8 Best Family Vacation Websites (Plus: Indispensable Apps You Need Now)

By Jamie Beckman
April 14, 2017
Yellowstone Wyoming buffalo
Lorcel G/Dreamstime
Ready for an unforgettable family vacation? Combining our know-how with intel from Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association, we chose eight websites that offer money-saving deals, useful advice, and cool trips for your whole squad.

Trekaroo: Called the TripAdvisor for family travel, Trekaroo offers helpful reviews of family-oriented places in the U.S. and Canada, plus gear recommendations and tips for traveling with kids. Click on a state on the interactive map to instantly see a list of star-rated, family-approved activities and hotels. Use the price slider up top to find activities that are free or low-cost.   

Undercover Tourist: Yes, you CAN save money at Disney, and Undercover Tourist is legit. This authorized seller can net you savings of 30 percent on Disney World Resort hotels and nice discounts on tickets to Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, and SeaWorld Orlando. Download the Orlando planning app for current wait times, best times to visit, show schedules, and line-length estimates for rides. (Los Angeles and San Diego options are coming later this year.)

Western Spirit Cycling Adventures: If you’d love nothing more than to see the country on two wheels with the whole fam, Western Spirit organizes guided family bike trips in national parks and monuments, like temperate rides through the twists and turns of Black Hills National Forest. Western Spirit is offering a 30 percent discount for Budget Travel readers on the following family trips: Trail of the Ancients, in Utah (June 20–24); Black Hills of South Dakota (June 27–July 1); and Yellowstone and the Gravelly Range (August 1–5).

Google Flights: One of our favorite ways to search for plane tickets, Google Flights uses its massive repository of data to show you alternate cities, times, and dates you can choose to save wads of cash, all neatly organized and easy to use. You’ll want to play with its cool money-saving maps all day. 

Tracks & Trails: Dreaming of a family RV adventure in a national park out west? Tracks & Trails will hook you up with a fully planned, highly personalized trip, from renting the RV to organizing activities like rock climbing. Better yet, they’ll steer you away from tourist traps. The site is offering Budget Travel readers a 20 percent discount on trip-planning fees for 2016 travel dates. Just mention BT when you book! To save even more cash, go off-season—in April, May, September, or October—for fewer crowds and sweet deals: You’ll save up to 25 percent on RV rentals compared with high season in July and August. The company’s nine-day, all-inclusive Rocky Mountains and Central Colorado trip is one of its most affordable excursions.

Gogobot: Travel-planning site Gogobot, fueled by tips from travelers, is organized into 19 different “tribes.” Join the Family tribe to see reviews, ask questions in forums, and trade tips with fellow members. Handy guides include On the Go With Kids in NYC and Family Travel in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

Find Your Park: We love national parks for both their splendor and their low entrance fees. Find Your Park, a campaign from the National Park Service, which turns 100 years young this August, provides ideas for family-bonding trips and ample inspiration for your next park excursion. Check out Nps.gov for a list of free entrance days for all 400-plus parks.

Family Vacation Critic: Looking for family vacation ideas? This website has plenty of 'em. Click through Family Vacation Critic’s ultra-specific articles, like 10 Best African Safari Lodges for Families. Or immerse yourself—in a good way!—in never-ending general links, such as Aruba Family Vacations, which yields a cascade of information about resorts, hotels, activities, and restaurants, and a mini guide that shares info about low season and the best ways to get around town.

App Time!

Everyone would love for the kids to (voluntarily) put away their mobile devices while traveling. But before you dole out out Draconian rules, read this: “There are some very useful apps that will actually help them get more out of a vacation and more engaged in where they are,” says Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association. Picks for the best of the best are below: 

Best boredom-buster for long car rides: FindPlate Car Game

Best tool for preparing for a trip: PackPoint Packing List Travel Companion 

Best navigation guide for families traveling with young children, especially in cities: Mom Maps 

Best national parks mobile app—it works without Wi-Fi or a data signal: Chimani 

If you'd still prefer to ban devices on your vacation, there's a fun fix: “While the cameras and photo apps on mobile phones are getting more and more sophisticated, I would still strongly suggest investing in an actual digital camera for the kids to play with while on vacation," Jenss says. "It gets them even more excited about snapping pictures while not getting distracted by all the phone's other functions, like texting and social media."

