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By Kim Humphrey
Posted Jan 03, 2020
Posted Jan 03, 2020
Planning the perfect family vacation is an art form. Deciding where to go, where to stay, the logistics of how to get there, and perhaps most importantly, figuring out a daily itinerary of activities to keep everyone happy, can be overwhelming. Because let's face it, spending your hard-earned dollars on a vacation only to have it ruined by sulky, bored kids is the absolute worst.
While compromise is definitely in order when you have kids to factor into the equation, that doesn't mean you can't plan an amazing family vacation that everyone - kids and adults alike - will enjoy. Much of the fun is in the planning itself, so get the whole family involved in evaluating options and planning things to do while you're there. Plus, kids are more likely to enjoy a vacation they helped plan.
To help get you started, we've rounded up a list of family-friendly vacation spots that should be on your radar for 2020. These destinations range from emerging hot spots to overlooked gems and even some tried and true favorites that are worth revisiting this year.
Lake Powell, Arizona and Utah
Straddling the Arizona-Utah border, the 186-mile Lake Powell is part of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and features nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline, 96 major side canyons, sapphire blue water and towering red sandstone cliffs, buttes and sandy beaches. All of this makes for endless views and recreational opportunities - from kayaking, waterskiing, tubing and fishing to hiking, horseback riding, golfing, or simply relaxing on the shore. Considered one of the country's top houseboating destinations, this is definitely the most exciting way to experience Lake Powell with kids. Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas offers a range of houseboats - from economy to luxury - that sleep up to 14 people, great for a multigenerational trip with the cousins and grandparents or to bring another family or two along on your adventure. Houseboats include all of the comforts of home, including bathrooms, fully-equipped kitchens, TVs and stereo systems; some even come with hot tubs, BBQs, wet bars, and even one with an enclosed spiral tube slide!
While quite touristy, Costa Rica still ranks high on our list for best family travel destinations, particularly for active, thrill-seeking families with tweens and teens. A quick flight from most major U.S. airports, Costa Rica combines beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, natural pools and hot springs, exotic animals, colorful native villages, and a full menu of recreational opportunities, virtually guaranteeing the dreaded words "I'm bored" are never uttered.
Families find it easy to navigate the country with a car or SUV rental, allowing them to easily explore both the jungle and beach sides of the country. Popular family-friendly activities include zip line canopy tours, rainforest hikes, volcano tours, surfing the Pacific Coast, adventure parks, horseback riding, sloth and monkey spotting and more. Costa Rica is also an amazing destination for eco-travelers, as the country is dominating in advances to combat climate change.
Often overshadowed by the glitz and glam of NYC and LA to its east and west, this midwestern gem is one of the best cities in the U.S. for a family vacation. Whether your family is into sports, theatre, museums, or outdoor recreation, Chicago has it in spades. Chicago's prime lakefront location offers up both amazing views and plentiful recreation opportunities - from leisurely sun bathing on one of the city's many beaches to boat cruises, stand-up paddleboarding, biking, swimming, kayaking, jet skiing, and more. Chicago also boasts nearly 600 parks, making it easy to intermix playtime with sightseeing time to keep everyone in the family entertained. One of the best (and newest) is Maggie Daley Park, which includes a unique Skating Ribbon for ice skating in the winter and rollerblading and scootering in warmer weather, two rock-climbing structures, an 18-hole mini golf course, Play Garden and more. Chicago's world-class museum scene includes many kid favorites, like the Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier, Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry. Save up to 50% off family-friendly Chicago activities and attractions.
Less touristy than its South American cousin to the north, Colombia may not be on your radar, but should be. This budget-friendly destination full of history, culture, beautiful beaches, quirky neighborhoods, incredible weather and delicious food, combines all of the elements for a fantastic family vacation. Travel expert and author, Taryn White, from The Trip Wish List, says kids will enjoy relaxing on the country’s Caribbean coast in Cartagena, where you can charter a boat to the Rosario Islands. She also recommends the original Comuna 13 graffiti tour in Medellin, where families can meander through neighborhoods filled with amazing, colorful street art while hearing local music and sampling fresh juice and other local treats. Other family-friendly experiences in Medellin and Cali include taking salsa lessons, visiting Parque de la Luz with its cool, Instagram-worthy light pole installation, and taking a ride on the City's innovative cable car system to Parque Arvi for amazing city views. White recommends using Airbnb and hotels with multiple bedrooms, like Site 45, to save money on family accommodations.
