One of the most frustrating times in anyone's life is that awkward time between 18 and 25. It's a mixture of confusing and often conflicting messages about your status as an adult member of society. For instance, you can vote and serve in the military at 18 but can't buy a pack of cigarettes till 21 or rent a car till 25. Well ... unfortunately, the same situation applies to booking a cruise. Most cruise lines will not allow guests under 21 to book a cruise or even board the ship unless they are accompanied by a chaperone, guardian, or parent who declares they are responsible for the "Young Adult" guest.
Minimum Drinking Age Differs Too
This may seem like an unfair policy and it is even more confusing to our Canadian readers since 21 seems pegged to the US legal drinking age but in Canada, you can drink at 19. To confuse things further ... many lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line allow guests as young as 18 to drink while the ship is in international waters with a waiver signed by their parent or guardian.
As these policies related to minimum drinking ago will differ from cruise line to cruise line. They may also differ depending on the part of the world where you are cruising. This is why we always recommend that cruisers work with a trusted travel advisor who can make sure they are aware of the exact policies.
Each Cruise Line Has Different Minimum Age Policies
The cruise industry operates in its "own world" in many aspects because they are fundamentally international operations. As such, you'll find a variety of different lines having similar policies but with different details. It is incredibly frustrating when by all means, someone at 18 here in the US is considered an adult, can buy a house, fly to Europe and rent a hotel but, generally speaking, can't book a cruise. To add to the confusion, the 21 age restriction isn't specifically a drinking age issue because some lines allow you to drink at 18 in international waters with parent or guardian signing a waiver to confirm they accept the responsibility.
It is also important to note that just as the minimum age to book a cruise and drink on the cruise varies from line to line, so do a variety of other policies on the ship. These include things such as access to different venues such as comedy clubs, casino, and certain "adults only" areas such as Carnival's Serenity area where you need to be at least 21 to enter.
That being said though, with the exception of drinking and gambling where there are specific legal restrictions, most other policies are entirely at the discretion of the individual cruise line, ship, and crew, so for instance, a mature and respectful 20-year-old traveling with their 25-year-old companion will probably have no problem entering the Serenity deck on a Carnival cruise.
If you are a young adult between 10-20 years old and aren't sure of the exact policies, the best advice is to contact guest services once onboard and they can outline exactly what you will and won't be able to do. Your travel advisor will also be able to help with this too.
Cruise Line Minimum Age Policies
Each cruise line has it's own nuances so while we've listed the major cruise line minimum age policies below, it is important that you work with a travel advisor to confirm specific details such as what you will be able to do or not do if you are under 21 as well as what the specific line considers when it comes to determining if your companion qualifies as a chaperone, guardian. In some cases this is a legal determination requiring official paperwork while others simply require a notice of liability to be submitted that essentially says that the senior guest in the cabin agrees to be responsible for the actions of the younger companion.
Furthermore, these policies are for cruises departing from North American ports. Other regions may have different age policies.
Norwegian Cruise Lines -
"policy dictates that a minor or young adult under the age of 21 must be accompanied in the same stateroom (or a connecting/adjoining stateroom) by a guest 21 years of age or older at the time of boarding."
Princess Cruises -
"No Guest under 21 years of age is permitted to book a cruise, and any Guest under 21 years of age must travel in a stateroom with a Guest 21 years or older who shall assume responsibility for their care during the cruise."
Royal Caribbean -
"No Guest younger than the age twenty-one (21) will be assigned to a stateroom unless accompanied in the same stateroom by an adult twenty-one (21) years old or older. "
Holland America Line -
"Guests under 21 years of age must be accompanied by a parent, guardian or chaperone who is at least 21 years old"
"Guests Under the Age of 21 MUST travel with a relative or guardian of 25 years of age or older"
Taking A Cruise As A 18 or 20-Year-Old Can Be Confusing
Without a doubt, taking a cruise when you are between 18-20 years old is a confusing time. This is true on land as well but on a cruise, the policies can seem completely arbitrary and while you are essentially an adult at 18, you are both too old for most kids clubs and also too young to have full adult privileges on the ship.
One cruise line that does make an effort to cater to this group is Disney Cruise Line where they have the "1820 Society". Here you will find Adult activities such as coffee tastings and demonstrations about creating your favorite specialty coffee drinks - the same way over 21+ cruisers might do with Martini Tastings and Cocktail Making Classes.
Disney also offers many other activities for this specific age group even though there isn't a dedicated lounge like there is for younger guests.
If you are looking for these activities, make sure to check out your Personal Navigator or ask a crew member for a schedule.
Other cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean or Norwegian, simply expect 18-20-year-old guests to find activities like the ice skating shows, aqua theater or mini golf on your own and that's frankly disappointing since it isn't that difficult to pull together special group activities like Disney does on their ships.