The best vacation spots for families should offer a variety of exciting activities for everyone, no matter their age. However, trying to plan the perfect vacation can become overwhelming with the amount of choice available. Luckily, we've rounded up the best vacation spots for families in and around the USA to help you find the right vacation for you.
Juliana Shallcross says that, “it is true that the earlier you book, the more you can save. It won’t be the lowest hotel rates or airfares but it definitely won’t be the maximum that gets charged during spring break or the festive season. I have clients that will book their holidays as soon as the school schedule comes out.”
Juliana Shallcross, a travel advisor based in LA, advises that when you're planning a vacation for your family, the best place to start is with your budget. “How much you want to spend largely impacts where you'll end up going and the types of accommodation you'll stay in. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a smaller budget equals a lesser vacation but having a firm idea of your travel budget when planning helps you decide what is most important and what you could probably skip.”
To give you an overview of some of the different types of family vacations you could be booking, our guide covers ideas across the USA, Canada and Mexico. From theme parks and modern city breaks to natural wonders, we’ve researched them all. For each destination, we will cover the pros and cons and snapshot the family-friendly attractions and activities.
Best vacation spots for families
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Yellowstone National Park is one of the oldest, largest and best-known national parks in the United States. Spanning over 2.2 million acres, it’s a beautiful mix of wildlife, thousands of geothermal features and iconic photo spots that welcome visitors year-round.
The key to a successful family vacation here is planning, as some entrances to the park and activities may be seasonal and subject to change. Meanwhile, if you want to stay in one of the lodges or campgrounds in the park then you need to book early. Alongside accommodation, there are dining options throughout, ranging from fine dining to snack stops and packed lunches.
The main road or ‘Grand Loop’ around the park is a mammoth 4-7 hour trek, but it’s designed on a figure-of-eight style, so you can just take in part of the route and still see lakes, canyons, falls and hot springs. The National Park App and on-site notice boards have information on activities, guided tours and junior ranger programs. Pick up a Young Scientist Challenge Booklet at Canyon Visitor Center or Old Faithful Visitor Center for in-center and field-based challenges, with a reward at the end. There are also some child-friendly stops, especially around the Geysers and marked trails.
Our picks include the Upper Geyser Basin which has an easy-to-navigate boardwalk and the 2-mile Yellow Stone Lake Overlook trip. With longer routes for older children, winter sports for adults, and plenty of ways to learn more about this geographical wonder, this is a great family-friendly vacation spot.
With warm sunny weather, family-friendly attractions and plenty of activities, San Diego is one of the best vacation spots for families. Whether you and your children like theme parks, museums, nature walks or spending time on the beach, San Diego has some options for you.
There are places to stay across the whole city from budget to luxury, and many of these have sports facilities and kids programs to entertain you on-site.
Described on their website as a place where ‘culture, science, and nature collide’, San Diego's Balboa Park has everything from a miniature train, gardens and forests, to the famous San Diego Zoo. There are 17 museums scattered across the park, including The Fleet Science Center, and with Balboa Park Explorer Passes to help save money on multiple admissions, this could be a good option for a day out.
Elsewhere there’s plenty to occupy nature lovers, shoppers, and history fans. For shopping head to Seaport Village a modern shopping area with waterfront dining. Meanwhile, for a touch of history, step on board the Star of India sailing ship. Our beach choices include Coronado Beach for swimming and water sports, La Jolla Cove as a picnic spot, and Mission Beach for the beautiful views and laid-back vibes.
San Diego International Airport is just 6km from downtown San Diego, and a bit further to the Old Town area, so you won't be far from all the Californian family fun.
Fresh mountain air, beautiful scenery and a town packed full of alpine charm – Banff is a wonderfully charming Canadian vacation spot. All ages are welcome here, but it's worth noting that the type of vacation you have will change with the seasons.
Experience Banff in the summer and cycle the 17km Banff Legacy Trail, or take in the local area by boat aboard a Lake Minnewanka Cruise. Learn more about local history and wildlife, or take your children on a junior explorer cruise with games and activities aimed at under 12’s.
A short trip from the centre of Banff will bring you to Sulphur Mountain, which offers a spectacular gondola ride to the peak, along with Banff Upper Hot Springs. Swim in these unique thermal waters and enjoy the view.
During winter Banff transforms into a ski and snowboard haven, with popular areas such as Lake Louise Ski Resort and Mount Norquay offering ski schools for all ages and abilities. Winter is also the best time to view the Northern Lights, so plan well and you may witness this natural spectacle.
Keep your eyes open for family passes and group ticket rates, and the attractions that offer a free Roam Transit Network return journey when you show your attraction ticket to the bus driver. Head to Banff Avenue, the main street for shops, boutiques and souvenirs, and check in to an authentic mountain lodge-style hotel for the ultimate Rockies vacation.
