Note: All travel is subject to frequently changing governmental restrictions—please check government advisories before scheduling trips. Some attractions and establishments may be closed or providing modified services. We strongly recommend researching any attractions and establishments prior to your visit. This article was updated October 2020.
Europe! Yosemite! Disney World! What parent doesn’t dream of experiencing these iconic destinations with their children (even if we’re not actually traveling to these places right now)? Family vacations are as much about rest, relaxation and togetherness as they are about making memories. That’s why timing specific types of vacations to the ages when they’re best suited for your kids can make or break the experience. Here are 8 bucket list trips every family should take together—at exactly the right time in your child’s life.
Newborn to Age 5
The Resort Vacation
Vacations with babies and toddlers run a high risk of not feeling like vacations at all. “It’s like you just hauled all of your gear to a different location, and everything else feels the same,” one weary parent once told me. With that in mind, this is the age when it’s ideal to plan a resort vacation at a property that has daycare and/or a kids’ club.
Drop your kids for a day full of fun activities supervised by licensed caregivers while you catch up on grown-up endeavors like golf, surfing, skiing, a lunch free of cutting up someone else’s meal or—the most precious vacation indulgence of all when you have kids this age—sleep. The gang can all be together again come late afternoon or evening, with everyone refreshed for plenty of bonding time.
Two resorts well known for outstanding tot care are the Franklyn D. Resort & Spa in Jamaica, where amenities include a dedicated nanny/vacation assistant to help with childcare, cleaning your room and other necessities; and Smugglers Notch Ski Resort in Vermont, where there’s daycare for babies as young as six weeks of age and ski lessons starting at age three, plus après-ski activities such as karaoke, family bonfires, and scientist-led snowmaking lessons.
A perfect entry-level theme park for young families, Legoland’s official age recommendations are 2-12, but the toddler set seems to enjoy it most here (get your advance tickets here). There are currently parks in Denmark, California, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Florida, Japan and the United Kingdom (most with adjacent hotels), so there’s plenty to choose from depending on how far you want to travel. Activities include movies, character meet and greets, rides geared to a variety of heights, and of course, the chance to get creative with mounds of Legos. The San Diego park even offers a handy guide called “What To Do When You’re Two,” listing activities specifically geared to its youngest visitors.
This is the ideal age for a Disney theme park trip, because your kids are tall enough for most of the attractions, and more wide-eyed with wonder than rolly-eyed with adolescent contempt. Which park you choose depends on your taste and budget. Walt Disney World in Orlando is arguably the biggest commitment; it’s massive and provides the option to visit four parks in total (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios—check Travelocity for deals on tickets). By contrast, Disneyland in Anaheim, California feels more laid back and approachable, with just the main park and the adjacent California Adventure Park. There are also Disney theme parks in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo.
The National Park
Watching your kids set their first sites on the magnificent vastness of the Grand Canyon, the giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park or the molten lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park might be the very best part of a trip to explore some of Mother Nature’s magic. At this age, kids should be able to hold their own on less strenuous hikes and carry their own gear. Almost all U.S. national parks offer Junior Ranger programs with special activities for wee naturalists.
The Road Trip
Once your kids hit the age when nonstop bathroom breaks become a thing of the past, it’s time for a vacation on four wheels. Road trips are the ultimate flexible family vacations, thanks to no airline-imposed luggage restrictions, pit stops whenever and wherever you like, and the ability to customize your itinerary to your family’s interests (and attention spans). Maybe you want a classic American road trip, like scenic Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) between San Francisco and Los Angeles or a trip through America’s past via Route 66. Maybe you’re looking to drive to as many Major League Baseball stadiums as you can get to in a week or take the ultimate foodie road trip. The possibilities are as endless as the open roads that await.
Tweens and Teens
This trip of a lifetime typically starts and ends with an epic plane ride, and includes long game drives where quiet and stillness are optimal for safety, which is why older kids tend to do best. Plus, there’s nothing better than being a few feet from a pride of lions or a herd of elephants to reality check a know-it-all adolescent.
The Northern Lights/Iceland
A trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights is sure to wow even the most jaded teenager. There’s literally nothing in the world that can compare to seeing the jaw-dropping dancing light show scientifically known as the Aurora Bourealis, caused when collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere.
Pro tip: Plan your trip around New Year’s Eve, when the longer hours of darkness gives your family a greater chance of a viewing, and when you can partake in Iceland’s epic New Year’s Eve traditions. They include massive, state-sanctioned bonfires throughout the country and a pyrotechnics show unlike any other from 11:30 p.m. to midnight, when what feels like every Icelandic citizen lights fireworks sold through a fundraiser by the country’s volunteer search and rescue team.
London, Paris or New York City
Budding culture vultures now have the attention spans for museum visits, live theater and multi-course meals. There’s no better time to introduce them to the bright lights of a big city. Europe is also a good bet for its relative safety and kid-friendly public spaces that often include mini playgrounds and pedestrian-only shopping areas.
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