It’s hard to believe we have been traveling as a family for almost 19 years, and as they say, it happened in the blink of an eye. We now have three teens, and we have learned quite a bit through the years about which types of trips appeal to which ages. Places we visited with a toddler would surely elicit an eye roll from the teens, and activities we enjoy today are certainly not safe enough for a young child. If you are looking for the best places to spend the eighteen summers of childhood with your kids, these 18 trips to take before your kids turn 18 won’t disappoint.
Family Vacations to take Before Your Kids Turn 18
1. Enjoy all the thrills of a theme park
Theme parks might seem like an easy choice for a vacation with kids, but there are different parks that appeal to all ages. Disney of course probably should be on everyone’s must visit list with kids, but there are many smaller amusement parks around the world that are just as fun and exciting.
If you are traveling with an infant or toddler, head to the Disney parks and stay on property. There are many different price points for Disney hotels, so find one that’s in your budget because it will provide convenience and easy access. This is essential when traveling with toddlers and babies.
Older children might be looking to push the envelope when it comes to thrill rides and attractions. Before choosing a park, check the height restrictions for rides.
Consider the Six Flags theme parks, Universal resorts (don’t forget Volcano Bay waterpark in Orlando), Hershey Park, Cedar Point, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Holiday World. All of these have super fast roller coasters, unique attractions, and offer hours of family fun.
2. Plan a big city escape
If you live in the suburbs or out in the country, it might be fun to travel to the nearest big city and try a staycation. Many cities offer unique museums and attractions, fancy hotels, and fabulous restaurants.
Younger kids might enjoy visiting the local parks or simply riding the bus, subway, or taxi. Older children can explore the big city sights, try new restaurants, go shopping, or take a city tour. No matter which city you visit, kids will love exploring somewhere new.
Our favorite big cities have to be: Chicago (because we lived there for 14 years and it’s just awesome), Phoenix (because it’s massive and there’s so much to do in the area), and San Diego (tons to do outdoors and lots of sunshine).
3. Head to a dude ranch
If you have never been to a dude ranch, believe me, it’s so much more than riding horses all day long. For years my husband wanted a dude ranch vacation and for years, I resisted.
A few years ago we took the kids to Tumbling River Ranch outside Denver, and it made for some of our best travel memories.
Not only did we have the option of riding horses every day, we had a variety of activities at our disposal. There was fishing, skeet shooting, rock climbing, yoga, square dancing, hiking, and even a masseuse! Our accommodations were beautiful and the food was top notch. I still dream about those meals!
There are dude ranches across the US, and they all offer different lodging and activities. Start at the Dude Ranchers’ Association website which will help you find the right dude ranch for your family. There are ranches that take children as young as newborns (with designated sitters) and most ranches offer children’s programming.
Our kids were 11, 13, and 15 when we went to Tumbling River and they played games with staff, had a rodeo competition, and got up close with other animals on the ranch. It’s a vacation all ages will remember!
4. Visit the National Parks
There are currently 63 National Parks around the US, and each one offers a different experience for families. The most popular national parks by number of visitors include: Great Smoky Mountains NP, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is within one day driving distance for 2/3 of the US population which makes it the easiest to reach and most popular of the parks.
This year there are six National Park Free Days (free entrance for everyone), free admission for service members and their families, and every fourth grader can get a free pass through Every Kid Outdoors (5th graders are included through August 2021).
If your family loves National Parks, be sure to check out the best national parks for families around the world and don’t forget that visiting National Parks in winter is an amazing way to avoid the crowds!
5. Try a safari/wildlife encounter
Is a safari on your family travel bucket list? It certainly should be, but if a safari in Tanzania is out of the budget, consider a wildlife encounter closer to home. Those in the western United States might want to stay at Safari West in Santa Rosa, California where you can take a safari tour and stay on property.
One of our kids’ all time favorite experiences was bathing elephants in French Lick, Indiana. Yep, we got out the big old scrub brushes and gave them a bath. My kids still talk about it to this day.
Wildlife encounters that need to be on your travel with kids list include: snorkeling with fish (Hawaii is a good option), taking a cruise of the Galapagos Islands to see countless exotic animals, or swimming with the manatees in Florida.
Another idea would be a whale watching excursion. We’ve been able to see whales in the wild in New Brunswick, Costa Rica, La Paz, and Puerto Vallarta, and each time it happens, it takes our breath away. No matter which animal encounter you choose, kids are sure to love it!