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Why I Took My Kids to Havana

"You brought your kids to Cuba?” The question was repeatedly posed to us upon our return, a bit of incredulity mixed with a slight tinge of envy.   Yes, between Christmas and New Years of last year, we took our well-traveled 5- and 7-year-old children to Havana for a five-day trip. Affordable, safe, filled with friendly people, live music spilling out onto nearly every street corner in old Havana, and stunning beaches a stone’s throw away, this city was surprisingly perfect for a family vacation. Since November 2016, it has been extremely easy to simply hop on a plane to Havana from the U.S. You can get your visas at your check-in counter. There are three direct flights a day from New York City, priced as low as $250 a ticket. As long as you go for one of the 12 approved types of travel, there are no other restrictions. We went under the auspices of a “people-to-people”  trip, in which our goal was to meet Cuban people and have the kids learn some Spanish. That was not a challenge. Cubans are incredibly warm and friendly, and it’s easy to make new friends with a couple of smiling moppets in tow. A bit of pre-travel advice: Before leaving for Cuba, it’s extremely useful to exchange your U.S. dollars into either Canadian dollars or Euros. U.S. dollars are hit with an additional 10 percent exchange penalty that other currencies are not. There are actually two currencies in Cuba: Tourists use the CUC, or convertible peso;  Cubans use the CUP, or Cuban peso, pegged roughly at 25 CUP to 1 CUC. In general, tourists do not have access to Cuban pesos, unless they get a local to swap some notes on the sly. And cash is king: U.S. credit cards and ATM cards are still not accepted in Cuba. Unless you have a foreign credit card or bank account, you need to bring a large amount of cash with you. Havana's splendors have been described by great writers over the years, but that doesn’t prepare you for the sensation of actually walking its streets. It's a full-frontal assault on all five senses. You’ll love feeling the tropical breeze caress your face while viewing grand 18th-century architecture and vintage 1950s American autos trapped in time, hearing the sounds of Son and Charanga emanate from the musicians and radios on seemingly every street corner, the smells of Havana's finest cigars wafting through the air, while sipping on the best mojito you've ever tasted. Back in the 1950s, Havana was Paris in the tropics, one of wealthiest cities in Latin America. Now it's the world’s greatest urban paradox, simultaneously modern and a trip back in time. The iconic old American cars cruise the street in equal numbers with new Toyotas and 1970s Soviet Ladas. While the Edsel may be found only in car shows and museums in America, it's a common sight on Havana's streets, as are Studebakers, '57 Chevys, and almost every other classic automobile. Our kids preferred to get around Havana in bright yellow, three-wheeled coconut shaped rickshaws, called “coco taxis.” Be prepared for a bumpy ride. Ernest Hemingway's ghost haunts every corner. He's so revered in Cuba, you'd think he was part of the Revolution. At least three bars claim to be his "favorite drinking place,” and considering Hemingway’s reputation, I suppose he could have spent enough time at each of the three bars to justify the claim. There are lines out the door at the Bodeguita del Medio on Empedrado, where Hemingway drank his mojitos. For a proper daiquiri, he would head up Calle Obispo to El Floridita. Both spots are must-visits for Hemingway fans and cocktail lovers. Finca Vigia, his residence on the outskirts of town, has been preserved as a museum exactly as he left it in 1960. STAY Most hotels in Havana are actually rather expensive, and usually booked months in advance by package tour groups. Thankfully, Havana has a well-established and government-sanctioned program of private homes and rooms to rent, called casa particulares. Since 2015, the vast majority of these can be booked on Airbnb.  