You know the old saying that there are no new ideas, only old ideas we keep turning into new combinations? I think the same goes for family vacations. Resorts and cruise ships and theme parks keep getting bigger, but the goal of a family vacation is always the same: to go someplace fun and spend quality time together. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we won’t have to pay too much for the experience.
That last part feels especially relevant these days. I’m fortunate to have taken my kids on some pretty epic vacations in the past, but I’ve also had to come up with family vacation ideas when times were tight. The way I see it, kids are only kids for a little while, and as parents we want to take them on vacation when we’re still forging bonds and building memories—even if it means a downsized version of our dream trip.
Now that my kids are teens and will soon be heading off to college, I’ve been looking back on our favorite family trips and realizing they boil down to a few different vacation categories. Here are all the different variations along with my top family vacation recommendations.
1. Build Your Family Vacation around a Resort or All-Inclusive
I never used to care much about hotels, but that changed when my kids came along. Suddenly I was building whole trips around where to stay. And honestly? I kind of love it. When I think about my favorite family vacations, many of the best memories involve the resorts themselves, in particular Nickelodeon Hotels and Resorts Riviera Maya in Mexico, Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, and Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort in Orlando. These resorts all have a few things in common.
1) Lots of food options. I have one kid who’ll eat anything and another who basically subsists on cheese alone. The best family resorts have a good variety of dining options, and that makes finding someplace to eat a lot less stressful.
2) Loads of activities. Kids want to be entertained on vacation. Like, basically at all times. Family resorts know how to make sure you’ll never run out of things to do. They typically have awesome kids clubs, a huge variety of daily activities, and maybe even live interactive game shows you can join. My family actually got to compete in Nickelodeon’s “Slime Time Live” game show in front of a live audience at the Nickelodeon Resort in Playa del Carmen. Yes, we won—and we got slimed!
3) A great location. Many all-inclusive resorts and other family resorts are located near popular family vacation spots, tourist attractions, or theme parks. You might never want to leave the comfort of your resort, but if you do, there’s usually plenty of family fun right nearby.
In addition to the three family resorts I mentioned above, here are a few more you can easily build a whole family vacation around:
- Beaches Resorts in the Caribbean
- Club Med Quebec Charlevoix in Canada
- Hawks Cay Resort in Florida
- Mohonk Mountain House in New York
- Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya in Mexico
2. Make Family Vacation Memories on a Cruise
Another of my favorite family vacations was a two-week Disney Cruise from Port Canaveral to San Diego via the Panama Canal. We made it a multigenerational vacation and were joined by my mother-in-law and our nephew, and we didn’t just like it—we absolutely loved it. Family cruises make great vacations for many of the same reasons as family resorts: There’s always a lot to do and a lot to eat. That’s particularly true on Disney cruises, where even the restaurants are part of the live entertainment experience.
Family cruises have at least one other thing going for them, too: Shore excursions. On our Panama Canal sailing, we toured the Old Town in Cartagena, Colombia, took a rainforest walk in Costa Rica, went ziplining in Mexico, and snorkeled at Disney’s private island in the Caribbean, Castaway Cay. Our sea days were spent lounging by the pool, watching movies and live performances, and doing simple things like playing card games in the many different lounges—something we rarely seem to have time for on busier vacations.
We’ve since enjoyed other cruises with our kids. I think you can’t go wrong on any of the following cruise lines for families because they all have ships and sailings that cater to the needs and interests of kids and parents: Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruises, Princess, Norwegian, and MSC Cruises.
3. Build up to a Big Theme Park Vacation
I never paid much attention to theme parks until I had kids. Even after my kids were born, I mostly heard theme park horror stories from other parents. Overpriced food, long lines, and toddler tantrums seemed to come up a lot in my conversations, so we started with smaller amusement parks for kids near our home where the lines were shorter and rides a little more gentle.
Once we realized our kids could handle that, we took the plunge and booked an Orlando family vacation. I’m glad we did it, and I’m also glad we waited until both kids were elementary school age. As family-friendly as they’re meant to be, theme parks can be intense. They get hot. They get crowded. They get really, really expensive. Waiting until my kids were a little older meant it was more enjoyable for everyone. It also gave me a chance to study up on everything I needed to know to have a successful trip.
You kind of need a PhD in theme parks to really maximize your experience nowadays. Things like where to stay at Disney World and the best hotels at Universal Orlando are just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re going to Disney World or Disneyland, you definitely need to know how to use Disney Genie and Genie+. At Universal, there’s a lot to know about the parks in general and the Harry Potter theme park areas in particular (which was the main draw for my waiting-for-her-Hogwarts-letter daughter).
