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The Best Vacations for Kids at Every Age: A Trip Guide for Parents

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 5/14/2021 CNT Editors
© Getty

For those of us who live to travel, making sure we raise Good Global Citizens is maybe even more important than sending them to a Good College. Did we just say that out loud? But during the darkest hours of new parenthood when you can hardly remember to brush your teeth, that fantasy of trekking through the Himalayas with bouncing baby on your back feels about as plausible as learning how to play the cello at 40. And suddenly the old adage you thought would never apply to you starts to make sense: The days, especially those early sleepless ones, are long and the years, between Little League and prom night, are short.

So when we cut to browsing the aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond to pick out XL twin sheet sets for the kid’s college dorm and we find ourselves asking: How did we get here? Or more importantly, where did those 18 summers go? We’ll want to have a good answer. Did we pack their heads, hearts, and palates with enough color, texture, spice, humanity, compassion, self-reliance, and grit before sending them off into the world? Did we outfox urban ennui by dragging them to see that temple, that waterfall, or even that roadside dinosaur? Or did we default to the path of least resistance, surrendering to our fears of disrupted sleep schedules or arched-back refusal to be strapped into the stroller mutiny in the middle of the Papal Apartments and settle for the all-inclusive beach resort with human-sized cartoon characters?

The secret to successful family travel is, truthfully, all of the above. It’s an endurance game which, like parenthood itself, requires symphonic pacing—the highs, the lows, the fasts, the slows—and an against-all-odds sense of ambition, improvisation, and patience in order to push through the tough stuff.

What follows is a little nudge from some of our contributors, all of whom are currently immersed in various stages of family travel. We tapped them for their tips, tricks, and trip recommendations for different age groups (trust us, that destination that miraculously worked when they were 6 months old might not be such a success once they reach 6 years old). Plus, the gear you absolutely have to pack before hitting the road. You likely will, at some point, be that family with the screaming baby in bulkhead, but remember, we were all babies once. —CNT Editors

For longer flights, travel specialist Hannah Cote recommends breaking up the journey with a stopover. © Getty For longer flights, travel specialist Hannah Cote recommends breaking up the journey with a stopover.

Ages 0-2

You’re taking trips, not going on vacations.

Talk with parents and one thing becomes abundantly clear about travel with kids between 0 and 2: It’s hard. “Expect the worst and enjoy the small wins,” says Traveler contributor Melissa Liebling-Goldberg. No matter how thoughtfully you schedule a trip, you may need to drop everything to make sure the youngest traveler in your group is able to simply eat or sleep. There is a silver lining to this, though: Kids under two usually have a pretty simple set of needs. And as Regan Stephens, a Traveler contributor and mother of three based in Philadelphia, notes, they are also quite portable. “We took our first daughter to Nantucket, Dallas, Bermuda, even to Italy.”

Lots of prospective parents might write off further flung travel (“Now you’re taking trips, not going on vacations,” says Stephens), but they need not. Hannah Cote of Legacy Travel, a travel specialist with a focus on Hawaii, has a good tip that may seem counterintuitive if you want to take a longer trip: “I try to recommend a stop over if parents aren’t sure how their child will react to being on a plane for that long. On our last trip to Maui we stopped in Los Angeles for a night to break up the trip so it wasn't too hard on the kids.”

Several parents I talked to, though, found slightly less ambitious trips were the most successful with kids this age. Road trips were a popular choice, and they do have a lot going for them: You can run entirely on your own schedule (or, more likely, your toddler’s schedule), you’re sure to have room for everything you want to pack, and they allow for easy tangents. That sort of adaptability is the most important asset for parents making their first trips with infants and toddlers. As one parent put it to me: “Kids can get interested in just running up and down a ramp. So don’t stress that they aren’t getting to that cool thing you want to show them.”

The gear

As I learned on my son’s first flight when he was 6 months old, even when they aren’t doing much, kids need a lot of stuff. But nothing is more important than making sure a child that young can sleep. The Slumber Pod can keep a new hotel room or Airbnb dark, comfortable, and hopefully a little quieter.

Buy now: The Slumber Pod, $170, slumberpod.com

—Noah Kaufman

a group of people swimming in a pool of water: For ages 3-5, trips packed with interactive activities are key. © Getty For ages 3-5, trips packed with interactive activities are key.

Ages 3-5

It’s all about creating moments to learn new things—and still having fun.

When asked about the best trip she’s taken with her 3-year-old twin sons, Marquita Wright instantly says Sarasota, Florida. “When we went to Sarasota, visiting the Mote [Marine Laboratory] was an absolute must. Being able to actually touch the stingrays, starfish, and sharks, absolutely blew my mind. Also, the Wild Kratts Ocean Adventure there offered interactive activities to help the boys learn about marine life; they loved the conveyor belt exhibit that teaches how sharks lose their teeth when they eat. They could not get enough of it.”

