18 Family Vacations To Take Before Your Kids Turn 18
Treehouse slumber party, anyone?
Among the most popular high school graduation gifts is Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” But if there were a foreword to that book, it would aptly be titled “Oh the Places You’ve Been.”
Before your kids start taking spring break trips with their college friends, or, down the line, embark on family vacations of their own, now is the time to travel with them and share the wonders of the world.
Need convincing? Studies show that family vacations can be good for your children’s emotional growth and even help them get better grades.
Here are 18 trips to consider taking with your kids before they turn 18.
1. Sleep in a tipi or treehouse
Camping is a quintessential family activity. And while s’mores and campfire stories sound great in theory, setting up camp can be a lot of work after a long day of traveling or if your family isn’t really the “camping type.”
2. Watch whales migrate off the California coast
Skip SeaWorld and trade waiting in lines for a much more authentic vacation where you can witness majestic sea creatures in their natural habitats. Terranea Resort, A Destination Hotel, for example, is perched on the craggy coast of the Pacific Ocean, with telescopes along the bluffs so you can expertly scout the waters. Sea lions will play a friendly game of peek-a-boo with you while you’re out on a kayak.
The resort’s casual lunch spot, Nelson’s, has a bell that guests ring when they spot a whale passing by. Both California Blue and Pacific Gray whales migrate in the waters just 50 yards offshore and can be viewed year-round. The resort also extends a program that lets guests participate in an official whale count. The property also has a falconry program, and your kids can learn about the birds of prey and even meet a falcon. The falcons came to the resort in 2009 as an eco-friendly way to rid the property of pesky seagulls.
And speaking of all things birds, when you’re empty nesters, you can come back here and enjoy the adults-only pool and spend more time in the spa, which offers panoramic views of the ocean.
3. Play in a National Park
The National Parks are coming off their 100th birthday celebration. They’re America’s greatest playgrounds, especially for the intrepid types.
Your kids can sandboard in the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado, watch the wild horses gallop between Virginia and Maryland on Assateague Island or take a river hike through the narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park.
4. Take a beach vacation
Being buried in sand and building sandcastles are childhood musts. A good place to do just that? The white sand beaches of Panama City Beach in Florida. Here, the sunsets are so spectacular they get their own nightly ritual at Schooner’s, a beachfront restaurant that does a cannon blast right as the sun drops.
Or you can escape to St. Andrew’s State Park, where you can cast your line off of Tiller Pier and fish for Spanish mackerel, red fish, flounder and sea trout from the Gulf of Mexico. You can also follow the park’s “Gator Lake Trail” to a viewing area where, from a safe distance, you can spot alligators and wading birds.
5. Visit a rad sci-fi museum
Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a one-of-a-kind experience, and when you visit the attraction, it feels like you’re stepping onto the set of a sci-fi film. Take your teenagers there and they’ll remember just how cool you are. The exhibit took over a former bowling alley and its main benefactor is George R.R. Martin, the author of “Game of Thrones.” Once inside, you’ll become captivated by the House of Eternal Returns, which comes with a fascinating storyline.
The Cliff’s Notes version goes like this: The family that once inhabited the home has disappeared and you’re left to search for clues. (Totally cool to dig through their mail and open up their refrigerator, which may actually be a portal that travels to another dimension.) Plus, Meow Wolf has free arcade games.
6. Enjoy a lake vacation
Canoes, bonfires and swimming are a trifecta of quintessential summer activities. If you’re scouting for a great place to take a lake vacation, consider Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin. You can rent canoes and sailboats, as well as giant hydrobikes to churn through the water.
The lake casts a gorgeous green color because of its unique clay bottom. Plus, you can satiate your need for speed with a day trip to Road America, where visitors can race Go-Karts that will track your speed and even tell you where you ranked among your group.
7. Take a cruise
A cruise is an amazing way to locomote around the world because you’ll get to stop and see so many different destinations during your vacation. Plus, it’s a great way to gather up the whole family (grandma and grandpa included!) for a fun vacation since there are so many itineraries to choose from.
If you’re cruising with kids, Princess Cruises offers excursions that partner with Discovery Channel’s top shows through a Discovery at Sea program. Among the voyages your crew (i.e., family) can take are ones to Alaska, the British Isles, the Panama Canal, the Caribbean and more.
The cruise has Youth Centers and Teen Lounges with themes that are age-appropriate (think: a treehouse for kids ages 3 to 7 or a surf-themed beach house for teens). Plus, there are kid activities on the cruises, like MythBusters science experiments and theme days inspired by Shark Week and Animal Planet.
