Washington, DC is a vibrant city with dozens of free attractions and events that make it an ideal destination for a family vacation. Once you’re near the Mall, major landmarks and iconic government buildings are everywhere you look: the Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and many more. Have your kids pull out their coins and dollar bills to see replicas of the very buildings they’re standing in front of. Book a line-skipping VIP tour and check them all off your list.
Why you’ll love it: It’s a city with a sandy beach right downtown! How fun is that? Plus there are scenic riverboat rides, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of science, Lincoln Park and the zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, and a giant Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. Oh, and pizza, lots and lots of cheesy, stringy, deep-dish pies perfect for family dining.
This friendly place on the Atlantic Coast has a boardwalk packed with lively eateries. Families tend to favor Funland for its arcade games and vintage rides and Jungle Jim’s Water Park for water slides, go-karting and mini-golf. For a bit of calm before bedtime, you could head slightly north and take a river cruise, enjoying the peaceful views of the shoreline and its birdlife before the sun sets.
What to do? Start monitoring flights months in advance and consider European airlines. (For example, low-cost carrier Norwegian Air is just as comfortable as major American airlines but often has round trip, nonstop London flights from several major U.S. cities for less than $500.) On your first full morning in London, check out the Changing of the Guard where the soldiers march out in their trademark red coats and fuzzy black hats, accompanied by music and royal horsemen. It starts at 11 a.m. (10 a.m. on Sundays) but get there at least a half-hour early so the little ones have a spot they can see from. If the royal flag is flying, it means the Queen is in residence. While the kids can’t run wild in the palace itself, St. James Park is a stone’s throw away and has a lovely playground. If you’re lucky, you’ll see ducklings, swans and maybe even a pelican or two.
Why: Okay, you may be thinking, “Isn’t Saint Martin/Sint Maarten destroyed?” Yes, this unique Caribbean island, which is half French (Saint Martin) and half Dutch (Sint Maarten), was devastated by Hurricane Irma. But now it’s on the mend. Saint Martin’s famed Princess Juliana International Airport has been open since late October 2017. The majority of the island’s electricity has been restored, and many beaches, bars, restaurants and businesses have reopened their doors. Because tourists are still wary, many hotels have discounted rates (like Hotel Mercure for $169 night) as well as gorgeous Airbnb properties starting at $50 a night. It’s a win-win. Not only will you save money, but your money will be spent on businesses and people who really need our help.
NORWEGIAN AIR: By far the biggest of the new European low-cost carriers, Norwegian flies a staggering 53 routes to Europe from 14 U.S. airports that range in size from Newburgh, N.Y., to Los Angeles. With a mix of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Boeing 737s, Norwegian has the most diverse set of options for U.S. fliers. It offers some point-to-point routes (like Newburgh-Bergen) as well as connections through bigger airports like London Stansted, Oslo and Paris. Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, special to USA TODAY
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Nighttime is perfect for The Island in Pigeon Forge, an entertainment hub with lighted water shows. Pleasant evenings also draw families to the area’s multiple mini-golf courses, including one in nearby Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is also home to a surprisingly wonderful aquarium given its mountain location; penguins typically steal the show at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
Why: Encircled by massive stonewalls, this Adriatic gem is hard to resist. With its old-world charm, the city’s streets are paved with limestone giving it a cool feel during hot summer days. Its well-preserved homes and monuments range from baroque St. Blaise Church to renaissance Sponza Palace and Gothic Rector’s Palace. It’s a perfect day excursion when island hopping along the Adriatic coast. Oh, and you won’t want to miss the stunning medieval fortresses, Lovrijenac and Bokar, which tower over Dubrovnik.
A family-friendly Costa Rica trip offers jungles filled with chattering birds, monkeys and other wildlife, black sand beaches, waterfalls, hot springs and much more. Let the kids look for endangered green macaws or snorkel and surf. Zip-lining and rafting experiences are also available, along with hiking through the canopy walkways in Montverde Cloud Forest. Drift down the canals at Tortuguero National Park, known as a nesting spot for green sea turtles, leatherbacks and Hawksbill turtles (you’ll need a guide to explore the beaches at night, when the females usually arrive to lay eggs).