The trip, which took place over the twins birthday, wasn’t limited to educational activities, though. Wright was able to take the boys to Siesta Beach, known for its powder white sand and crystal blue water, and take advantage of the kid-friendly restaurants populating the area.

But blending education and fun in an easy to navigate way doesn’t have to be limited to domestic trips for the 3 - 5 age group, either. I have traveled a lot as a duo with my son, who was born in Poland and has spent the first four years of his life traveling at mine and my husband’s side. As a family, we prioritize cultural connectivity—our son had been to Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Egypt before he could walk or talk. However, one of the most memorable trips we have taken together was to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, just before he turned 3. We stayed right in the middle of it all: walking distance to the Central Market, the beautifully colorful Sri Mahamariamman Temple, and the huge outdoor shopping market Petaling Street. He was so excited to look at all of the colors, and people at Central Market liked to offer him free treats. I’m also a stickler for consistency and directly across the street from our hotel was a restaurant called Banana Leaf Curry House, where we shared big plates of curry with potatoes and sautéed cabbage, always washed down with mango lassis.

Another highlight? When we rode the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus stop, a double-decker bus that allowed my son to see almost every inch of the city without actually having to do anything. We passed through places like Little India, KL Bird Park, and the breathtaking Jamek Mosque. I just loved watching my son's eyes light up as he gleefully pointed out everything new he discovered.

The gear

I’ve found it imperative to have a tablet of some sort while traveling with ages 3-5. The Amazon Fire 7 has parental controls and you can download a ton of educational games, cartoons, and activities to keep the little ones busy throughout long journeys.

Buy now: Fire 7 tablet, $50, amazon.com

—Imani Bashir

a couple of people that are standing in front of a body of water: Jermaine and Sarah Griggs took their three children on a yearlong journey around the world. © Courtesy Debra Kamin Jermaine and Sarah Griggs took their three children on a yearlong journey around the world.

Ages 6-10

It's the golden time for family travel, when your little kid morphs into a big kid.

Kids have an innate ability to be impressed by the world—one that also has an expiration date. So use travel to capitalize on your child’s sense of wide-eyed wonder now, before the tween years steal it away.

“The 6-10 year old range is the sweet spot for families,” says Cate Caruso, an adviser for luxury travel agency network Virtuoso and the owner of True Places Travel. “Their mind is open, and travel can be truly formative.”

Cruises and safaris, Caruso says, offer the ultimate bang for your buck, and she recommends more intimate cruises like Lindblad Expeditions, which offer personalized tours through destinations like Alaska and the Galápagos. “Raising global citizens is in [Linblad’s] DNA,” she says. “They get the young traveler, they understand you should never underestimate your children’s abilities to experience the world, and they push kids to do things that their family may have thought they couldn’t do.”

Landlubbers should consider safaris with operators like Micato and Abercrombie & Kent, both of which can move at a family’s unique pace. For ages 6-10, Caruso recommends safaris in Africa’s southern region, where in addition to marveling at animals, kids can also interact with the local community and connect to history. South Africa, she says, hits all the marks.

“That’s where Gandhi became a global citizen with his race consciousness, and it’s an ideal way for families to help kids connect the dots,” she says. “It’s also mind-blowing—you’ll see lions, giraffes, and elephants, but also meerkats, penguins, and pangolins.”

Traveling with this age group also presents a great opportunity for teaching responsibility. When Jermaine and Sarah Griggs took their three kids on a yearlong journey around the world, Jadyn Griggs was 11, Layla was 7, and Brendan was 6. They played a game called “fun versus fact” on the road, pairing every educational outing with a fun one like a trip to a water park. But each child was responsible for packing and carrying their own luggage. “Even Brendan was able to pull his own suitcase,” says Jermaine. “Once we made that switch, they became travelers. It increased their maturity.”

The gear

Stories bring the world to life for school kids, so load up on simple chapter books that are set in your destination to help your young reader feel connected. Allow your child to pack and carry their own kids-size roller suitcase—and don’t forget an iPad or tablet to make long plane flights a breeze.

Buy Now: Lil Flyer suitcase, $140, younglingz.com

—Debra Kamin

a group of lawn chairs sitting on top of a beach: If a resort or beach trip is where you land, pick a multi-dimensional place like Maui, which has plenty of activities for pre-teens. © Jason Dewey If a resort or beach trip is where you land, pick a multi-dimensional place like Maui, which has plenty of activities for pre-teens.

Ages 11-15

The key to a great trip? Make them feel like true partners rather than just along for the ride.