6. Take a beach vacation
Beaches offer an escape and a chance to simply be with family. Put away the devices, slather on the sunscreen, and head out for a day of sand castle building and splashing in the waves.
7. Rent an RV and hit the road
This is one excursion I have not been brave enough to tackle, but my kids are insisting we need to try it this summer. RV road trips have increased in popularity in the last year, but there are still some things you need to know before renting an RV.
A lot of planning goes into renting an RV, including learning how to maneuver the vehicle, which roads to take, and finding places to stay. However, traveling by RV saves the cost of a hotel, you don’t have to eat out at restaurants, and there’s space for everyone to hang out together at night. It might just be the best way to travel and kids of all ages can enjoy it.
8. Go on a cruise
Obviously now is not the time to take a cruise, but we have taken a couple of different ones and each time we were pleasantly surprised. Disney cruise ships tend to have everything you could want as a parent.
There’s kids clubs, a movie theater, pool parties, character meet and greets, and even fireworks. It’s hard to beat that.
Other cruise companies have similar offerings including a kids club, a variety of restaurants, and entertainment. If you are looking for a low effort trip, a cruise can be a great option since you only have to unpack once and someone else is doing the driving (or steering in this case).
9. Find your roots
My family knows I have an unhealthy addiction to genealogy. When I’m not working, ancestry research takes up a lot of my time. Heritage travel or ancestry travel, is traveling to the homeland of your ancestors.
You don’t have to travel overseas to show your kids where they come from. Consider planning a trip to your hometown and showing your kids where you lived, where you went to school, and where you used to hang out.
Older kids will probably appreciate this more, but all ages can have fun seeing where their parents grew up and listening to stories about their childhood.
10. Experience a group tour
Let me start by saying, group tours aren’t for everyone. However, when you’re visiting an unfamiliar destination or want someone else to do the planning, they might be a good idea.
In February 2020, we took a trip to Morocco with National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures and we loved exploring a place with local tour guides. We experienced things we would have never planned on our own, and ate at all of the best restaurants.
We also took a trip with Adventures by Disney to Costa Rica, which allowed us to see a lot of Costa Rica in a short amount of time. The Disney tour guides taught us so much about the country and we had amazing adventures white water rafting, zip lining, and seeking out local animals like sloths.
So if you want to explore a new destination, have someone else do the planning, and take the stress out of travel, a group tour might be for you.
11. Hit the slopes for a ski vacation
When our kids were little, we compared the cost of a ski vacation (complete with ski school, accommodations, and airfare) to the cost of a trip to Italy. And guess what? Italy was cheaper, so that’s the option we took.
After that trip we decided it would be best to teach our kids to ski in the Midwest and once they didn’t need ski school, it would be time to travel out west to ski.
A ski vacation doesn’t mean you have to ski the entire time. Many ski towns offer dog sledding, snow tubing, cross country skiing, and even ice skating. The good news is your kids will be exhausted after a day on the slopes and should sleep soundly.
As your kids get older and their skills improve, it’s fun to either partner up or let them go off on their own while parents relax at the lodge. I call that a win-win for everyone.
12. Help out on a volunteer vacation
This is probably best suited for older children, but it doesn’t mean younger ones can’t be included. A volunteer vacation involves spending some part of your vacation helping others in need.
Many churches offer summer service trips for their youth groups, and some offer family trips, you just need to do your research to find the right one.
Check out these organizations for ways to do good on your next vacation. At Give Kids the World Village in Kissimmee, Florida, families can volunteer to work shifts at the village so critically ill children and their families can make unforgettable vacation memories.
Global Volunteers has opportunities around the world for families to volunteer on vacation. Projects range from teaching English to housing assistance so families can choose the trip that best fits what they are looking for in a volunteering vacation.
13. Learn about another culture
Depending on where you live, it might be quite easy to experience another culture. When we lived in Chicago we were able to enjoy the vibrant neighborhoods throughout the city that retain ties to their homeland.
In Chinatown our kids could practice their Mandarin skills. Greektown has the National Hellenic Museum featuring everything from Greek history to immigrant stories. Pilsen has the National Museum of Mexican Art and a large variety of traditional shops and restaurants.
If you want to try an international destination where families can experience a new culture, there are endless options. Some of our favorites include Europe, Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean. If your child is studying a language in school it would be perfect to try a destination where they can practice their acquired skills.