Tybee Island, Georgia
Tybee Island Lighthouse Photo Courtesy of Visit Tybee
Located just 20 minutes from historic downtown Savannah, Tybee Island is a five-mile long beach filled with history and quirky gems. Known for its sandy beaches, local cuisines and salt marshes full of unique wildlife, Tybee has many budget-friendly activities that the entire family will enjoy. With less than three miles between its north and south ends, the best (and most fun!) way to explore the Island is by bike via the plentiful, safe trails and bike lanes. Learn about the island's coastal marine life at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, where you can get up close with beach critters in the Center's Touch Tank and observe loggerhead sea turtles, speckled crabs and more. Climb the Tybee Island Lighthouse - Georgia's oldest and tallest - for panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. History buffs should head to Fort Pulaski National Monument, where the Union Army first successfully tested rifled cannon in combat during the Civil War, marking a turning point in military history. Tybee also offers families a host of totally free activities and attractions - from relaxing on one of its many beautiful beaches, to playing at a park or playground, to hiking a nature trail.
If a fairytale adventure is what you seek, add Slovenia to your list. This family-friendly and budget-friendly destination offers great deals on attractions, tours, and hotels that appeal to kids of all ages. The Garden Village Bled, located near the iconic and breathtaking Lake Bled, is a family-friendly glamping experience where guests sleep among the treetops in a two-story tree house! Kids will love the outdoor activities at Lake Bled, including taking a traditional wooden boat to the fairytale-esque island in the middle of the lake, exploring Bled Castle, paddleboarding, hiking and more. From Lake Bled, families can visit Predjama Castle, a medieval structure carved into the side of the mountain, and take a train ride into the magical underground world of nearby Postojna Cave and explore its unique ecosystem. From reaching dizzying new heights at one of many adventure parks, to visiting Lipica to see the famed Lipizzaner horses, there is something for every family in Slovenia.
Our nation's capital is one of the most popular and affordable vacation destinations in the country for families. From visiting the White House and the Capitol Building to experiencing the awe-inspiring monuments and memorials on the National Mall to checking out the many world-class Smithsonian museums - all FREE, including the National Zoo! - to exploring one of the city's many parks, you could plan an entire week in Washington, D.C. without having to spend a dime on your family activities. Add in a vibrant, internationally-diverse food scene, affordable family-friendly entertainment - from cheering on one of D.C.'s many professional sports teams to kayaking on the Potomac River, and the ease of getting around via the city's Metrorail or bikeshare systems, and it's hard to think of a better place for your family's next vacation. With the excitement of the presidential election, anticipated new museum openings, and a host of cultural festivals and special events planned all year-round, 2020 promises to be an exciting year to visit. Check out these 40 things to do in Washington, D.C. with kids, and save up to 50% off your Washington, D.C. fun with our family-friendly deals.
Photo Courtesy of Kariega Game Reserve
While traveling to South Africa may seem exotic and a little overwhelming, particularly with kids in tow, Landia Davies, Online Travel Writer for African Budget Safaris, says Africa's southern coast, including the Eastern and Western Cape provinces, are safe, malaria-free, easy for families with young children to visit, and can be visited affordably. Davies recommends heading to one of South Africa’s many malaria-free game reserves for abundant 'Big 5' viewing - lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo - many even have family-friendly lodges that offer children’s activities like mini bush walks and junior ranger programs. Beyond the safari parks, outdoor adventure abounds, especially along the Garden Route, including kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, zip-lining, tubing, surfing, boat cruises and more.
Lisa Nel, General Manager of Jumbari Family Safaris, recommends hiking one of Cape Town’s many trails on famed Table Mountain, or taking a cable car up if you have smaller children. Nel's other recommendations for families include spending a night or two in Hermanus, the whale-watching capital of South Africa; taking a scenic trip along the Cape Peninsula with a stop in at Boulders Beach to encounter a penguin colony; and exploring the 20-million-year-old Cango Caves in the Klein Karoo. For the adults in your group, be sure to visit the Cape Winelands to enjoy world-class, locally produced wines at incredible prices and culintary delights galore. There really is something for everyone in South Africa!
