'I went on a cruise with my extended family of 17. Here's how it went.'

When our blended family started going on holidays together just over five years ago, it was relatively easy. 

Kids under 10 aren’t too difficult to please. And when they all get on like a house on fire, it's even easier. Everything is fun! You just need a cabin to coop up in, a beach or pool nearby and you're set. 

Fast forward a few years and things weren't quite so easy. By 2023, the eldest was almost 14, and the youngest was nine, making family holidays a little less smooth, and a lot more expensive

Watch: Things parents never say on school holidays. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

Aside from hitting the beach or casting a line, getting everyone to agree on what to do had become a serious challenge, especially after dark when there was little else to do apart from enjoy each other's company - unless we were prepared to spend a fortune on food or other activities. 

This year, we decided to try something a little different; an idea sparked by my parents who are avid cruisers.

They'd often floated the idea of the entire family embarking on a cruise together, but it was one of those ideas that seemed more like a pipedream than a realistic goal. How would our parents, siblings and all the kids ever be free at the same time?


Turns out, this January, we were. And so we booked our inaugural Madigan Family Cruise, including my parents, my family of seven, my younger brother's family of four, and my older brother's family of three, plus one extra teen. 

In total, there were seven adults, two 17-year-olds, two 14-year-olds, two 13-year-olds, an 11-year-old, a nine-year-old (turning 10 on the ship), a five-year-old and a two-year-old. What could go wrong?  

Our youngest celebrated her tenth birthday on board the ship. Image: Supplied. 


Aside from a three-day cruise with my mum several years ago, I had no idea what to expect. Largely dictated by price and availability, we chose a seven-night Carnival Cruise, with two day-stops at New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

Being on a budget, we opted for interior cabins (meaning no windows), but figured we wouldn't be in the rooms much anyway. With a maximum of four to a room, we stayed in one cabin with the youngest daughter, while the four boys stayed in double bunks in the cabin next door. We had keys to both rooms, and would be able to come and go as we pleased. 

Within minutes of boarding, we realised we'd chosen the right ship. There were children and teens everywhere, and plenty of noise and organised chaos, meaning we wouldn't stand out like noisy sore thumbs.

Our first stop was the ship's buffet. I'll admit from the outset the all-inclusive food was a huge drawcard. Knowing the kids could eat as much as they wanted, when they wanted, was a significant weight off my shoulders, as non-stop hunger and eating out is a massive added expense when you take kids on holidays, and something that has to be constantly monitored. 


As well as all-you-can-eat buffets three times a day, the ship also offers 24-hour, made-to-order pizzas (including gluten-free, which was important to us as my daughter has coeliac disease), burritos, tacos and burgers, as well as all-day soft serve ice-creams. At dinner time, there's a restaurant option, enabling guests to order a three-course meal from a menu that differs each night.

For our kids, this alone was like a dream come true. They've never had so much access to food. We don't drink a lot of soft drink at home, so as a novelty, we paid the additional $7.50 per day for them to access unlimited fizzy drinks and juice. 

But the benefits of taking a huge family on a cruise went well beyond the food and drink. Here are a few of the highlights. 

The seven adults. Image: Supplied. 


Freedom (for the kids AND the parents).

One of the most incredible parts of this experience was the freedom the kids had to explore and do their own thing - during the day or evening - with very little risk. 

There is security patrolling the ship at all times, and literally nowhere for teenagers to go to get up to any mischief. There's no risk of sneaky alcohol consumption, and any inappropriate messing around is dealt with quickly - there was a no jumping, or even splashing, rule in the pool area, and these were strictly enforced, regardless of age. 

Our teenagers absolutely loved having the freedom to roam around the boat, eating when they wanted, and participating in whatever took their fancy. While we only purchased an internet plan for the adults, the Carnival Cruise app enabled family groups to communicate with each other onboard, allowing us to keep track of where the kids were, and arrange to meet for family activities and dinners. 

Of course, when kids have freedom, parents have freedom. The safe, confined environment of the ship meant the adults were able to relax by the pool, chill out at the piano bar, or attend one of the many shows the boat had to offer, without worry. There were theatrical performances, stand-up comedy shows and musicals - some the kids wanted to watch, and some they didn't. But the adults could attend them all if they wanted. How very grown up. 


