Wanda Sisson thought her husband was nuts when he proposed taking his grown kids and their spouses on a cruise as a special Christmas present. "I thought, there goes my retirement," said Sisson, an Ohio bookkeeper, chuckling. "With eight of us, I figured it was going to cost an arm and a leg."
Then, searching the Web, Sisson found the perfect solution, one increasingly popular with seagoing families: a short cruise.
Not only was the four-day trip surprisingly affordable -- just $4,400, including air, for all eight of them on a Carnival ship -- but much easier to plan. "It would have been very hard for everyone to get off work for a week at the same time," explained Sisson. Their trip was such a success, that in the year since the Sissons have taken their two younger sons on two short cruises. "You feel you got a break even though you're not gone that long," observed Wayne Sisson.
And that's exactly what time-crunched families want these days. The Travel Industry Association (TIA) reports that weekend trips increased more than 40 percent in the last seven years. Millions of parents and kids are grabbing several such weekend getaways each year instead of traditional long vacations, said TIA's Mike Pina.
"It's not so much the money but what they can fit into their schedules -- how much they can be away from work and school," said Stewart Chiron, a spokesman for the Cruise Line Inc., one of the country's biggest cruise booking agencies. "They'll pack a week's worth of vacation in a few days."
No wonder cruise lines are jumping into this exploding short-trip market big time, offering morning-till-night children's activities, even for 2-year-olds. Already, short cruises represent 32 percent of the market -- some 2 million passengers, the Cruise Lines International Association says, and it's growing fast. (Go to www.cruis
ing.org to compare what different cruise lines have to offer families.)
"This is very much in response to customer demand," said Carnival's Jennifer de la Cruz, noting that by the middle of next year, half of Carnival's fleet will be offering itineraries of five or fewer days.
Disney Cruise Lines launched its second ship offering three- and four-day trips this past summer. Premier Cruise Line is refurbishing it ships and adding three- and four-night cruises from Los Angeles; Norwegian and Royal Caribbean also report they are beefing up shorter itineraries.
The biggest appeal: You don't have to spend half the long weekend figuring out where you're going, where you're eating or how to amuse the kids. "On a cruise ship, it's a no brainer," happily said Sydnie Crane, who just returned to her Arizona home from a short Thanksgiving cruise with her husband and 3-year-old son.
First-time family cruisers find short cruises give them the chance to sample shipboard life. "We didn't want to be stuck for seven days," explained Mary Fowkes, whose family discovered they weren't big cruise fans after a three-day trip.
Even those who are cruise fans and have more time like the flexibility shorter cruises afford. "We were able to do a lot more in a week -- the cruise, theme parks, even a few days snorkeling in the Florida Keys," said Steve Poletti, who is from Pennsylvania and sailed with his family on a Disney ship last spring.
Another big plus: bona fide bargains. This winter, a family of four could cruise, eat and play for under $1,000 for four or five days, plus air and port charges which can average $100 a person. "It was cheaper to take the kids on a cruise than fly to our time share," said Wayne Sisson.
There are drawbacks, though. The itineraries are more limited. Vacation friendships may not have time to gel. The staff won't provide as personalized service.
"If you're going to spend for the air fare, go for seven days. It might not cost you that much more," suggested World Wide Cruises' Tara Rogers, noting that some seven-day Carnival deals start at under $500 a person -- $64 for the kids sharing a cabin.
"As soon as you relax," agreed Floridian Laurie LeWinter, who just returned from a short cruise to celebrate her 25th anniversary, "It's over."
But that was enough for the young Sissons. They're already angling for another cruise. "Next time," their mom said, "they pay their own way."
World Wide Cruises and the Cruise Line Inc. both offer significant discounts on long and short cruises. Call World Wide Cruises at 800-882-9000 or www.wwcruises.com and The Cruise Line at 800-244-7447 or www.cruiseline.com.
Kids (or other third and fourth passengers) sail for as low as $84 on some short Carnival cruises this winter from Los Angeles and Florida; parents under $250. Call 800-CARNIVAL or www.carnival.com
Royal Caribbean has $99 fares for third and fourth passengers -- adults starting at under $300 -- from Los Angeles-based ships as well as those Miami-based to the Bahamas and the Southern Caribbean from San Juan. Call 800-327-6700 or www.RoyalCaribbean.org.
Premier's seven-day Orlando cruise-and-Universal Studios package includes the cruise, three days at Universal and visits to the Kennedy Space Center and Wet 'n Wild for $399 per adult and $99 per child. Call 800-327-9766 or www.premiercruises.com
Bring the kids for three days on a Norwegian Cruise Lines Bahamas-bound ship for just over $100 each, $349 starting price for adults. Ask about slightly more expensive four-day trips to Key West and Cozumel. Call 800-327-7030 or www.ncl.com.
Disney Cruise Line's Sunshine Sailaway Package starts at $449 for adults, $179 for kids; $799 for adults and $399 for kids for a seven-day vacation including Disney World admission and hotel. Packages must be booked by Jan. 15. Call 800-511-6333 or www.disneycruise.com.