Huatulco: A beach town located in Oaxaca to the southwest of Puerto Escondido, Huatalco offers tons of water activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving, some nearby surf spots, and tours of coffee farms to boot. While Huatulco itself is considered one of the safest places in Mexico, the State Department is restricting travel along Highway 200 in the area (except to and from the airport), so you may not want to wander too far. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Why you’ll love it: This cosmopolitan Canadian city is just a 90-minute trip from 60 percent of the United States, so it’s easy to reach. Once you’re there, kids will have memorable time catching a baseball game right under the CN Tower (you should take a trip up to the top of the tower for the amazing views, too) and riding a moving sidewalk through a shark tank at the neighboring aquarium. Hop on a ferry to explore Toronto’s islands; one is an amusement park! There are also free beaches downtown to catch some summer rays.
Family Vacation Ideas with Toddlers: When planning a trip with toddlers, remember a few key points: they have short attention spans, get tired quickly and need simple engaging activities such as pouring water or transferring beans. It will take a lot of effort to keep them happy on a long airplane trip, although with careful planning it can be done. They will probably want to sleep with you in an unfamiliar hotel room and may not like resort food all that much. On the other hand, having many new things to see and do will be exciting, as long as they are not tired or hungry. If you only have time for a long weekend getaway, pick a quick getaway that won’t require a lot of time to get to or having to deal with jet lag. If you have time for a longer vacation, consider destinations with nice beaches where your toddler will be able to run around, splash water and have a lot of fun.
What to do: Book Trafalgar Tours' Contrasts of Canada trip. It's a two-week itinerary stretching across the Canadian Rockies from coast to coast. Begin in Vancouver where the kids will be wowed on a drive along the Sea-to-Sky Highway. Then, travel by rail across the country, watching the glaciers turn into cowboy country, wheat fields and finally, the cosmopolitan city of Toronto. Here, the older kids will demand extra time to see the Stanley Cup at the Hockey Hall of Fame and get their hearts rate up at Sharks After Dark at Ripley's Aquarium of Canada.
Active Getaways: It’s amazing how many things kids are interested in if you sit down and talk to them about it. A 12-year-old may want to take a cooking class and learn how to prepare meals using farm-fresh ingredients with the hotel chef. A 5-year-old may want to see a polar bear swimming in a pool in a local zoo. A 3-year-old may be extremely interested in building various machines from blocks and legos so his ultimate dream vacation may be a morning spent at Legoland. Getaways with a touch of adventure create fun memories. In California, visit Safari West and watch unique wildlife in a natural setting. Take a cruise aboard Disney Fantasy, a mega ship that offers many things to do and comfortable staterooms with an extra half bath. At Vista Verde Ranch in Colorado, kids can go horseback riding and learn about the inns and outs of a working dude ranch. Lake Villarrica in Chile is a stunning lakeside getaway with a view of a volcano. Explore the natural wonders of the Pikes Peak region of Colorado, go horseback riding and visit a zoo. Other cheap family vacations include Yellowstone and Jackson Hole where you will be surrounded by the spectacular Tetons.
Why: Moab, Utah is a great place to travel to if you are looking to explore the outdoors. There are two national parks in this town — Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park, along with state parks and lots of recreational land all over. You can camp for free in many different areas around town, or there are also hotels and Airbnbs. If you like to camp, then like I said, you can camp for free in a beautiful place with a mountain or canyon view. An affordable way to see Moab is to stay in one of its many cabins. For example, you can stay at Archview RV Park in a basic Camping Cabin with two beds for just $78 a night. In Moab, there is an endless amount of activities. You can go rock climbing, rafting, kayaking, explore the national parks, skydive, off-road (you can rent Jeeps and go off roading if you don't have your own), camp and more. My favorite tour is the river raft trip with Canyon Voyages.
Looking for a flight on one of Europe's new set of long-haul low-cost carriers? Scroll through for a complete list of routes flown by those airlines (as of May 2018). Routes are organized by U.S. airport, with a list of each budget airline and its routes from that airport in parenthesis. Remember, some routes are seasonal. Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, special to USA TODAY
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Where to stay: Book a room at the newly renovated Hyatt Regency Rochester, which is a 5-minute drive or short walk to the museum. Other family favorite hotels include the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Rochester, which features a large, indoor pool in the hotel’s atrium (plus a complimentary cookie at check in!), and the Hilton Garden Inn Rochester University & Medical Center which is connected to the new College Town shopping complex.