Not quite ready for the Disney or Universal experience in Florida or California? Try one of these other excellent theme parks:
- Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
- Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri
- Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pennsylvania
- Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio
- LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad, California
I also recommend indoor amusement parks like Nickelodeon Universe (locations in New Jersey and Minnesota), outdoor water parks like Schlitterbahn New Braunfels in Texas and the Disney water parks in Florida, and indoor water parks like Great Wolf Lodge (with locations all around the U.S. and one in Canada).
4. Stay and Play in the Great Outdoors
The great thing about being an outdoorsy family is you can enjoy cheap family vacations basically from day one. When my son was little and we decided we were ready to vacation with a toddler, we rented a cabin near Acadia National Park and did little day hikes along the coast and gentle mountain trails. When both our kids were old enough to hike on their own, we planned easy camping vacations and overnight hiking trips on portions of the Appalachian Trail.
In New Hampshire, there are welcoming Appalachian Mountain Club huts where you can sleep in bunks and eat warm home cooked meals; my favorite is the Greenleaf Hut, which you can use as a base for exploring the phenomenal Franconia Ridge trail. In Glacier National Park in Montana, you can recreate a European hut-to-hut experience amidst backcountry mountain terrain that rivals the Swiss Alps. We’ve also stayed overnight at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and had adventures inside many state parks, too.
5. Let Someone Else Do All the Family Vacation Planning
Yes, hassle-free family vacations exist: They’re called family tours and they’re organized by tour operators who really care about keeping kids engaged in destinations all around the world. Guided family travel adventures don’t just remove the hassle of trip planning, they also make it possible to vacation with your kids without having to be on all the time.
That’s because the best tour operators are staffed by tour guides who are trained to keep kids entertained, and they usually involve at least some kids-only activities like dinner where all the kids sit together or kids-only game nights so parents can have some time alone to recharge and reconnect.
Tour companies that do a particularly good job for families include Adventures by Disney (we’ve gone on two of their family vacations and loved both), National Geographic Family Journeys with G Adventures, Trafalgar, and Explore Worldwide. For multigenerational tours that involve grandparents, I recommend Tauck Bridges (on the pricier side) and Road Scholar’s Grandparent and Family Programs (a little bit more affordable).
6. Take a Family Road Trip
If you’ve steered clear of family road trip ideas because you remember being miserable in the backseat when you were a kid, it might be time to reimagine the whole experience. Things like GPS technology, Spotify playlists, and fun-for-the-whole-family audiobooks have reinvented the road trip as an actually enjoyable family vacation.
We’ve made road trips a key part of two big family vacations in recent years. My family lives in the northeast, so for our first big road trip we picked a family vacation destination we could comfortably reach from our suburban Boston home—in this case, Quebec City, Canada—and turned it into a multi-day road trip with side trips both on the way to and from our destination. In Quebec, we rented a little apartment with a roof deck right in the old city and spent a few days exploring the area by car too (Montmorency Falls was a huge hit with our waterfall-loving kids).
Waterfalls factored into our other big road trip, too. In Iceland, we rented a car and a cute little vacation home about an hour outside Reykjavik, then spent several days driving around the scenic country enjoying its natural beauty and abundance of free parks, trails, and waterfalls. It was easy to do and so much fun that we never once heard, “Are we there yet?”
7. Lean into Your Kids’ Interests
Family vacations are all about spending time together in a way that everyone can enjoy. Every family is different and every kid is different, so there’s really no one-size-fits-all family vacation. But there is one question you can ask yourself that might steer you in unexpected directions. What do my kids actually like to do?
My favorite example of this is a recent father-son vacation I took with my 15-year-old, who’s been interested in wild weather pretty much since the day he could say the word tornado. I wanted to do something special with him while my wife and daughter were on their own mother-daughter vacation, so I booked a weeklong storm chasing trip with Denver-based Silver Lining Tours. This is not a vacation activity I would have ever envisioned for myself, but by leaning into my son’s interests we both had one of our best family vacations ever and I got to see a whole new side of my kid.
Storm chasing isn’t for everyone. But maybe your kids like skiing instead? Pick a family-friendly ski resort. Theater? Go to Broadway or London’s West End. Horses? Try a dude ranch that welcomes kids. Are they obsessed with trains? There are Amtrak vacations and scenic train rides all around the world that can accommodate everyone from toddlers and older kids to grandparents. Sailing, cycling, hiking? The possibilities are endless.
The point is that family vacations are about family above all else. Focus on that and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a great one.
More from FamilyVacationist:
- Kids Stay Free at These 10 All-Inclusive Family Resorts
- 12 Best Hotel Booking Sites for Cheap Prices
- 33 Books Like Harry Potter to Binge on Your Next Vacation
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