Did you know that Santa Claus doesn't live in the North Pole but actually in Finnish Lapland? Yep, it's true! Rovaniemi is the hometown of Santa Claus and the gateway to this arctic nature and winter wonderland, though it's beautiful all year round. Varpu Pöyry, founder of Her Finland, recommends Rovaniemi for families due to its plentiful outdoor recreational activities, northern lights watching, and Santa and reindeer spotting! Snowman World Glass Resort is a wonderful place for families and northern lights hunters alike, featuring spacious, modern huts with glass roofs made for aurora gazing. Each hut even has a sauna and an outdoor hot tub! A huge snow castle and activity park are also available during the winter months.
Ounasvaara Outdoor Resort is the epicenter of recreational fun year round with skiing, snowboarding, and tobogganing in the winter and hiking, downhill cycling, mountain biking, and downhill racing in the summer. You can visit Santa Claus - free! - any time of year at Santa Claus Village. During the winter months, families can also experience husky and reindeer sleigh rides. If staying in the city center, the best place to see the northern lights is from the beach park of Arktikum Museum on the bank of the Ounasjoki river. Head inside this breathtaking museum to learn about nature and the fascinating history and culture of the Lappish people and the area's arctic animals.
Photo Courtesy of Destination Plymouth
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower and its 102 passengers in Plymouth, New England in 1620. Plymouth will welcome visitors from all over the world to this highly-anticipated commemoration with special events and exhibits, which officially kick off on April 24th. Visit Plimoth Plantation, a bi-cultural living history museum, to visit a recreation of the English settlement brought to life by costumed role players portraying actual residents of Plymouth Colony during the 17th Century. The Native Wampanoag Homesite is staffed by actual Native People who are proud to share with you the traditions, stories, technology, pastimes, music and dance of the people who have lived in the region for more than 10,000 years. Plimoth Plantation is also home to a full-scale reproduction of the Mayflower, which is currently receiving a full restoration and will return to her berth on State Pier on the Plymouth Waterfront ahead of the 400th commemoration. Other family-friendly activities in the area include daily whale watching boat tours, lobster excursions, hands-on history programs for kids, historic walking tours, lantern ghost tours, and more. Visit nearby Onset Village to take a cruise through the Cape Cod Canal, the widest sea level canal in the world (without locks). Kids ride free on the Family Cruise offered in the summer months.
Photo by Kelly Suzan Waggoner
Vietnam may sound exotic, but after two extended trips to the country with kids in tow, Kelly Suzan Waggoner, Editor-in-Chief of finder.com, enthusiastically recommends it to families. Not only does Vietnam offer an exciting array of family-friendly adventures, the country's communal, kid-centric culture and kid-friendly food (what kid doesn't love noodles and rice?) make Vietnam an easy place for parents to travel with the littles. While airfare to Vietnam can be expensive, Waggoner says everyday living is cheap once you're there. Children are a welcomed presence everywhere, including at restaurants where Waggoner recounts stories of waitstaff offering to play with their son while they dined and older ladies in a market fighting over who'd be the one to hand-feed him noodles.
Kids will love wending their way through the labyrinthine street shops in Hanoi's Old Quarter hunting for toys and treasures. Vietnam's famous water puppet shows, a tradition dating back to the 11th century, are a perennial family favorite with the largest theaters found in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Families can visit an array of historic cities like the UNESCO World Heritage Site Hoi An, the Imperial (and Forbidden) City of Hue and the Mekong Delta; buzzing metropolises where motorbikes — and ice cream stands — are chock-a-block; and terraced rice paddies in the north that look right out of a storybook. For an unforgettable family experience, Waggoner recommends forgoing a hotel for travel on the rails with a room on an overnight sleeper train where you will awake in an entirely different city by morning.
Located at the toe of Italy's boot, Calabria is perhaps the least known region of all of Italy, making it a great place for an authentic and budget-friendly summer holiday. Michelle Pedullà, founder of Discover Calabria, says family is the center of society in this region, making every town and location very kid-friendly. Children are treated like royalty here; you can go to any restaurant at any time of the night even with a newborn baby and will be welcomed and given special attention, and most restaurants have kids menus with items like mini pizzas and baby gnocchi.
Despite its lack of media attention, Calabria boasts some of the most breathtaking, pristine beaches in all of Europe, and with no current or big waves, the beaches are great for young kids. Plus, all of the private beach establishments have lifeguards and most have kids clubs. Head to Tropea, a gorgeous medieval town with a stunning beach complete with a fairytale-esque church perched on a hill, or Scilla, a seaside fishing village with a beautiful stone beach and cobblestone streets filled with restaurants and gelaterias. Explore the region's mountains, forests and lakes at one of Calabria's national parks, complete with dramatic waterfalls spilling into stone canyons, sky-scraping trees, blankets of wildflowers, and serene lakeside beaches. Kids will love the steam train tour in Sila National Park.
