of my life, I am now in a position to offer a little hard-earned wisdom to other blending families who are considering falling prey to this kind of magical thinking.

1. Align your expectations

While I take full responsibility for what in retrospect to me (and frankly, far in advance to all my friends) was a flawed travel plan, I’m not assuming all the blame. The three of us had different expectations. For instance, Emily associates cruising with the Barbie-themed, pirate parade-throwing, face-painting extravaganzas to which she has become accustomed on kid-geared lines. And her goal, in short, was to eat as much ice cream as possible.

scoops-ice-cream
scoops-ice-cream

Emily wanted to eat as much ice cream as possible on board Serenity. Scoops Ice Cream Bar was happy to oblige. (Photo: Crystal Cruises)

Having cruised many times before on some of the world’s top lines, I was fully aware that there was no way to “do” all 10 cities on our itinerary, with or without a 5-year-old, and my goal was simply to relax and even (gasp!) stay on board in some ports. And for first-time-cruiser Reid, the Gladiators and Empires theme of our Venice-to-Barcelona route awakened a primordial desire to conquer all four countries on the itinerary. Needless to say, it made for some familymoon friction.

WATCH: Five Ways to Escape Children on a Cruise Ship

We quickly found that the only way to happily navigate the trip was to agree which shore excursions were really on both of our bucket lists, and which were destined to end unhappily in a sobbing mess of tears and melted gelato. Our successes included wandering Venice (Bridges! Water taxis! Trinkets!), a daylong trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum (bus transportation, a break for lunch, and more trinkets), and Kotor in Montenegro (The child center was open while we were in port, so we were able to climb the 1,350 steps to the Sveti Ivan Fortress above the bay on our own.).

crystal-montenegro
crystal-montenegro

“Hey, I can see my ship from here!” The view from atop the 1,350 steps of the Sveti Ivan Fortress in Montenegro (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

Epic fails included a meltdown in Monte Carlo (lots of walking and crowds and Emily’s general disinterest in the Grand Prix). Our lesson: Rome was neither built nor can it be fully explored in a day.

monte-carlo
monte-carlo

Emily was not impressed with Monte Carlo. (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

2. Don’t underestimate the impact of an upgrade

Here’s the No. 1 thing that made our trip manageable: We stayed in one of Crystal Serenity’s newly refurbished penthouse suites with a beautiful veranda, which at 538 square feet, was the largest stateroom I’ve ever stayed in at sea. The bedroom could be curtained off from the living room, with its convertible sofa for Emily (which the accommodating staff made up each night while we were at dinner). Each room had a flat-screen TV with Blu-ray DVD/CD players that could be played at the same time without bothering either of us.

serenity-penthouse-suite
serenity-penthouse-suite

Serenity’s Penthouse Suite: Well worth the extra dough. (Photo: Crystal Cruises)

And when you have a child along, little perks become big necessities. On board Crystal Serenity, the two penthouse floors have a free launderette plus free same-day pressing, and our butler forestalled pre-dinner tantrums by delivering a cart of canapés he’d selected based on Emily’s tastes. Both fruit and minibar were replenished constantly (free) as was a bottomless box of chocolate truffles. Checking yourself into a penthouse with a child is well worth the extra scratch.

chocolate-strawberries
chocolate-strawberries

Emily enjoys one of the amenities aboard Serenity: chocolate strawberries in the living room. The other perk, the champagne, will have to wait for a future cruise — WAY in the future. (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

3. Expect to spend some time with your kids

On prior cruises (I’m thinking of you, Royal Caribbean), it was possible for me to dump Emily off for the day and know that she was having the time of her life for hours and hours on end. We had to be a bit more strategic on our Crystal Serenity sailing. Fantasia, the kids club — which was conveniently located just a flight of stairs away from our penthouse — was generally open from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., then from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on sea days. But on most port days, it was closed until the afternoon. This means that you should expect to eat meals with your kids (There wasn’t a program to take little ones off parents’ hands at dinnertime, as on some other kid-geared cruises). Also, pick-up is promptly 10 p.m., unless you want to hire a private babysitter.

mother-daughter-time
mother-daughter-time

A cruise is great for parent-child bonding time (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

The upside to the small kids program: Your child will get an unbelievable amount of attention. Emily’s devoted activities directors tirelessly made pipe cleaner art, built forts, made animal masks and had pajama movie parties with their single client. The downside is that advance planning can be difficult: The Surf Runner newsletter, which lets you know the kids club hours for the next day, comes out only the night prior. On sea days, we were saved by the incredibly well-curated library, which carried a stockpile of great kids books and DVDs.

4. Plan strategic alone time

Although we’d opted for the early seating in the dining room of 6 p.m., we only made it to the dining room twice. Emily just couldn’t make it through a formal dinner service, despite the unbelievable patience of the restaurant staff and their ability to make more and more desserts materialize from the kitchen.

cruise-formal-dining
cruise-formal-dining

Emily enjoyed the formal dining about as much as she enjoyed Monte Carlo. (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

So we developed a dining strategy for the few key nights we really wanted a romantic, fuss-free dinner: We either ordered room service for Emily while we got ready for our restaurant reservation at Prego or Silk Road, or we took her to the breezily casual Tastes on the Lido deck for dinner and had just a light snack before we dropped her off at the kids club and went to dinner at 8 p.m.

solk-road-nobu
solk-road-nobu

The lone male in the familymoon journey enjoys a special day in the specialty dining room, Silk Road. (Photo: Andrea Bennett)

On the second day of our trip, we discovered perhaps the best but most overlooked room on the ship the Bistro, with its chocolate fountain. Our nightly tradition became forsaking dessert and heading straight to deck 6, midship, just at the top of the sweeping staircase overlooking the Crystal Cove atrium. Accompanied by the Romantica Strings players (in their “princess” dresses, according to Emily), or Thomas Daniels playing the transparent Crystal piano right below but well within earshot, Emily could simultaneously dance and eat chocolate. Who ever said kids can’t appreciate luxury?

Is it a wonderful idea to take your child on your luxury cruise honeymoon? That depends on what you expect from the experience. It wasn’t the kind of 24/7 sexytime that most of us grow up expecting from our first married trip (though with a well-planned childcare schedule, you can accomplish plenty). But our new marriage came with a single little girl who’d never remembered having a dad, and bonding with her new daddy was more important than our reenacting “The Blue Lagoon” for two weeks. We carried, cajoled and bribed a five-year-old through 10 cities, four countries, and about a hundred gallons of gelato. I’d call that a honeymoon triumph.

mother-daughter
mother-daughter

(Photo: Andrea Bennett)

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