Sarah Brumfield and her husband, T.J., took their two daughters on a Carnival Cruise Line sailing last spring, and while the family spent plenty of time together, the couple also did their own thing away from the kids.

Brumfield, 39, could go to a comedy show, and her oldest child, Zoe, could later belt out a Britney Spears song at the teen club with a friend she’d made on board.

“I love family vacations,” Brumfield, who is based in Omaha, Nebraska, told USA TODAY. “It’s just sometimes if you get into those longer family vacations, you’re kind of on top of each other a lot, and it can get kind of stressful, and you really don’t get a break.”

Kids and teen programming on cruises help provide a respite, allowing families to enjoy quality time on a ship and have their own space as needed.

“I think it does make me feel a bit more independent, especially as you get older,” Zoe, 17, said.

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These programs even factor into whether the family, which Brumfield said take “one big trip” a year,” go on a cruise versus another type of vacation. She is among a number of travelers who have found kids clubs an appealing incentive, allowing kids space to play while knowing that they can’t go too far.

‘They do really well with that structure’

For other travelers, the programs allow for a different kind of quality time. Brendan Peoples and his husband, Edgar Castlow, take their five young kids on cruises once or twice a year. In addition to having alone time as a couple on an excursion or at the spa, they make a point to spend time with each child two-on-one, while their other kids are at the club.

“We get to have time to ourselves … but we get one-kid personal time,” the Houston area-based tax adviser said.

Brendan Peoples, right, and his husband, Edgar Castlow, cruise with their young kids once or twice a year.

Brendan Peoples, right, and his husband, Edgar Castlow, cruise with their young kids once or twice a year.

Peoples, who only sails with Carnival Cruise Line, said the line’s program is much more than “parking them in front of a video,” and offers a mix of activities that serve his kids well.

“They do really well with that structure, so they don’t get bored quickly … Every day it’s something different,” the 54-year-old said.

How old do children have to be to use the kids clubs?

Mainstream cruise lines typically have dedicated programming for young kids, preteens and teenagers, and group children by age, though the exact ages of the groupings may vary by line, according to Bianca Rios, owner of the travel agency Ahoy Vacations.

“I think one of the best parts about cruises is that there is a dedicated space for everyone, even from the smallest baby, teenagers, college kids, there’s always somewhere where they can go and be entertained,” Rios said.

However, generally, kids are required to be at least 3 years old and potty-trained in order to use the kids clubs, she said, and the lines cap participation at 18. “That matters if they’re turning 18 during the cruise,” she said.

What activities do cruise line kids clubs offer?

When it comes to kids clubs, not all cruise lines are equal. Kristi Marcelle, a senior travel adviser at family-focused travel agency Ciao Bambino!, said some lines, such as Disney Cruise Line, have more elaborate programs than others.

“That is basically nirvana for kids because there (are) so many different things to do and it’s very engaging and hands-on,” she said.

The line offers a range of activities for different age groups. Disney’s Oceaneer Club for kids 3 to 12 features storytelling sessions and play areas, while at Edge, guests between 11 and 14 will find a dance floor and karaoke, among other onboard offerings, according to the Disney Cruise Line website.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s youth programming includes the Splash Academy for potty-trained 3-year-olds through kids age 12, which has crafts, scavenger hunts and more, and Entourage for teens 13 to 17 “where they can hang out, play video games, watch movies and have themed dance parties,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Marcelle said by looking at the kids club offerings – whether on the cruise line’s website or by consulting a travel adviser – guests can get a good idea of “whether the cruise line is family-centric or family-friendly.”

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Rios said the lines provide a schedule travelers can consult to see what’s on offer. But take note: some activities may require advanced sign-up.

Generally, parents can preregister their kids for the clubs or sign them up on board, though that is largely necessary only for younger kids 12 and under who are in “secured programming,” Rios said. She added that youth programs often do an icebreaker activity on the first day, so kids can get to know each other.

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How much do kids clubs cost?

Kids clubs are generally included in the cruise fare during regular hours, Rios said, but child care for kids under 3 years old will likely cost a fee.

Passengers may encounter other fees, too. For example, while Norwegian’s programs are complimentary, the line does charge a $1 per minute late-pickup fee “if children are not picked up before the venue closes,” the spokesperson said.

“The Splash Academy also offers Late-Night Fun Zone, which allows parents to drop off their children between 11 p.m. and 1 AM a.m. for an additional group-sitting charge,”  the spokesperson added. That fee is $6 an hour, and another $4 per hour for every sibling.

Resorts on land may have similar programs, Marcelle said, but the offerings tend to be more wide-ranging on cruises, where guests spend much of their time on board. “They’re more comprehensive on a ship,” she said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise ship kids clubs: how much do they cost? What do they offer?

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