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TAKING THE KIDS

A cruise may be the ticket to reconnect with the student set

September 07, 2003|Eileen Ogintz | Special to The Times

Nineteen-year-old Matt was prepared. He was ready to spend an entire week at sea in the Baltic, on a Radisson Seven Seas cruise with only his dad and me for company. Matt's two younger sisters weren't coming; he hadn't spent this much time alone with us in years.

Of course, it helped that the drinking age in Europe is 18, and that Matt and his dad are history buffs, genuinely excited about exploring St. Petersburg, Russia, together during the city's 300th birthday celebration.

We were happy to have Matt to ourselves. He attends college 3,000 miles away, and we were looking forward to some relaxed time when we could focus on him, rather than juggling the different vacation agendas of three kids with divergent tastes and interests.

But like every trip I've ever taken with kids, this one didn't turn out exactly as planned.

The first night on board, Matt met two blond University of Michigan sophomores from Cleveland who were traveling with their parents and younger brothers. So much for that quality time with Matt.

As late as the kids stayed out at night, we parents were amazed that they dragged themselves out of bed in the morning to tour palaces and museums.

On a ship catering to sophisticated travelers with an itinerary heavy on sightseeing, there were more kids than I would have expected. Aboard the Voyager, Radisson Seven Seas' newest ship, were 10 college-age (18 to 21) youths and 44 younger ones, mostly teenagers who all seemed to be having as good a time as Matt.

"It's the chance to see a different world," said 16-year-old passenger Billy Goldberg.

Parents aboard the ship were happy that their kids were getting more out of the trip than just a break from school. "A trip like this is accidental enrichment," said mom Betsy Kiburz of St. Louis, who was sailing with her husband and two middle-schoolers. "We didn't want to just lie on the beach for a week."

The following week, there were 70 kids aboard the ship, said Julie Kaufman, one of two ship employees charged with keeping the young travelers amused through the Voyager's Club Mariner program.

As other upscale cruise lines and hotels have discovered this summer, well-heeled families don't want to travel without their kids, whether it's to the Caribbean or Hawaii, Alaska or Europe. That's why Radisson Seven Seas, www.rssc.com, has added a Club Mariner program to more of its cruises, tailoring the activities to the ages of the youngsters on board.

Other lines are doing the same. As part of its summer youth program in Alaska, Crystal Cruises, www.crystalcruises.com, offered etiquette classes. Holland America, www.hollandamerica.com, known in the past for its appeal to seniors, designed two of its new ships, the Zuiderdam and Oosterdam, with multigenerational cruisers in mind. The cruise line expects to carry 30,000 kids on the Zuiderdam this year, said Holland America's Eric Elvejord.

These days, treating the kids to a little luxury doesn't have to break the budget. On Radisson ships, all soft drinks, wine with dinner and in-room bar are included in the fare. A passenger younger than 18 can cruise for half price when sharing a cabin with two adults. All cabins are suites, so there's plenty of space.

Baltic cruises start at more than $3,500, but travel agents may be able to secure better deals. Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises can be half as expensive. Cruises aboard Holland America's larger ships can cost less than $1,000 per person.

With a manageable number of kids aboard the ship, staff members are better able to cater to younger passengers. "We can be flexible, doing what the kids want," Kaufman said. That might mean painting their own Russian matrushka dolls, watching the "Legally Blonde 2" DVD that the counselors found in St. Petersburg or belting out tunes at a karaoke party.

The college-age crowd, on the other hand, didn't need anything more than the deck and an open bar in the evening. Still, Matt enjoyed being treated like a prince aboard the Voyager after a year of living in a cinder-block dorm room -- and after countless vacation adventures with Mom that included sleeping in tents, slogging through rain and driving down highways that never seemed to end. There was even a butler on hand. When Matt wasn't sightseeing or sleeping, he could order room service 24 hours a day, check his e-mail, watch DVDs borrowed from an extensive library or grab some sun at the pool.

"Thanks for an awesome trip," he said, giving me a big hug as we got ready for the flight home.

As for those heart-to-heart talks -- maybe next time.

Write to Eileen Ogintz at eileen@takingthekids.com.

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