Eileen Gunn is the founder and editor of FamiliesGo!, a travel planning website for busy parents.
A “great” vacation can mean different things to different people. Some families might enjoy adventure, and lots of time in the great outdoors, while others prefer heading to a new city where everyone can explore individually.
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Whatever your pleasure, I always say that on a family vacation, you’re only as happy as your least happy kid. In my experience, some of the cheapest trips we’ve taken have been costly in terms of stress and fatigue (the things you’re trying to get away from). You know what I mean--those nights where no one sleeps well because you’re crammed into a too-small hotel room. We took our very active 21-month-old on a walking tour of Charleston once and, while she behaved, my husband and I were so busy keeping her entertained that we each heard only half the tour.
In that case, it’s better to look for value: What vacation will provide you with the most enthused kids, the best "together" time and still send you home feeling relaxed and rejuvenated?
I’ve found that your kid’s age is what really makes the difference when answering that question (just six months earlier we could have popped our daughter into her Ergo carrier and taken her on that same tour, no problem). Here’s what I think are some of the best (and worst) vacation values, based on kid’s ages.
Best Bang for Your Buck: City Vacations
Take it from a New York City parent, until kids are 15 to 18 months, they’re highly portable and tend to sleep a lot. Even a museum visit or walking tour is possible when you can pop your kid in her stroller and she’ll sleep through the whole thing. In terms of where to stay, pricey city hotels aren’t a necessity when traveling with babies, so try booking an apartment rental through websites like HomeAway, instead. “The baby years are also the best time for home swapping,” says Jessica Bowers, mom of four and voice behind the blog Suitcases and Sippy Cups. “If you swap with a family who has a baby you might find the baby gear you need without having to carry it with you.”
Worst Bang for Your Buck: All-Inclusives
Flowing drinks and endless activities make all-inclusives a good deal—but if you travel to one with a baby, you’ll most likely spend your vacation sitting on the beach trying to keep her from eating sand. It’s best to save this trip for when they’re older and can actually take part in some of the activities. (We talked more about all-inclusives, and whether they’re worth the cost, here.)
Best Bang for Your Buck: The Beach
Once your tot is old enough to know that sand is not for consuming, beach vacations are an easy way to keep everyone in the family happy. A pail and shovel (and a parent willing to dig holes) can keep kids busy for hours. When deciding where to stay, consider a condo if it’s just your family, or go for a roomy house if you’re vacationing with others—ideally one with a pool. “Many homes have big screen TVs, and some even have play stations and DVD players,” says Kristine Morley, a mom of two who owns a vacation home rental company in Costa Rica.
Worst Bang for Your Buck: Cruises
Like all-inclusives, cruises are usually worth the cost because of all the activities and entertainment at your disposal. However, with a pre-schooler in tow, you’re more likely to be cooling your heels at the kiddie pool than bouncing between Zumba class and cooking demonstrations. Most ships won’t take toddlers in diapers in their kids’ clubs (most ships don’t let them in the pools, either). Others will, but they’ll page you if the kids need changing, limiting what you can do with your free time.
For Elementary School:
Best Bang for Your Buck: Cruises
Oh, the difference a few years makes. When kids are old enough to want their own activities, but young enough that they still need plenty of oversight, cruises suddenly become seeming bargains. Your 7- to 11-year old can spend the day ziplining, rock climbing and dancing with her favorite cartoon characters with enough supervision that you’ll feel comfortable relaxing and taking that yoga class. Plus, meal times, shore excursions and family-friendly variety shows assure that you still get quality togetherness.
I've found that Disney does a great job of taking care of both kids and grown-ups, but they tend to be on the pricey side. Norwegian Cruise Line is also great for kids, because the dress is casual and the meal times flexible, and Royal Caribbean has a lot of offerings for kids, too. Keep in mind--in general, the further out you book a cruise, the lower the rates will be.
Worst Bang for Your Buck: Road Trips
“Half the fun of a road trip is not getting there,” says Asa Blum, dad to two school-age girls in Central Valley, NY. Blum knows from personal experience that driving with antsy elementary-school-aged kids should just be a way to get from point A to point B, so he keeps his road trips to five hours at the most. Why isn’t it a good idea? Experienced parents say you can expect kids to spend the most scenic stretches of road with their heads tucked into books, game and videos. They’ll look up to ask for food, complain about their siblings and to ask if you’re there yet.
For Middle School and Teenage Years:
Best Bang for Your Buck: All-Inclusives
“Feeding growing teenagers can be the biggest budget buster while traveling, but the all-inclusive lets them eat to their heart's (or stomach's) content,” notes Bowers. “Likewise, tweens and teens are looking for constant entertainment during their vacation, and all-inclusives ensure they can do it without mom and dad needing to shell out dough each day.” Inclusive resorts with the most activities can come with a high price tag, but they can be easier to budget for because you’ll face fewer surprise add-ons once you’re there. (Again, if you’re considering going the all-inclusive route, be sure to check out our in-depth all-inclusive piece here.)
Worst Bang for Your Buck: Camping
Camping is the classic budget-friendly family vacation, but it’s hard to primp in a tent, communal showers will violate teens’ heightened need for privacy and cooking s’mores by the fire doesn’t tend to pack the wow-factor it does for younger children. Unless your kids are bonafide outdoors enthusiasts, they’ll likely spend their time roaming the campground in search of good cell reception so they can text their friends about how bored they are.