Best. Vacation. Ever. Three magic words that are music to every parent’s ears. But when it’s time to plan your dream family vacation, you find yourself hitting a wall.
Planning a trip with adults is a whole different matter from planning a trip with kids. You have to account for different interests, different schedules, and, of course, safety concerns.
In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about planning a safe and fun vacation for your entire family. We’ll include tips about choosing kid-friendly destinations, finding the right place to stay, planning for a successful vacation, and essential safety protocols your kids need to know.
Choose Kid-Friendly Destinations
Where in the world will your wanderlust take you? With kids, that question is harder to answer.
According to the 2019 U.S. Family Travel Survey conducted by the Family Travel Association (FTA) and the NYU School of Professional Studies, interest in family travel remains strong. So does intent, but it’s declining from previous years—79% in 2019 compared to 93% in 2015.
The greatest impediments to a family vacation? The cost of taking one (32% of respondents), as well as other demands on the family budget (26%) and difficulty taking time off (13%). Even so, an overwhelming majority of parents (77%) have taken their kids on a trip in the last three years.
For many families, the question isn’t just, “Where will the kids have fun?” The deeper question is, “Can we afford to go there?” and, of course, “Is it safe to go there?” especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The good news is that you can make many destinations affordable and accessible. You just have to know what you’re looking for.
What Makes a Great Destination?
Think of the last vacation you took that really stuck with you. Maybe it was a hike in the Himalayas. Maybe it was a day trip to a nearby beach that you love. However big or small, think about what made that trip memorable.
According to research from the University of Washington School of Psychology, a great or lousy vacation depends on two factors. A good trip often results from an authentic experience—most survey participants recounted something exciting or spontaneous. A bad trip often results from waste—wasted experience, wasted money, or wasted time.
The good news for parents is that kids don’t want a fancy round-the-world trip. The majority of kids want three things from their next vacation: time with their parents, a room of their own, and a swimming pool, with bonus points for inviting friends or getting to try new things. The point is that kids want the same thing their parents want: a good balance of fun and relaxation.
How do you choose a destination from that criteria? Start by getting the whole family involved in the conversation. That will ensure you choose a location where everyone has something they enjoy. You should also choose a destination that’s convenient for everyone and strikes a balance between everyone’s preferred geographic location.
That said, include at least one memorable activity the whole family can do together. Family vacations are about creating shared memories, and one shared adventure will become a fond family reminiscence for years. Just be okay with throwing out some of your plans as needed—as long as you manage everyone’s must-have events, you’re good.
Popular Tourist Destinations for Kids in the US
For those who love fun in the sun, head to San Diego, California. It has everything kids could want: 70 miles of beaches, theme parks, water parks, and lots of kid-friendly museums. But if you want the most tropical beaches in the U.S., head to Miami Beach, though it has fewer kids’ activities.
For a variety of family activities, Jackson Hole, Wyoming is the best family destination you’ve never heard of. It boasts more outdoor activities than there are hours in the day—hiking in Grand Teton National Park, rafting the Snake River, ice skating in Teton Village. Scenic views that stop you in your tracks don’t hurt either. For a living history lesson, the South Dakota Black Hills are tragically underrated. This is the home of Mount Rushmore, but also the Badlands. Don’t let the name fool you—this park contains some of the richest fossil deposits in the world.
Popular Tourist Destinations for Kids Outside the US
Thinking of showing the kids how big and beautiful the world is?
One of the best countries to start is Ireland, especially Cork and Kerry, where everything seems to be set up for families (yes, even Irish pubs). Families will also love visiting the Giant’s Causeway (or anywhere on the Causeway Coast, for that matter). If you’ve never been to Ireland, start out in Dublin and check out Dublin Castle, Dublin Zoo, and Trinity College Library.
Another great family city is Tokyo, where you could spend weeks and still not see everything. Kids will clamor for the Samurai Museum, the Ghibli Museum, and, of course, Disney Tokyo, but take the time to visit Tokyo’s smaller attractions. Like the many animal cafes, or the colorful Harajuku District, or a bit of lush greenery at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and Ueno Park.
If you want a whole new world that’s still relatively close to home, head to Bimini in the Bahamas archipelago. From Alice Town to Bailey Town, there are miles of gorgeous beaches with lots of kayaking, paddle-boarding, and scuba diving to go around. Kids will also love imagining pirate stories during a visit to the Gallant Lady, a sunken ship with exposed rusty parts.
Finding the Right Hotel or Place of Stay
Now, as a parent, you’re concerned about safety just as much as fun. That means choosing your home base just as carefully as you choose your destination.
When traveling with kids, keeping it simple is your safest bet. For example, instead of paying less for a hotel and trekking to the sights through a series of transfers on public transportation, opt for a hotel centrally located for all your activities. If you take public transportation, choose a hotel near a hub station.