Toronto is a city famed for its towering skyscrapers – and one of its most iconic landmarks is the CN Tower, which features a revolving restaurant and several viewing platforms. The Toronto CityPASS will give you discounted rates for this, along with Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Casa Loma Castle, The Royal Ontario Museum and Toronto Zoo or Science Center.
Sports enthusiasts will enjoy the Hockey Hall of Fame in Downtown Toronto celebrating the players, trophies and history of the NHL Ice Hockey League. If a visit there inspires you to get active, then Tyler Creek Park’s biking and hiking trails, Colonel Samuel Smith Park’s ice skating trail or the KidsTown Water Park can deliver. For a mix of lively and chilled outdoor fun take a ferry to Toronto Islands, three connected islands that offer beaches, bike trails and an amusement park.
Don’t forget to try some local poutine, Beaver Tails fried pastries, or for vegan and Mexican snacks try Kensington Market. The fresh bread and artisan goods at St Lawrence Market are other great options when you need to refuel. Away from the markets, StrollTo, Cultural Hotspot Tours and ArtworxTo Tours are self-guided free walking tour websites that will show you even more of the city, its stories and public art.
Many of the main attractions are within walking distance and Toronto has a subway system if needed. With a vibrant entertainment area, and multicultural feel (It even has a little Italy and Greek Town), Toronto is an interesting option for a family vacation.
Riviera Maya is a group of Mexican towns located on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico. These towns include Paraiso Beach, Puerto Morelos, Playa Car, Tulum and Puerto del Carmen, the largest town and point of reference for this area. There are various shuttle options and taxis available from Cancun International Airport, which could take 20-60 minutes depending on where you’re staying. For the most settled weather in this tropical climate, consider visiting from December to May.
This area is a great option for bringing history alive, and one of the best places to see Mayan Ruins. Chichen Itza is one of the most popular sites with tourists and may be good for a day trip if you don’t mind the crowds. Other closer options include the Archaelogical Zone in Tulum, including the ‘Temple of Descending God’, and the main pyramid at Cobá Ruins.
The Riviera Maya is also known for its eco-parks, water sports such as scuba diving and more child-friendly activities such as snorkeling or dolphin spotting boat tours. Jungle Buggy tours through the Mexican jungle are also a popular choice with families wanting to see some nature and spot local wildlife.
Riviera Maya scores highly on paper for its mix of all-inclusive hotels, tempting beaches, water sports, and historical tourism opportunities. Add in natural experiences into the mix, fresh seafood dishes, tacos and tostadas, and this comes out on top as a great vacation spot for families.
Busy, bustling and full of stories, New York has to be one of the ultimate city break destinations. It has a lot to offer families, whether you're musical theatre fans, history buffs or theme park enthusiasts. In terms of booking a hotel, we'd recommend looking near where the largest concentration of attractions you want to visit is. Try looking at areas around Times Square, Midtown East or Manhattan for child-friendly hotels.
Every neighborhood and attraction has its own character here, from arty-hip Brooklyn with its Brooklyn Bridge Park and Botanical Gardens to sporty Queens, home to the US Open Tennis contest and New York Mets Baseball Team. Head to Midtown Manhattan for the Empire State Building (best visited in the morning before the rush), and winter ice skating at the Rockefeller Center. Sticking with the famous sites, Times Square is a great place to shop, people watch and enjoy free entertainment.
Lesser known, but equally as fascinating are the sights and sounds that await at the Coney Island Boardwalk. This is the place for funnel cakes, and seafood, along with weekly fireworks and rollercoasters at Luna Park. Other options are a ferry across to Staten Island to visit the zoo and Snug Harbor Cultural Center or a trip to Central Park. Spot famous movie locations, have a ride on the carousel or see a show at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater.
Whether you want to uncover the historical past of New York, chill out in one of its famous green spaces or view the city from up high, New York has a lot to offer all ages.
The Grand Canyon is a natural wonder that needs no introduction, as it's the site of some of the oldest exposed rocks on earth. It’s a world-famous living geology lesson. Excursions at the foot of the gorge and hiking routes such as the Bright Angel Trail are widely reported in travel guides but aren't that family-friendly. However, there are still ways to make a trip here work if you have young children.
All the family will enjoy a trip on the Grand Canyon Railway, departing from Williams, Arizona. This two-hour scenic trip offers great views, wildlife spotting, folklore and music. Although it’s worth being aware of turbulence, helicopter rides from Las Vegas are also a good option if you want a shorter trip to the Canyon.
If you do want to spend some time on foot exploring, head to the Skywalk at the West Rim, where the glass bridge extends 70 ft over the Canyon. Head to Tusayan for the best choice of hotels, and the immersive IMAX canyon film at the National Geographic Center.