80s night was a highlight for our family. Image: Supplied. 

Theme nights.

This cruise's tagline is 'choose fun', and there are a whole bunch of things on offer to encourage guests to do just that. One of those fun-inducing events is theme night, enabling you to participate in something you may cringe at in the real world. On the cruise ship, theme nights are embraced, and both the kids and the adults got into it. 


During our seven-night stay, there were two formal nights, an '80s night and a 'white' night. The formal nights involved dressing up fancy for dinner and subsequent bar hopping, while the '80s and white nights were all about the deck parties. Now, there aren't many situations where you can party with your underage kids, siblings, and parents all at the one time, so these nights were particularly fun. 

Hanging with the locals at Lifou Island, New Caledonia. Image: Supplied. 


International stop-overs.

If you're wanting an immersive international cultural experience, cruises won't be your first option, but the day-long stopovers are a great way to experience another culture, especially for kids who might get bored easily. 

Our cruise stopped at Lifou Island, part of New Caledonia, and Mystery Island, part of Vanuatu. Both stopovers required a transfer on one of the ship's tender boats, which was a novelty in itself. You're then free to spend the day as you wish, heading back to the ship at your own leisure, as long as you get there before it takes off. There are formal tours on offer, but we stuck to snorkelling and exploring. 

With a group of 17, stop-over mornings take a little bit of planning, as you need to secure a ticket to catch a tender boat at a specific time, and then wait to be called. Everyone has to have their cruise card too, including the kids. First in, best dressed. We sent one person to line up early and get tickets for all of us. 

The tender ride to both islands was super fun, and a fantastic novelty for the kids, even the older ones. Once at Lifou Island, the kids wanted to head straight for the water, but we dragged them on an island walk to get a feel for the culture. New Caledonia locals travel to the island especially for the day, so it's important for visitors to support them if possible. My brother and I did that by sampling the local Kava (interesting!), the rest of us purchased a few souvenirs. 


My parents had previously visited Lifou, so we'd been advised to pack goggles and snorkels, and we spent the rest of the day swimming with the fish. 

Mystery Island is a different vibe altogether - a tropical oasis rather than a cultural exploration. Think crystal blue water and palm trees aplenty. Here, we found an idyllic spot by the water, and jumped in. 

We made the pasta, then we ate it. Image: Supplied. 


Family connection.

Despite the high levels of freedom for everyone, the layout of the ship and the abundance of onboard activities kept our family connected in a really special way. 

There was at least one moment per day that the entire group of us came together, whether that was for dinner or at a show. Sometimes we'd be in smaller groups by the pool or at a bar. No matter where we were, we'd almost always see a few of the kids or another adult family member stroll by with an ice cream or en route to some other activity. Alternatively, we'd stroll past the kids having some pizza or a sibling taking a dip. 

The on-board activities made for some great family dynamics and special connections too. I took part in a pasta-making experience with my dad, brother, husband, nephew and daughter. 

My dad and husband won the Beer Pong contest, and our two sons and nephew braved the stage for karaoke while we watched on (a major holiday highlight). 

Little touches made a big difference. Image: Supplied. 



There's something special about cruise ship service providers who somehow, remember your name, even though there are thousands on board. 

Our service providers made us feel like family, even hugging us when we left. And it was an absolute treat to come back to a perfectly tidy room twice a day. Their subsequent ratings determine whether their contracts are renewed, so if you ever go cruising and receive a survey in your in-box, take the time to fill it out and give your hosts a rating of 10. 

We were so excited about the family cruise, we turned it into a towel. Image: Supplied. 


After stepping off the ship, I immediately missed knowing I could see my brothers or parents at any given time, the big family dinners, and enjoying quality time (over quantity) with our teens and tweens. I came home absolutely exhausted, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. 

Feature Image: Supplied. 

Calling all Shopaholics, Retail Therapy Enthusiast & Glamour Gurus ! Take this short survey now to go in the running to win a $50 gift voucher!