Billed as the Waterpark Capital of the World, Wisconsin Dells is an obvious choice for fun-seeking families. It’s hard to experience every single one of the great attractions and activities here (because there are so many!). Take your pick of indoor and outdoor adventures, such as Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park, Noah’s Ark Waterpark, Timber Falls Adventure Park, Circus World, Timbavati Wildlife Park…the list goes on and on.
What to do: Visit Panda Trek first or last in the day, when crowds are lightest, to see the zoo’s black and white superstars, as well as red pandas. Don’t miss: Elephant Odyssey, where the pachyderms often have pool parties; and Northern Frontier, to watch polar bears swimming underwater and see playful arctic foxes. Also noteworthy is the Africa Rocks exhibit (baboons, leopards, blue-eyed lemurs, etc.) that opened in 2017.
Why: You’ve heard of the French Polynesian islands of Bora Bora and Tahiti, but there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Mo’orea. Why? Well, it’s known as “The World’s Most Beautiful Island You’ve Never Heard Of.” And that is great for the wallet! You can find great deals on Airbnb starting at $40 a night and five-star hotels at $200. For example, the InterContinental in Bora Bora averages at $1000 a night, while the Intercontinental Mo’orea is around $250. The water is warm and crystal clear, providing you with a lot of free fun. If you want to do more organized tours, Tahiti Legends and Tahiti.com offer many at $50 per person. Like most French Polynesian islands, food is expensive, but there are many grocery stores on the island that sell sandwiches for as low as $3. If you want to splurge on a romantic dinner, many restaurants offer free shuttle service to and from hotels. The best part? Mo’orea is really easy to get to from the U.S. It’s a quick 30-minute ($15) ferry ride from Papeete, Tahiti, whose airport offers direct flights from many cities in the U.S.
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What to do: See Old Faithful, which shoots steam sky-high every 90 minutes, and then move on to the other geysers, stinky mud pots and multi-colored hot springs within walking distance (check out the flower-shaped Morning Glory Pool). Yellowstone is also a great place to spot wildlife: Bison, elk, bears, wolves and Bighorn sheep all hang out here. If you visit in the winter (when it’s easiest to spot wildlife) take the kids on their very first snowcoach tour. For summer fun, fly high at West Yellowstone’s Zipline Adventure Park.
If you’re looking to save money when going to Orlando’s amusement parks, look to travel in September during midweek and stay at a non-affiliated park hotel or one of the area’s campgrounds. Other money-saving tips for the parks include budgeting in a non-park day and instead relaxing at your hotel’s pool. If you’re a AAA member, you may also be entitled to hotel discounts and special packages with Universal Studios.
Why you should go: Not only is it arguably the greatest swinging-around-a-stage-in-purple-sequined-zebra-print-pants anthem of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, it’s a slinky, skinny swatch of land with the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Pacific on the other. Smaller than South Carolina, it boasts 1,800 miles of ocean coastline and 5 million acres of national parks on the inside. For those who enjoy stylishly restored ruins, Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Viejo, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 1600s and is now filled with hipstery shit, because of course it is. This cobblestoned city center is surrounded by the ultra-sleek, modern, quasi-futuristic skyscrapers of Panama City, which kind of looks like Rio without the smog and soon-to-be decaying Olympic infrastructure. - Nicole Rupersburg, Thrillist contributor
It’s official: Americans have the travel bug. According to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), Americans logged 1.7 billion “person trips” for the primary purpose of leisure in 2014. The USTA defines a person trip as “one person on a trip away from home overnight in paid accommodations, or on a day or overnight trip to places 50 miles or more [one way] away from home.” That works out to 5.33 leisure-focused trips for every single man, woman, cash-strapped college student, sulky teenager, wiggly child, and brand new baby in the country.
What are the best affordable family destinations? The biggest vacation cost is usually the airfare, so the closer to home you can find a destination that will please the whole family, the cheaper the trip. Take a look at our weekend getaways section which lists ideas from major U.S. cities, family vacations on the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, the South and Southwest. If you are on a budget, stay in a cabin or a campground in a national park, or look for cheap vacation rentals online that will let you stay for under $100 per night. If you have access to the kitchen, you can prepare some of your own meals which will save you a lot of money. For best value, look for destinations where you will have access to many free activities, whether that’s hiking along a scenic trail, outdoor pool, games, or a kids’ club. Take a look at our family packages section for some of the best packages hand-picked by our editors.
What to do? Strike a pose in the reflective Cloud Gate sculpture (affectionately known as the Bean). It's like a giant fun house mirror. Splash around in the cheeky, animated Crown Fountain, which literally makes faces at you. Join one of the free activities (family yoga, anyone?) on the big lawn or rent bikes from Bike and Roll Chicago or Divvy Bikes Millennium Park to ride to nearby Navy Pier.
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