The coolest season of the year offers many opportunities for family trips, including holiday island getaways, snowy mountain escapes, and excursions to beloved cities. The holidays in December make this one of the most popular times of the year for families to travel, but if you have the flexibility to plan something for later in January or February, you'll be able to find some of the best deals of the year.
Visit a National Park
A visit to one of America's national parks is one of the most timeless family vacations. While they're usually overrun with tourists in the summer months, visiting in the winter is usually a time where you can have a more intimate experience without the crowds. Plus, many are covered in a blanket of snow which only adds to the magic of these majestic sites.
- Yosemite National Park in California is simply the perfect getaway for winter-sports enthusiasts. Bring the kids to the outdoor ice skating rink in Yosemite Valley tucked beneath Half Dome, a tradition in Yosemite since the 1930s. Although it's outside, the family can stay warm by the outdoor fire ring or inside the store with hot cocoa and warm treats.
- Zion National Park, located in southwest Utah, is also quite lovely in the winter months. The geography is what brings families here year-round with dramatic features such as colossal cliffs, deep canyons, high plateaus, and the Virgin River, which are only more gorgeous when covered in snow.
- For a national park experience with milder weather, consider a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. It's one of the few U.S. national parks where you can sit out on the beach in the middle of winter while the kids snorkel in the clear Caribbean water. However, it's also a popular time to visit and one of the high tourist seasons.
The most effective way to escape winter—albeit most extreme—is to leave the Northern Hemisphere altogether and head south. With warm weather and plenty of exciting cultural activities to boot, a trip to Peru makes for an unforgettable family vacation that is perfect for teenagers or older children. Despite being summer and warm, the months of December, January, and February are considered the rainy season in Peru. But if you don't mind getting wet and wearing a rain jacket, then it's also a great time for travel deals and fewer crowds.
Machu Picchu is usually somewhere on the itinerary for anyone's trip to Peru. You can stay in the nearest big city, Cusco, or find accommodations right in the mountains if you want to stay in the area. The Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel is one example where you can stay with your entire family in a large family suite, take part in mini chef classes, and learn Andean tales during storytime. While Machu Picchu is open year-round, the popular Inca Trail to arrive there is closed throughout the month of February each year for maintenance.
Outside of Machu Picchu, you'll likely have to stop in Lima at some point, Peru's largest and capital city. The city has all types of activities geared toward keeping the kids entertained, such as the world's largest interactive fountain and a tropical zoo.
From snorkeling to world-famous beaches to dormant volcanoes to paddle sports, Maui, "The Valley Isle," has it all. Because it's whale season, a trip in the winter months allows you to see the migrating humpback whales breed, calve, and nurse their young. The temperature across the Hawaiian Islands stays consistently above 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, so you can still enjoy the best of the outdoors on Maui even in the winter.
Whether you're traveling with young kids or teenagers, there's plenty of activities to keep everyone entertained. Take the kids to Maui Ocean Center, enjoy a helicopter ride to see waterfalls and lush landscapes, adventure through Haleakala National Park on an eco-tour, and learn how to hula dance.
Several accommodation options on the island are specifically geared toward families, such as the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel or the Sheraton Maui Resort. Both of them are located right on the water for easy beach access and have elaborately-designed pools for having fun without leaving the resort.
When visiting the Caribbean island of Aruba, see multi-hued schools of fish on a sailing and snorkeling adventure; test your balance while stand-up paddleboarding; romp around the island on a UTV tour, checking out the Donkey Sanctuary and Butterfly Farm; and swim in a natural ocean pool at Arikok National Park. Aruba’s consistently warm and sunny weather is an ideal destination for families that are looking to get away from colder climates.
Stay at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino on Palm Beach, one of the most stunning beaches on the entire island and filled with amenities that cater toward families. Of course, there is a lovely pool, fitness center, and spa, but what really sets this resort apart is the dining options: Ruth’s Chris Steak House; La Vista, with the weekly Carnival dinner; Atardi, where you can watch the sun set while you dine shoeless on the beach; Waves Beach Bar & Grill; The Lobby, for excellent sushi; Gelato & Co., for healthy acai bowls and smoothies; and Starbucks.
Disney World in Orlando
The holidays are one of the busiest times of the year at Walt Disney World, but once they're over, prices and crowds drop around the park. In fact, January and February are some of the least-crowded times to visit, although it's usually a difficult time to go to the park if you have kids in school.
Visiting Disney World in January and February can be a real money saver, and the crowds will have diminished a bit after the hectic holiday season (except for Presidents' Day weekend). While days are usually warm and sunny, don't be surprised if you see a frosty dew in the early morning hours or experience chilly evening temperatures, as Orlando has a sub-tropical climate. After New Year's Day, the hours in the parks shorten, but since the attractions lines are shorter than any other time of the year, the lessened hours shouldn't deter you from going.
There are a dizzying number of Disney resorts and it can be overwhelming trying to choose the best one to stay at, with options ranging from value hotels to deluxe suites. Regardless of which one you choose, staying at a Disney resort is always a memorable experience, not just for kids but for parents, too.
New York City
New York City in the winter has a special charm to it, especially if you visit in December when the city is covered with holiday decorations. From illuminated ice-skating rinks to window-shopping at the department stores, there's an extra special ambiance to the city between November and the beginning of January.
After the holidays, many hotels around New York tend to drop prices in January and February since it's no longer peak tourist season, making it a great time to find a bargain for a room in the typically expensive boroughs of Manhattan or Brooklyn. Plus, since this is the City That Never Sleeps, even in the cold and dark months of winter you can find events happening in all corners of the city, such as Restaurant Week in January or Chinese New Year celebrations.
Head for the Slopes
After paying for accommodations, equipment rentals, lessons, and more, a family ski trip can quickly add up, but there are easy ways to make a getaway to the mountains more affordable. If you have several children in your family, you can save big by taking them skiing at resorts where children ski and snowboard for free or at big discounts, such as June Mountain in California or Purgatory Resort in Colorado.
- Sundial in Park City, Utah, is the largest ski and snowboard resort in the U.S. With 17 peaks, 7,300 skiable acres, and more than 300 trails, the huge area offers a range of intermediate and experienced-level slopes, with a few beginner runs and a practice area available for training up younger children. It's no wonder it's considered one of the top ski picks for families.
- Keystone Resort in Colorado is considered one of the best for families with young kids thanks to its playgrounds, snow forts, and a colorful daily parade. After a day of skiing or snowboarding on the mountain, there are plenty of family-friendly activities at the resort to keep guests of all ages entertained.
Gaze at the Northern Lights
Normally, it's best to travel north of the Arctic Circle in order to see the Northern Lights. However, in the prime season of winter, it's possible to see them even in the northern parts of the continental U.S. The area around Lake Superior is one of the most ideal locations for spotting the Northern Lights in the U.S.—apart from going to Alaska—including Cook County in Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The Northern Lights (also called aurora borealis) are the result of large numbers of electrons originating from the sun that stream in toward the Earth along its magnetic field and collide with air particles. The air then lights up in a similar manner to what happens in a fluorescent light tube, around 60 miles (100 kilometers) above the earth's surface. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience and worth braving the frigid cold of winter to see this vibrant light show.