London is one of the most family-friendly cities in the world based on the sheer volume of things to do with kids. Freddie Julius, CEO of Tourist England, says that from beating drums at the Changing of the Guard Ceremony outside Buckingham Palace to sweeping views of the city from the London Eye, dinosaur hunting at the Natural History Museum, and ogling the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, there's an endless number of activities to please all members of the family. Other highlights for families include the London Zoo, London Dungeons, London Bridge, a walk in one of the royal parks and, for Harry Potter fans, The Warner Bros Studio Tour - The Making of Harry Potter. London is also a center for musical theater. You can find year-round productions of family favorites like The Lion King, Wicked and Mamma Mia!, among others.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Saint Paul Peanuts Friends Photo by Paul Vincent Courtesy of Explore Minnesota
The often overlooked 'twin' of Minnesota's Twin Cities is experiencing a renaissance. St. Paul's trendy new neighborhoods, thriving arts and culture scene, professional sports teams and venues (including new pro soccer stadium, Allianz Field), world-class museums, and vibrant food scene make it the perfect urban family vacation destination. The Mississippi River winds its way through the city, providing trails, views and a revitalized riverfront for a variety of recreational opportunities. St. Paul's Como Park Zoo & Conservatory offers free admission 365 days a year and is home to a wide variety of animals - from monkeys, sloths and giraffes to polar bears, snow leopards and penguins. The Bell Museum, Minnesota's natural history museum; the Science Museum of Minnesota; Minnesota Children's Museum; and Minnesota History Center all offer a wide array of hands-on, interactive exhibits that are engaging for kids and adults alike. For your family foodie fix, head to Keg and Case Market, St. Paul's first large-scale food and beverage hall located on the historic grounds of the iconic Schmidt Brewery, which was recently voted "Best New Food Hall in the U.S." by USA Today readers. Kids will delight in offerings like gourmet cotton candy, doughnuts and ice cream, while parents can unwind with a craft beer and shop a variety of pop-up markets filled with an eclectic mix of regional goods. Save up to 50% off family-friendly St. Paul activities and attractions.
Québec City, Canada
If a European vacation is not in the cards, look no further than our friendly neighbor to the north. Close enough for a weekend getaway and packed with all the charm, beauty, culture, and cuisine reminiscent of a European village, the epicenter of French America is a vacation destination that will please kids and adults alike. Old Québec, with its cobblestone streets, local shops, and francophone culture, will make you feel like you've been dropped into the middle of a European fairytale, while its myriad family-friendly sights and attractions will keep all members of the family busy and happy. Kid favorites include visiting the marine animals at the Aquarium du Québec; engaging in endless outdoor adventure at nearby Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier, including hiking, biking and river rafting in the summer and snow tubing and cross-country skiing in the winter; experiencing breathtaking Montmorency Falls by cable car, suspension bridge or scenic stairway; and playing all day at Village Vacances Valcartier, Eastern Canada's largest theme park. Kids and adults alike will get a kick out of experiencing the fortifications and gates of Québec's walled city, the only one north of Mexico, with the historic Château Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world, at its heart.
Walt Disney World, Florida
Photo Credit: Victoria Yore, Disney Trippers
You may be tired of hearing the name "Walt Disney World" but if you have been putting off a visit to the Mouse, Victoria Yore, founder of Disney Trippers, says this may just be the year to change your mind. Disney is in the midst of the largest expansion in the history of the company, and 2020 is the year when a great many projects will come to fruition. In 2019, we saw the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the largest land expansion Disney has ever completed, featuring two rides, multiple dining and beverage options, workshops where you can make your own custom droid and lightsaber, and more. This year, incredible changes are coming to Epcot, including the new Space220 restaurant, which will utilize the same technology employed in Rise Of The Resistance to ensure that diners truly feel like they are soaring through space as they eat! One of the more exciting additions to Epcot will be the eventual debut of the four new "lands": World Showcase, World Nature, World Celebration, and World Discovery. Epcot's France pavilion will also debut the much-anticipated attraction, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, as well as a new combined table and quick service dining option, La Crêperie de Paris, that will feature a menu from celebrity chef Jérôme Bocuse. Mickey's Runaway Railway, a family-friendly "Dark-ride" utilizing a high-tech ride infrastructure, will also be opening this year at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
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