Our print-out-and-save guide to family vacations is packed with tips on planning and packing; coping with cars, airplanes, and hotels; eating well; and enjoying yourselves while away from home.
Do the math—twice
Passes that bundle several attractions for one price can be a way to save money. But because of varying age cutoffs for discounts, figuring out whether they're deals is especially complicated for families. The New York CityPass, for instance, is priced at $59 for kids 12 to 17 and includes admission to the Museum of Modern Art—but MoMA is free for children under 17.
Every train is an interesting train
Children are jazzed by subways (and buses), and there are no worries about parking. So travel around the way that city mice do—via public transportation. Some trains even have windows in the front car.
Take advantage of family programs at national parks
Many national parks are part of the Junior Ranger program, which awards badges to kids ages 5 to 12 who complete a few fun and educational tasks (nps.gov). Most of the popular parks have additional options: Yosemite offers story times, songs and games, and guided wildlife walks (nps.gov/yose); Yellowstone hosts seasonal family-friendly activities like the Old West Dinner Cookout, in which horse-drawn covered wagons carry guests on a half-hour ride through scenic sagebrush to a buffet dinner and entertainment with traditional cowboy ballads (866/439-7375, $55 adults, $45 ages 5–11, free for kids under 5).
Ask for advice from people who know
At the supermarket or playground, chat up moms and dads who live in the area, particularly about where they take their kids for fun and where they eat out with their families.
Ferries are fun
Ferries, especially ones that transport cars, never fail to amuse kids. In cities, a ferry ride is often better—and cheaper—than a guided boat tour.
How would you like it if someone chose your souvenir?
Vacations are a good opportunity to teach children about money. Give each child a dollar amount to spend, and stick firmly to that limit. When your child is shopping, don't butt in unless you're asked for assistance.
The beach is a lot more fun if you can play in the water
If the surf is too rough, young kids won't be able to enjoy themselves, and you'll be constantly worried about someone getting hurt. Seek out beaches with mellow or nonexistent waves. Locations on the coastline of a bay, a sound, a gulf, or a lake all work. The Gulf Coast of Florida, Cape Cod, and the sound-side beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina are good bets. Another option is to blow up an inflatable kiddie pool and fill it with ocean water. Or just dig a hole at the surf's edge, line it with a tarp, and let it fill up to create a safe little baby pool.
Turn your next museum visit into a scavenger hunt
Head to the gift shop first, and let the kids buy postcards of paintings displayed in the museum. Then make a game out of trying to find those works in the galleries. You might also bring along pencils and paper for kids to draw their own versions of what's on the walls.
Museums shouldn't get a bad rap
Not all cultural institutions consist of silent rooms with pictures on a wall. Mix up the traditional experience with stops at children's museums; many are listed on childrensmuseums.org. But institutions don't need that title to be kid-friendly—they just need interactive exhibitions. In D.C., for instance, there's the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, the International Spy Museum, and the Newseum. Finding others is as easy as doing a Google search with words like "hands on" or "interactive."
Factory tours are fun for all
Kids love watching stuff get made, whether it's Tabasco sauce, cheese, ice cream, or crayons. And everyone loves a free sample.
The past is perfect
Living-history museums and former battlefields often have programs for families. So instead of staring at an empty Civil War site, you can experience life as a soldier of that era with an overnight stint at the Civil War Adventure Camp at Virginia's Pamplin Historical Park (civilwaradventurecamp.org, $70, for kids 8 and up).
Activities that are educational can be entertaining, too
But it helps if you prep your kids with a book, a brochure, or a video, or at least discuss ahead of time whatever you'll be seeing. Don't spring facts and exhibits on them and expect them to absorb the info—or, for that matter, that anyone will have fun. The point of a vacation is not to be in school.
Plan your day in a democratic manner
Ask everyone to write down the things they'd like to do, and then each morning over breakfast, pull out the list and vote on that day's activities.
Find other kids for your kids to play with
When families travel, it often means kids spend more time than they'd like with adults. Visit a park, a playground, a school, or a fast-food restaurant with a children's area. Consider bringing your child's close friend along, discussing in advance with the other parents who's paying for what.
Waiting in line is a total drag
Purchase tickets online whenever you can, and buy a timed entry if it's available. Go to popular attractions as early in the day as possible. Send one adult ahead to wait in any unavoidable lines. (There are ways to skip waiting during other parts of your trip: For flights, print boarding passes at home; join hotel and car-rental reward programs, if only for the express check-in.)
Give each child a journal and a disposable camera
Encourage your kids to observe the places they visit by photographing, drawing, writing, or however they like. Rather than mailing postcards, fill them out with your family's impressions and save them as keepsakes. (You can attach them to a key ring for an instant flip book or hang them from a clothesline for decoration in a kid's room.)
Be wary of guided tours
If a tour isn't geared toward kids' interests, they'll be bored to tears and drive everyone else insane. You may be better off doing research in advance and exploring the area on your own—perhaps using ideas gleaned from child-oriented guides, like the ever-expanding City Walks With Kids series, which recently came out with editions on D.C. and Paris ($15).