Pre-trip planning will help you make the most of a vacation here, from which airport to fly into, to where to spend the night, but all things considered, this is a natural wonder not to miss.
Niagara Falls are an iconic series of waterfalls on the Niagara River crossing the border between the United States and America. New York state and Ontario both have cities called Niagara Falls with their own attractions, hotels (some with river views) and other amenities, but we're focusing on the US side here. You will find several hotels near the Niagara Falls State Park entrance, shopping areas and pick-up points for various excursions.
Prepare to get wet at the famous Cave of the Winds viewing platforms, or the exciting Maid of the Mist boat tour. These boat trips are fully accessible for wheelchairs and run daily every 15 minutes. Offering a unique opportunity to go into the basin of the famous Horseshoe Falls, this is often labelled an experience not to miss.
To experience the falls and nearby water features from every angle, you can visit the ‘Behind the Falls’ viewing platform or walk a boardwalk alongside the rapids. There are also jet boat tours along the river if you haven’t had enough exhilaration.
Elsewhere you will find winery tours for the adults, outlet shopping, a Rainforest Café and Hard Rock Café and, amongst the hotels, the Aquarium of Niagara. Here all the family can enjoy behind-the-scenes tours and animal encounters.
The Canadian side of Niagara Falls is easily accessible on foot, by bike, or by car. You just need to take a passport and toll fee with you if you want to explore.
Universal’s Orlando Resort is roughly located at the other end of the I-4 from Disney World in Orlando Florida. The resort features the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks, Volcano Bay Water Park, on-site hotels and the Universal City Walk entertainment district. In the surrounding area, you will find a Top Golf, Walmart and Orlando Premium Outlets.
Typically, you may not need as long here as you would at the Disney theme parks. A popular option is to stay at Disney, and book a night at a Universal on-site hotel for hotel guest early entry or express pass perks (this varies depending on the hotel).
The Universal theme parks are, to some extent, aimed more at adults and teenagers with the number of rollercoasters and thrill rides. However, there is still a fair amount to keep children entertained, from character interactions with Spiderman, play areas, water rides and big-name franchise areas.
All the family will enjoy the Simpsons and Seuss Landing areas. Exploring the Harry Potter-themed lands will be a huge hit with many children and adults alike as well. Fully themed from shops and rides to dining, small stage shows, Butterbeer, and occasional projection shows, this is one reason why Universal is so popular.
Walt Disney World in Florida has built up a reputation for being the ultimate family location ever since the first park Magic Kingdom opened in 1971. Now the Walt Disney World Resort comprises Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach Water Parks, Disney Springs shopping, dining, and entertainment and other added touches like crazy golf.
It’s safe to say you’d never be short of things to do on a holiday to this theme park paradise, but it does come at a price. Even with the option of staying off-site or taking advantage of special offers, a holiday to Disney World is quite an expensive proposition for many families and needs some planning.
Alongside normal dining reservations, at the time of writing there is a park reservation system in place, alongside Genie + and Lightning Lane paid-for systems to beat the queues on selected rides. There is lots of debate about whether these are worth it or needed among the Disney fan community, so it's best to read up before you travel.
Walt Disney World itself has so much to do for all ages and tastes, and you don’t have to be a Disney fan to enjoy it. From free activities and hidden Mickey hunts, water rides, and shows, to eating around the World at Epcot, every corner has something to offer.
What the expert says…
Theme Parks and destinations such as Orlando as a whole are very obviously geared up to kids, but we hope that these suggestions have shown you it’s possible to have a family-friendly vacation wherever you go; beach, state park, city or coast.
Juliana Shallcross has been reporting on the hotel and travel industry since 2005. She works as an LA based luxury travel advisor with Beyond Travel and chronicles all the best places to take kids on her website Trips & Giggles. Juliana works with clients booking many different types of vacations, and sees the benefit in going elsewhere other than the typical kid-friendly spots and all-inclusive resorts.
“Heading out to nature, whether it be exploring a national park or hitting the beach, or finding a small hiking trail, is a great way to enjoy being together and seeing new things. It also allows you to be in charge of what you do, rather than what you must do at a theme park. Renting a home versus staying in a hotel is another way to make a trip more family-friendly since you’ll be able to make your own meals and have more space.”
There are many ways to harness a spirit of adventure on holidays, but when you’re picking and choosing specific destinations to visit, our travel expert suggests looking for positive reviews. “Another tip is to choose places that are already well-recommended, either by a friend whose family has gone there or even by online reviews. It’s one thing to blaze a trail as an individual or as a couple, but it is definitely harder to do with kids. So picking a place that you know is already designated as good for families is a smart move.”
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