Finally! Your kids more or less eat the same food as you and keep roughly the same hours. They can pack for themselves and lug around their own suitcases. They’re curious, smart, semi-helpful, and—early onset ennui notwithstanding—they still want to spend time with the family. Now, you just have to pick the type of trip and destination that will capitalize on this so-called honeymoon period of family vacationing.

This may sound a little Brady Bunch, but call a family meeting to discuss trip ideas. Have everyone come with at least one type (like adventure, nature, or ocean) and two destinations (one close by and one farther flung). You’ll make the final call that works with your budget, schedule, desire, but it goes a long way to hear where and what the junior family members are excited about. Even if the three-week South Pole adventure isn’t feasible, elements of it, like wildlife spotting or crazy nature, can likely get worked into whatever trip you decide on in some form. From there, keep them involved in the planning process, and get them excited about the destination—guidebooks and fiction or movies set in the location are great windows into a place, its people, and culture.

The beauty of this age group, however, is that just about any type of trip and any destination is on the table; they can handle long haul flights, endless hours in the car, real hikes, and pounding the urban pavement. The strategy, as compared with younger age groups, is planning enough rather than scaling back, and engaging rather than distracting. (An hour splashing in the pool and a visit to the kids club will no longer cut it.) If a resort or beach trip is where you land, pick a multi-dimensional place like Maui where, in addition to pool time and a stable of different types and priced accommodations, there’s amazing hiking and wildlife, small towns and inland farms for day visits, opportunities for independence (walking to another resort for a shaved ice, meeting other kids), a robust local food movement, manageable museums, and countless water activities (surf lessons, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing excursions).

But this is also prime time for a first big cultural trip. Kids in this age group have had some formal exposure to world history, music, or art at school, and chances are, some place that they’ve studied really resonated with them, whether it's Senegal for drumming or Rome for ancient architecture or Tokyo for anime. Let their curiosity and passion lead. If they’re interested and engaged, it’s going to be a great trip for you, guaranteed.

Gear

Blissfully, this age group doesn’t really require any fancy gear or gadgets. If they’re curious about marine life and you’ll be near the ocean, invest in a reasonably-priced but quality snorkel set rather than relying on whatever the resort has. Cressi makes a fin and snorkel set specifically for this age group. Or, if they’re into wildlife, get them a decent but affordable pair of real binoculars that are lightweight and durable.

Buy now: Cressi Youth Junior Snorkeling Set, $45, amazon.com

Buy now: Celestron Nature DX 8x32 Binoculars, $109, amazon.com

—Rebecca Misner

a group of people standing on top of a mountain: Active vacations are particularly popular with parents traveling with teens, says luxury travel advisor Josh Alexander. © Getty Active vacations are particularly popular with parents traveling with teens, says luxury travel advisor Josh Alexander.

Ages 16-18

Adventure and excitement are the secret sauce.

The good news? Traveling with older teenagers is almost the same as taking a trip with honest-to-goodness adults. The bad news? Well, we did say almost.

But let’s focus on the positives first: Luxury travel advisor Josh Alexander, who works for Protravel International, has many clients with children this age booking the most adventurous vacations out of anyone. “We see a lot of National Parks trips, biking trips through specialized companies like Backroads and DuVine Cycling and Adventure Co.; they’re vacations with scheduled outdoor time that offer ways to be active,” says Alexander. Yellowstone is among his most popular destinations, especially because it’s easy to tack on Bozeman or Jackson Hole to the itinerary.

On the other end of the spectrum, late-stage teens are also old enough to appreciate the history, culture, and culinary delights of an urban vacation. Alexander has many families with teenagers opting for history-filled cities like Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans. Atlanta-based author and chef Nandita Godbole has traveled frequently with her 17-year-old daughter since she was an infant, and now finds they can do activities together, as opposed to choosing something that only appeals to one of them. “We sometimes go antiquing, do scenic drives, or even stop at the local farmers market if we see one,” she says.

The best strategy, regardless of where you go, is to plan trips that keep teens curious and energized. Elizabeth Thorp, a communications strategist and writer based in Washington, D.C., has three teenage daughters with whom she travels frequently. “The vacations that are the most successful are destinations that they’re interested in and where there are activities for them,” she says. “They haven’t done as well when they’ve just sat on a beach; they need external stimulation.” One of the family’s recent favorites was a trip to Jamaica, where the girls were excited to test out all the water sports they’d researched ahead of time.

As for that “almost” we mentioned earlier? Don’t forget the snacks. “You have to make sure they’re fed or they get grumpy right away,” says Thorp.

The Gear

Thorp makes sure that all three of her girls never leave for a trip without their Mophie power banks. That way, they can document their travels without worrying about their phones dying. “I borrow it from my teens,” she says. “When you’re out and about, your phone can run out so quickly.”

Buy now: Mophie Powerstation, $70, zagg.com

—Juliet Izon

This article has been updated with new information since its original publish date.

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