Just how cheap is it? If you get yourself to Isla Grande -- part of the Islas del Rosario just off the country’s north coast -- it’s a tropical paradise for as cheap as you care to make it. Although there are fancier resorts available, at eco-hotels such as La Cocotera, Las Palmeras, or El Hamaquero, you can sleep in a beachside hammock for just $10 a night. For $20, you’ll also get you three meals, including a freshly caught and grilled fish dinner. Or, pro tip: A local can bring you freshly caught lobsters on request from anywhere between $10 to $30 a day. Sneak into the upmarket Hotel Majagua and grab a piña colada for $5, or go to the inland village for cut-price cervezas. (If you want more privacy, lodging starts at around $30 per room, and goes up to between $90 to $250.)
As an MIT-trained Planetary Scientist, I am incredibly pleased at the scientific accuracy in this book. It's a fun read, and does a great job illustrating the characteristics of the planets. I have an 8-year-old who loved us reading him The Martian and particularly soaked up the atmospheric chemistry parts of it and wanted to know all about the hows and whys, so this book is great for him too. And the illustrations are gorgeous!
Boston has it all—the culture, the fantastic city parks, and a relaxed pace you might not expect in a city of its size. Baseball fanatics, young and not so young, will love Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. You can take a guided tour, watch a game, and soak up some sporting history. Also check out the giant ocean tank at the New England Aquarium and board a Boston Duck Tour to be transported around this beautiful city on land and water.
Why you’ll love it: Start your Music City visit with a stop at the Ryman Auditorium to explore the origins of country music and even step on the stage where The Grand Ole Opry started (then head to its new home for a fabulous all-ages show). A highlight of the Country Music Hall of Fame is the Taylor Swift Education Center where kids can learn to strum a ukulele or create a take-home art project. Be sure to indulge in some home cooking at a meat-and-three or Nashville Fried Chicken spots.
What to do? Don’t get out of town without visiting Denver’s top attraction, The Denver Zoo. It’s more than 100 years old! Today, kids can get hands-on in the 'Be a Zookeeper Zone' (open Spring through Fall), marvel at swimming elephants and sign up for more than a dozen different behind-the-scenes animal encounters. While in town, take the younger kids to the Children’s Museum of Denver where they can experiment in a test kitchen, cool off in an outdoor splash zone and live out their fantasy of being in a room dedicated to bubbles. Older kids will appreciate the interesting exhibits and the Phipps IMAX 3D Theater at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. When their feet get tired, take a ride in the free open-air Denver Trolley to learn about the city’s founding and its famous Gold Rush.
Why: Kuala Lumpur is a gem most people have not found out about, which is to your benefit. Kuala Lumpur has a mix of different cultures, from Asian to Indian, which makes the food really great. While there, I was able to grab food in Little India and ate amazing chicken tikka masala, then I headed to China Town and ate the most delicious noodles. The mix of cultures even shows with the attractions. I was able to explore a Chinese temple (Thean Hou), the Bantu Caves and a mosque (the National Mosque) all in one city. Kuala Lumpur is also known for its sky bars (rooftop bars). The one to check out is Sky Bar, which has a pool and overlooks the Petronas Towers. Hotels are mega cheap, as well: You can get a five-star hotel with an infinity pool on the rooftop for only $42 a night. Check out D'Majestic Place by Swiss-Garden. Kuala Lumpur is also the hub for cheap flights throughout Southeast Asia. You can get a roundtrip flight from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand for $24.
No. 3. Ka'anapali Beach – Lahaina, Hawaii. Among the most visited beach in West Maui, this area is a popular spot for quiet relaxation or water sports. It’s also famous for the daily cliff diving ceremony off of the beach’s northernmost cliffs known as “Puu Kekaa” or Black Rock. According to a TripAdvisor reviewer, “Amazing this time of year. Right from the beach we saw amazing whale breaches. The sand is amazing and the beach is well kept up!” • Beachfront bargain hotel nearby: Lahaina Shores Beach Resort, from $289 per night on TripAdvisor • Great airfare found on TripAdvisor: As low as $382 round-trip from SFO (San Francisco) to OGG (Kahului) TripAdvisor
Disney Cruises for Families: Disney Cruises are such a favorite with kids that they deserve their own mention. Disney has four ships designed with kids in mind, complete with a theater and a cinema playing all of the kids’ favorite Disney movies. There are several pools to choose from, with water slides and other water fun. Dream and Fantasy ships feature the AquaDuck with a transparent, acrylic tube that spans four decks of the ship and over the side of the ship over the ocean. The spa is meant for adults only, so you can enjoy a peaceful time to yourself while kids participate in the children’s program. Kids are divided into several age groups: infant – 3, 3 – 4, 5 – 7, 8 – 9, and 10 – 12. Teens have access to a private club, featuring plush couches, games and a bar serving soft drinks. Keep reading for more best family vacations.