A room in old Havana can be had for about $40 a night. We splurged and rented a two-bedroom apartment in a high rise on the water for $90 a night in the heart of Vedado, in the newer part of town. Our apartment overlooked the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, which prominently features a statue of Cuban hero Marti holding a young Elian Gonzales, with a reproving finger pointing at the U.S. Embassy across the plaza. EAT Well-stocked supermarkets don’t really exist in Havana. You’re at the mercy of what’s in stock, which is generally very little. While we was there, there were shelves full of Panettone and Gerber baby food, but very little in the way of eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables. For an extremely satisfying breakfast, however, the Hotel Capri in Vedado has a vast and sumptuous buffet, open to the public. For just $12 per person ($6 for kids), a feast awaits that can fill a belly for half the day. Kids can have their fill of fruits, eggs, pancakes, cereal, and even donuts. Just as some Cubans have been allowed to rent their apartments for lodging as casa particulares, others have been allowed to operate restaurants out of their homes. These in-home restaurants, limited to 12 seats, are known as paladares and can be found throughout the city. In fact, paladares now outnumber official state restaurants. A tasty dinner including drinks can be had for $10 to $15 per person, and every cab driver will show you their favorite special “secret” paladar if you ask. SMOKE (IF THAT’S YOUR THING) Every souvenir hawker and tout in old Havana will offer to sell you “real” Cuban cigars, cheaply. While they may be indeed Cuban, and cigars, they are poorly made knockoffs of the stogies that made Havana famous. For the real deal, stop by one of the Casa de Habano stores found throughout Havana. They have every brand of Cuban cigar imaginable, and you can be assured that you’re not buying counterfeits. After teaching my kids since birth that smoking is disgusting and bad for them, I really had no explanation for why I was bringing home a box of Montecristos. I’m not sure if they bought my “a cigar is a sometimes thing” excuse.   PLAY Hugging the waterfront in old Havana is a wonderful children's park and playground, replete with aging carousels, see-saws, and newer bouncy castles. It’s enough to keep the kids entertained for a few hours.  Convertible pesos are not accepted for the admission fee, so if you want to visit, you need to find a local parent and trade them some CUCs for CUPs. It’s about $0.15 to enter the park, and admission to the enormous bouncy castles and slides are another $0.15. In the center of a leafy park in Vedado, an enormous mid-century modern UFO rises above the trees. Lines of locals stretch down the block on all four sides of the park. The UFO does not take trips to Miami, but houses the famed Copellia ice cream parlor. Established by Castro in the early 1960s, Copellia made ice cream accessible to the common folk. For about 20 cents and an hour’s wait, you can get an enormous bowl of Havana’s best Ice cream. For tourists who don’t want to wait and don’t mind paying a little more, there’s an opportunity to skip the line and go to a separate gringo section, where the same ice cream can be had for 10 times the price. A 20-minute cab right out of town brings you to the gorgeous beaches of Playas del Este, a great day trip. A few hotels dot a 15-mile stretch of white-sand beaches, but it’s largely free of development. For $25 (half-price for kids), you can buy a day pass at the Hotel Atlantico in Santa Maria del Mar, which includes a buffet lunch, and use of the hotel’s pool and facilities. It’s a rather aging, communist-style hotel, mainly filled with foreign package tourists and complete with the requisite overeager activities staff giving poolside salsa and rhumba lessons.  The kids loved it. I should note that Cuban travel is not for everyone. Those accustomed to five-star accommodations and meals and streets lined with fancy boutiques may find themselves disappointed. Folks willing to forsake a few creature comforts for a unique experience a mere 45 minutes from Florida will find Cuba’s charms irresistible. My kids’ days of “people-to-people” experiences left them with beloved memories. As for their newfound knowledge of Spanish? The only word that seems to have lodged in their brains is helado.  Ice cream, of course.