14. Head out an adventure vacation
In our house, every day is an adventure, but there are some destinations that lend themselves to being outdoors all the time. Children can learn new skills and see things from unique perspectives.
Our family has always enjoyed the state and National Parks, and would recommend the newest National Park, West Virginia’s New River Gorge. Here families can try white water rafting, paddle boarding, and hiking through some spectacular scenery.
Another idea would be Costa Rica which offers everything from zip lining to white water rafting to swimming in hot springs. There’s also beaches, snorkeling, and whale watching. A trip to Costa Rica offers enough adventure to last a lifetime!
15. Visit a historical destination
As a former educator, this has always been one of my favorite types of travel. My kids however would probably disagree. If you are planning to visit a destination with kid friendly museums, consider your audience.
Young children will usually not have the patience nor appetite for large amounts of reading and older teens will feign boredom. I think the sweet spot for a historical vacation is ages 9-13, but it’s different for every child.
Whether you are traveling in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere, there’s always an opportunity to learn about the local history. So start by exploring your own backyard.
Ask other families, try online research, or ask at the local library. These places can all provide helpful information about historical places and events that have taken place locally.
Those wanting to learn about US history should consider Washington, D.C., Boston, San Antonio, Gettysburg, Memphis, St. Augustine, New York, Williamsburg, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Each city has played a significant role in making the US what it is today.
16. Immerse yourself in a farm stay
Farm stays are becoming more popular as people look for experiences away from the crowds. Harvest Hosts will pair RV users with over 1500 properties where they can park their RV and stay at a local farm. Eleanor’s in Kansas has a home you can rent on a sunflower farm.
Farm stays in Europe are quite popular and we loved our stay at Fattoria Corzano e Paterno where the kids could play with the farm animals and learn about the cheese they produced. We all loved the opportunity to stay on a farm and see everything that went into its operation.
17. Make time for that bucket list trip
It seems these days everyone has a travel bucket list a mile long. We definitely have one. If your family budget allows, consider asking your kids where they would like to go on vacation. A bucket list trip doesn’t have to break the bank, and the kids might surprise you with their choices.
18. Take a road trip to look at colleges
We are in the thick of college visits, and have made several road trips to check out potential schools for my seniors. During this time, it has been essential to get creative since many campuses aren’t offering in-person campus tours.
We have been able to connect with current students or locals at each school we visited which has truly enhanced the experience.
When you are ready to explore colleges with your child, consider making these one-on-one trips if possible. I have learned so much about my son through this process and enjoy the quality time together.
College might not be the plan for everyone, so if your child is looking elsewhere after graduation, consider booking a trip with them to a destination of their choice. I guarantee it will be worth it.
We might only have eighteen summers with our kids before they fly from the nest, but there will surely be more adventures in our future. Through the years we have been blessed to take these trips before our kids turn 18 and we hope you have the opportunity for some of the same experiences.
Book Your Flights
You can find discounted fares using sites like Momondo or Skyscanner. If you want to keep an eye on discount fares, we suggest signing up for Scott’s Cheap Flights, a daily newsletter with flight sales around the world.
If you travel frequently, consider investing in a Priority Pass for airport lounge access. It’s nice to have a space where you can relax before your flight.
Book Your Accommodation
We regularly use Hotels.com and Expedia.com to find lodging when we travel. It’s a great way to compare vacation rentals, hotels, and resorts.
If your family knows they want to stay in a vacation rental, we recommend looking at VRBO and Plum Guide.
Book Your Transportation
For rental car agencies, try Rentalcars.com. We tend to use Hertz simply for the quality of service.
Book Your Tours and Travel Photos
We regularly used companies like Viator and GetYourGuide to book tours when we travel. Both have great communication and a large variety of activities that work for all ages.
If you’re visiting a city with multiple attractions, be sure to check out a discount pass, such as CityPASS or Go City. Tiqets is another place to purchase tickets for attractions.
Context Travel is another option and they offer more educational based activities. The former teacher in me loves their tours.
One of our favorite things to do annually is take photos with Flytographer. They have photographers around the world and we’ve used them on four separate occasions. This is our favorite travel souvenir.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
With the state of travel these days, it’s important to have some type of travel insurance to cover any unforeseen accidents, illnesses, threat or cancellations. We always travel with insurance and would recommend SquareMouth, Travelex, or Medjet as good options. And if you want to compare different insurance options, use Travel Insurance Master to find the best policy for your group.