8. Visit a cool art district
Modern art districts are thrilling not just for their museums and exhibits, but the cool street art and murals around every corner to0. If you’re an art lover, consider putting Norfolk, Virginia, on your must-visit list. Sure, you may know the city for its naval presence—you can’t miss Nauticus, where the USS Wisconsin is docked. (It’s one of the largest battleships the U.S. Navy ever built.)
The city also has a booming arts scene, which helped it earn a spot on Travel & Leisure’s best places to visit list in 2017. The Chrysler Museum of Art offers free, daily general admission. After you’re done touring it, you can bop around the NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) district where you take a family portrait next to color-splashed murals, watch glass-blowing demonstrations or stop in the eclectic shops.
9. Mingle with alpacas in Peru
You might come to Cusco for the history, excited to explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas. But Awana Kancha, a llama, alpaca and vicuña farm, is just a short drive from the city, too, and makes for a fun addition to the itinerary. The animals will be eagerly awaiting your arrival because they’ll be expecting you to feed them handfuls of grass.
You’ll also get to watch some textile weaving demonstrations. A cool place to stay while you’re there? The JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, which is a 16th-century convent that was turned into a hotel. The lobby is even frequented by alpacas and llamas!
10. Take a graffiti tour of Bogotá
Colombia’s capital city is filled with graffiti, which provides a lens through which to understand the country’s history. The W Hotel Bogotá actually has a “graffiti concierge” who will lead you on an interactive tour of the urban art scene, with the first stop in the hotel lobby where a bright mural reveals an ancient love story.
Other worthwhile tourist must-dos include the Museo del Oro, which contains the world’s largest collection of gold, and taking a cable car up to Monserrate mountain, which offers up a panoramic view of the city from 10,000 feet above sea level.
11. Explore the Mississippi River
Traveling along the Mighty Mississippi can be quite a varied adventure as you traverse through bluffs, rolling green hills and then swamplands. How’s that for a geography lesson?
A good place to start your trip is where the Mississippi River begins its journey: Lake Itasca in Minnesota. There, your kids can traipse across the stones of the river’s headwaters. They can also visit the Headwaters Science Museum in Bemidji, which features more than 70 hands-on exhibits.
12. Time travel with dinosaurs
How cool would it be to travel the same paths as dinosaurs? In Black Hills, South Dakota, you can visit the Dinosaur Park where dinos from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods once roamed.
Life-sized concrete replicas will give you a scope of just how huge these prehistoric reptiles were. Then, visit some live creatures at the Reptile Gardens, which Guinness World Records has dubbed the “world’s largest reptile zoo.”
13. Celebrate Mardi Gras in Mobile
If you’re traveling with kids, Mardi Gras in New Orleans might be a little too rowdy. But you can still laissez les bons temps rouler (translation: let the good times roll). Head to Mobile, Alabama, which claims to be the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America, having started the celebration in 1703.
The port city’s family-friendly Mardi Gras celebrations come with parades, colorful floats and lots of Moon Pies being tossed to the crowd. You can also visit the Mobile Carnival Museum where the spectacular gowns and robes are on display.
14. Volunteer together
If you’re looking to blend your love of travel with volunteering, there are plenty of opportunities. NatureCorps, for example, organizes trips that can range in duration, starting with three-day trips.
Volunteers taking part in an eight-day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, for example, will join an effort to save endangered and rare flora, but will also have time to explore the waterfalls and lush rainforests. Or if your kids are ages 4 and up, you can sign up for a myriad of volunteer projects abroad.
15. Visit an epic state park
Sure, the National Parks got plenty of well-deserved attention during their 100th birthday celebration. But there are some amazing state parks that can rival them. Take, for instance, Niagara Falls Sate Park, the oldest state park in America, established in 1885.
Aside from witnessing the majestic falls, you can take a guided tour through an underground man-made hydraulic raceway or visit Power Vista, which has 50 interactive exhibits that teach about electricity.
16. Take a presidential vacation
You’ve got plenty of options for this kind of trip. Aside from the obvious family trip to D.C., you can visit any of the 15 presidential libraries across the United States. Or, you can do a unique tour—like visiting Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch, which became known as the “Texas White House” because of the numerous meetings and press conferences he held there.
17. Take a European vacation
Psst, trips to Europe right now are super-cheap—especially if you want to head to Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Prague or Reykjavik.
Flight costs to those European cities are down by 20 to 30 percent year over year, according to data from Kayak, a fare aggregator. If you’re on a budget, the best time to travel is summer, especially May.
18. Take a trip along the donut trail
Call it trail-glazing! Butler County in Ohio has a new “donut trail” that weaves together nine local, family-owned businesses. From maple bacon to Fruity Pebbles donuts, you can satiate your sweet tooth here.
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