If you’re not sure where to begin, this hotel safety and security assessment form published by the U.S. Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) is a great resource to assess a hotel’s safety and security measures, including areas you might not think about.
For example, you should ask about the hotel’s lighting. Think about what makes a dark alley unsafe—if you can’t see, it’s easier for someone to take you by surprise, for your kids to get lost, or for a nasty slip and fall. A well-lit hotel is a safe hotel.
If you have a kid with food allergies, get on the phone with the hotel and ask detailed questions about food hygiene practices. Explain that your child has a food allergy, explain the details of the allergy (airborne or contact, mild or severe, the type of allergy) and go through a list of questions. If you have to bring your own food, make sure the room has a small fridge.
If you have a child with a disability, ask the hotel about accessibility measures—especially if you’re traveling to foreign countries or older hotels that may not be updated to reflect modern disability access requirements. For a child in a wheelchair, for example, ramps and elevators are essential, but so are rooms and doors wide enough to allow easy wheelchair passage.
It would be impossible to talk about safety in the era of COVID-19 without addressing sanitary issues. Check CDC guidelines on safety in hotels and ask questions about sanitation practices using CDC sanitation guidelines as your gold standard.
For example, high-touch surfaces should be cleaned at least once per day, more frequently in areas with young children and the elderly. Rooms should be deep-cleaned between stays, and hotel capacity should be limited to enable social distancing.
Information to Gather About Security
If a central location leaves you in the middle of a city, you should check the hotel’s security measures.
For example, what type of locking system does the hotel use? Some technology firms have introduced intelligent RFID-enabled access control systems allowing management to track the movement of people and assets, making it easy to spot unlawful entry. Some hotels require a room key to operate the elevator.
All hotels should have 24-hour security monitoring the hotel’s main access points. If your hotel or resort has a restaurant or conference rooms, there should be security measures to prevent non-guests from wandering in the hotel.
You should also look for a hotel with one building rather than multiple—security in the lobby won’t do much good if half the rooms are in a different building only protected by a key fob. Similarly, if you stay in a resort, look for a private, enclosed resort—that way, you don’t have to worry about non-guests wandering around the premises.
The destination is selected. The hotel is booked. Now comes everyone’s least favorite part.
While you might travel light and easy when backpacking on your own, traveling with kids means you have less flexibility and more essentials.
What to Pack
Start by packing the essentials. These are items that parents can pack without the kids. The whole family’s essentials should be consolidated into one travel backpack that you never let out of your sight. Essential items include:
- Tickets (if you prefer paper)
- A printed itinerary with reservation numbers
- Cell phone
- Tablet or laptop
- Prescription medication
- Painkillers (for children and adults)
- International adapters
- Stuffed animals the kids can’t sleep without
- Small favorite toys the kids can’t leave home without
- Any beloved items that would be difficult or expensive to replace
Opt for a well-designed, carry on-sized travel backpack that you can keep with you at all times, like the Tortuga Outbreaker. It has the size and obsessive organization of a carry on with the ergonomics of a hiking backpack, perfectly sized to pull double-duty as your carry on.
Information to Give to Your Kids
Regardless of their age, treat your kids as responsible travelers who are participating in this journey just as much as you are. They should be prepared with essential information just in case.
For example, the kids should have at least one parent’s phone number memorized in case you get separated or they lose their phone. The same goes for the hotel address, the hotel phone number, and local emergency phone numbers like the police or emergency services.
You should also talk them through a clear plan in case of various emergencies. For example, on the off chance they get separated from you, they should know exactly what to do so they can stay safe and find you again. They should practice what to do if they or their siblings have an allergic reaction.
This brings us to safety protocols. You don’t want to scare your kids, but rather emphasize that preparation will keep them safe in case something goes wrong.
What to Do and What Not to Do
While the burden of safety lies with parents, kids should still understand basic safety protocols and practice them at home in the weeks before your trip.
For example, emphasize to your kids that it’s important for them to stay with you in an unfamiliar place. Emphasize that if they go somewhere on their own, they should always tell you where they are and give updates so you can find them easily.
Have them practice how to recognize unsafe situations, like a stranger coming up to them, or how to recognize an area that isn’t safe for them to wander in. They should also practice how to get out of unsafe situations and who to ask for help if something goes wrong.
What to Do in Case of Emergency
If an emergency happens, the most important thing is to stay calm. Your kids may be scared or worried and they need you to help them navigate through it.
First and foremost, get your kids to safety as quickly as possible. Then, run through your list of safety protocols and figure out what to do—do you need to call an emergency number? Do you or your child need medical care? Do you need to find your spouse or other kids? As you do this, keep your kids calm and aware of what’s going on, reassuring them that it will be alright.
Traveling with the whole family is one of the great joys of traveling. As a parent, you get to experience the world anew through your kids’ eyes. You get to build memories they’ll cherish for a lifetime. And if you prepare properly, you can keep your kids focused on what matters most—having an incredible experience together.
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