Larounis also advised making a beeline to an airline club; if you don’t belong to one for your flight, buy a day pass. “When there’s a delay or cancellation, everyone rushes to the terminal agent’s customer service desk. But the airline clubs rarely have lines and they have the same capability—sometimes they’re more empowered than the agents downstairs and can bend the rules to get you on flights that look sold out.”
Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” Option. When using Priceline, you can enter the day you’d like to fly (or the day you’d like to stay at a hotel) and the price you’d like to spend. Priceline comes back with an offer of a flight or hotel, if there’s something available that meets your criteria. You find out the times of the flight and the star rating and general location of the hotel, but you won’t get to know the airline or specific hotel name until you book. Priceline claims that you can save 40% off published prices by using this method. Priceline also offers traditional booking services if you’d rather know exactly what you’re getting.
Take your vacation to the next level at Universal Orlando Resort™. Explore three amazing theme parks: Universal’s Volcano Bay™, Universal’s Islands of Adventure™ and Universal Studios Florida™, featuring the new ride Fast & Furious – Supercharged™, plus spectacular on-site hotels and more. It’s days and nights of endless, high-octane fun for every member of the family.
Boracay may be popular among local beach enthusiasts, but it's still vastly undiscovered by most international tourists. This island in the Philippines is known for its rugged scenery, turquoise waters, picturesque palm trees and exquisite beaches, including the popular White Beach. Once you get there, hotels can cost as little as $20 per night. (Getty Images)
Whether you love theme parks, state parks or water parks, building sandcastles or beach bonfires, exploring kid-friendly museums or hiking trails, families always have a blast in San Diego. In fact, San Diego is consistently ranked one of the Top Family Destinations in America, and it's no wonder. With 70 miles of beautiful beaches, world-class attractions like the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California, and budget-friendly hotels, dining and activities, there are plenty of family vacation options available. Plus, many San Diego hotels and resorts offer special children's programs for kids of all ages. From crafts, puzzles and games for younger kids to X-Box 360®, air hockey and sports lessons for teenagers (some even complimentary), the entire family can be entertained from sun up to sun down.
Cozumel is considered one of the Western Hemisphere’s top diving destinations, and for those who want to explore this spectacular underwater world without shelling out an arm and a leg, El Cozumeleno, facing the Caribbean Sea directly on a white sand beach, is an affordable all-inclusive resort that can help make that a reality. The rooms are no-frills, but you’ll probably be spending most of your time in the water, diving, swimming and snorkeling. There are five swimming pools too, including one with the swim-up bar.
Families will find many ways to occupy their time while vacationing in the Catskills. In addition to offering farms with animals to feed, this spot in southeast New York features bumper boating in the summer and skiing and sledding in the winter. All-inclusive, family-oriented resorts are also available, but for extra savings, try roughing it at a local campground.
JetBlue TrueBlue. U.S. News & World Report ranked JetBlue TrueBlue as number one on its list of Best Airline Rewards Programs. JetBlue primarily flies out of the East Coast and Florida, but if you live in either region and tend to travel domestically, this is one program to consider. Points can also be earned by traveling on its partner airlines, Emirates and Hawaiian Airlines. You can also earn points with hotel stays, car rentals, and “purchases with retail partners” – so you can rack up a whole bunch of points on a single trip.
Travel rewards credit cards are specifically designed to let a user earn points by making purchases and applying those points directly toward flights and hotels. Some travel rewards credit cards, such as the Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, are limited by affiliation with a specific travel company. If you’re not keen on sticking to one provider, there are others – including the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Visa Cards – that allow you to apply points toward a wider range of travel services. (FlexPerks is affiliated with 150 airlines, as well as many hotels, cruise lines, and rental car companies.)
Why you should go: For all the greedy reasons: Its landscape varies from world-famous Pacific surf beaches to strikingly beautiful inland mountains, you’ll eat the best Mexican food you’ll ever have, the city is packed with pure magic. And for a selfless one: After a brutal past year of political rhetoric in the States, now is a great time to show our neighbors to the south some love. Whatever scant bucks you spend will boost their economy and help preserve the many indigenous cultures that call Oaxaca home. - Tess Rose Lampert, Thrillist contributor