Summer vacations with kids don't have to be extravagant. After all, the mere fact that school's out and it's summer is enough to carve deep memories into a child's mind. Whether it's immersing yourself in nature at one of the nation's premier national parks or embarking on a road trip or cruise, there are tried-and-true tips for keeping costs down. So if you're looking for a surefire vacation hit—one that won't break the family budget—do a little research before booking flights and hotels. Your best bet might just be a (free) campsite on a secluded beach.
If kicking back and handing over the vacation planning to someone else sounds like your cup of tea, U.S.-based, all-inclusive resorts have got you covered. And you don't need to go to the Caribbean or Mexico to find a fantastic one either. From ranches in Montana (complete with a slew of cowboy activities) to beachside resorts on Florida's Gulf Coast, kid-friendly all-inclusive stays allow you to take advantage of packaged pricing while leaving your passport at home.
Coined "America's best idea" by the historian Wallace Stegner, national parks offer families an affordable way to take advantage of our nation's wonders. Visit cherished landscapes, view wildlife in their natural habitat, and learn about geological and cultural history, all while appreciating the great outdoors. And you don't have to book an expensive hotel to do so either. Just hop in your car, camping gear in tow, and hit several parks in one road trip (with reserved campsites, of course). Then, when you've had enough camping, grab a hot shower a warm bed, and a world-class meal in one of the outlying towns (like Jackson Hole, Wyoming) to get a feel for how the locals live.
Leave your car at home (quite literally) and book a stay at a family-friendly bike resort. Bicycle-friendly resorts provide affordable (or free) loaner bikes to guests and offer numerous bike paths on property to explore. Work a little exercise into a day at the beach, while avoiding the parking hassle, by biking the area's quiet back roads. Active families with little ones in tow will enjoy the safe and easily-accessible haven a bike resort provides.
Attending a state fair is as much a summertime tradition as cookouts and Fourth of July fireworks. And there's no better way to experience the true vibe of an area than rubbing shoulders with the locals. Kids can enjoy pig races and pony rides, while the adults sample regional farm-to-table food and peruse local crafts. Carnival rides, agricultural competitions, and oxen pulls can all be enjoyed at the fair. Plus, most of these rural extravaganzas require travel through pristine farmland and rolling landscapes, allowing for interesting side trips or hikes.
Beat the summer heat with a vacation to one of the East or West Coast water parks. One-of-a-kind water slides and interactive spray areas make this a great family trip if you have both older kids and young toddlers. Older kids can enjoy the adrenaline-charged action, while moms and toddlers hang in the splash pool. For surf-loving families that want access to endless waves (despite what Mother Nature dolls out), manmade surf parks provide hours of fun and exercise for both beginners and experts.
Adrenaline-pumping thrill rides get all the buzz in the theme park business, but tamer attractions suit families with young kids. The good news is, many theme parks now provide both rides and designated areas for young family members, too. Of course, Disneyland and Disney World lead the charge for mellow them park rides, but parks like Six Flags Over Georgia and Silverwood Theme Park in Idaho have followed suit.
Nearly every cruise line welcomes families and offers activities for children, yet only a select few truly go above and beyond to meet the needs of cruising families. Choose a cruise line that’s right for your family by researching each cruise's distinctive personality. Some have boisterous party themes, others are geared toward sporty families, and still others cater to families in need of a reserved and elegant vacation.
If you've been contemplating a family vacation to Europe, it might be time to bite the bullet. The strong U.S. dollar and the availability of budget-friendly hotel chains can help you keep your trip within budget, while exposing your kids to other cultures. Additionally, Eurail, BritRail, and German Rail offer free travel for kids under a certain age who are accompanied by an adult.
Most hotels welcome babies and toddlers, but baby-friendly resorts go the extra mile (since parents with young ones in tow sure need a relaxing vacation). With large hotel suites, nannies on standby, baby-centric facilities, complete with nursing rooms and bottle warmers, and toddler camps, baby-friendly resorts give young families the support they need to truly be "on vacation."
Serious golfers will enjoy the wide range of fun opportunities at family-centered golf resorts. With golf courses complete with special kid tees and superior instruction for junior golfers, everyone in the family will up their game while on vacation. Most golf resorts offer day camps for kids, too, allowing the adults to have a relaxing day by the pool or play in a tournament with other vacationing couples.