Why I (For Real!) Love Traveling With My Kids

“Please. Please, just try for Mommy,” I said, kneeling on the airport bathroom floor next to my three-year-old. She whimpered again, tears in her eyes, terrified of the automatic flush. I knew she had to use the toilet, and we were 15 minutes from boarding. This was not how I had pictured the start of my first family vacation.  When I had announced my plans to travel with my husband and two children, ages 3 and 5, from New York to Colorado for a week-long family reunion, I received mixed reactions from friends. There were those who told me I was crazy to travel with young children, and those who said we would make memories to cherish forever. “Just…lower your expectations,” came the sound advice of one level-headed friend, who had traveled around the world with her own kids. I knew it would be difficult; my children had never been on a plane, and it was a long flight. We would be staying in a house with five other families, including five grandparents and seven children under the age of 6. But it was in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have all of my side of the family together in one place. How could I say no? Dinner But now, here I was, kneeling on the cold tile floor, texting my mommy friends for moral support. “Do you have any Post-it notes in your purse?” a friend asked, noting they were excellent for covering automatic flush sensors. Who carries Post-it notes in her purse? Finally, I pulled out the parent’s last remaining resource: bribery. One pink vinyl Hello Kitty wallet from the airport gift shop later, my daughter used the toilet and we were good to go. Next stop: Denver! I have been blessed with well-behaved children, so I was not overly concerned about the flight. It was mostly a matter of keeping them occupied for the duration. We had loaded the iPad with Dora the Explorer episodes, brought snacks and games, and then my husband and I became the in-flight activity directors. “All right, I got this,” I thought, proud of myself for the foresight to consult Pinterest before packing for the trip. I had it all: coloring books, Wikki Stix, peanut butter crackers, and gummy bears. At the end of the flight, the generous pilot invited the kids to sit in the cockpit, and we took two of the best pictures of our trip: the kids flying the plane. They were elated. “This is so much fun,” I thought. That is, until we got to the car rental place.  Anyone who has children knows that there are only so many hours you can ask them to sit still. After a four-hour flight, hanging out for two hours in the lobby of a rental car office is not a lot of fun. There had been a mix-up at the rental office and we were stranded until our car arrived. Thus began the whining.  “I’m hungry…  I’m bored… I’m tired.” And so was I. When we finally arrived at our destination, we had been on the road for more than 12 hours.    “Remind me why we did this again,” I said to my husband. He looked at me with bleary eyes after driving two hours from the airport on winding mountain roads in the hot afternoon sun. Poor guy, I thought. This isn’t even his family. Had I brought everyone out here, halfway across the country, to be miserable? And then we saw the mountains. And the elk. Nothing quite beats the look of astonishment and wonder in your children’s eyes when they see something new for the first time.  “There’s snow, Mama!” shouted my son, pointing at the peaks of the Rockies. “But it’s summertime!”  “Look at that big deer!” my daughter said, eyes wide, as she gazed at a 700-pound elk, its antlers like a majestic tree. They ran to the fence to peer over at the huge animals. Although we took hundreds of pictures during our weeklong stay in Colorado, there are a few that remain etched in my memory, one being that day we arrived, their small lithe bodies leaning over the fence, eager to catch a glimpse of the new landscape. It will stay with me forever. By day, we hiked in the lower trails of the mountains, waded in cold mountain streams, watched a cowboy parade, and explored the local playground. At night we ate huge family dinners, and my children got their first taste of what it means to sit at the “kids’ table” together with the children of my cousins, slurping spaghetti and telling knock-knock jokes. Yes, they stayed up too late and then threw tantrums because they were tired. They ate too much sugar and bumped their heads, claiming it was another cousin’s fault. It was loud all the time, children shrieking, parents laughing, people banging pots and pans and dropping glasses and shouting over board-game victories. There were several temporarily “lost” dolls and even one trip to the emergency room, but there were also new cowboy hats and several trips to the ice cream shop, elk sleeping in the front yard, and, it bears mentioning more than once, THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS. As we flew home and I reflected on the trip, I remembered an essay I’d once read about Christmas by the writer Robert Fulghum, who says that Christmas “[is] just real life—only more of it all at once than usual.” Maybe that’s what traveling with children is, too. Fulghum writes: “And I suppose we will continue doing it all. Get frenzied and confused and frustrated and even mad. And also get excited and hopeful and quietly pleased. We will laugh and cry and pout and ponder… Hug and kiss and make a great mess. Spend too much. And somebody will always be there to upchuck or wet their pants…” Oh, yes. And yet, just as I continue to celebrate every crazy and beautiful holiday, I will continue to travel with my family again and again and again—next time with a pack of Post-it notes.


Family-friendly ski resorts

For some people, winter weather means shoveling snow, long slow commutes, and hopefully escaping to a Caribbean island or a Florida beach for a little while. But for others, winter is the absolute best time of year for every member of the family. Yes, ski season is in high gear across the country, and we're psyched to share some of America’s most family-friendly ski resorts. BRETTON WOODS, New Hampshire, recently received Liftopia’s Best in Snow Award for family-friendly skiing in the Northeast. It’s got a great bunny hill and beginner stretches plus plenty to keep intermediate skiers busy. They’ve also got ski school and childcare. Lift tickets from $51. CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN, Michigan, has been honored by Ski Magazine and Liftopia. It’s got award-winning kids programs like crafts and adventure activities, plus ski school, great on-site restaurants, and a spa for when Mom & Dad need a break from the powder. Lift tickets from $19 (that is an amazing deal). KEYSTONE, Colorado, is where my wife and I took our kids to learn to ski. The teachers were patient and smart, the Rocky Mountains are a beautiful place to learn, and Keystone has an awe-inspiring gondola ride that will thrill the kids. My daughters really loved the sleigh ride dinner and the epic snow fort at the resort's Kidtopia activity area. Every parent will love that kids ski free at Keystone if you stay at least two nights, no exceptions, no blackout dates. Lift tickets from $62.


Deal of the Day: Your Mt. Rushmore Summer Vacation Starts NOW

Is this the summer you finally see Mt. Rushmore up close? We've got a deal from Travelzoo that nabs you two nights in midsummer at The Lodge at Mt. Rushomore from $169. The lodge is minutes from the monument, one of America's must-see sites, and this deal saves you up to 50 percent off typical midsummer rates. You'll enjoy two nights at a TripAdvisor four-star hotel plus complimentary hot breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi. Families will especially love the heated indoor pool and quick drive (and complimentary parking pass!) to Mt. Rushmore National Monument. And exploring other local attractions such as the Wild West town of Deadwood, Badlands National Park, and the iconic Wall Drug ("America's Favorite Rest Stop") makes this an unforgettable summer vacation. To learn more or book your stay, click here.