5 Steps for a Fun-Filled Family Vacation

A few years ago, my husband and I took our kids on a family trip to Paris. Our daily itinerary was like a game of tug-of-war. We’d drag the kids to the Louvre. They’d drag us to the carousel in the Champ de Mars. We’d drag them to a bistro. They’d drag us next door to the Tuileries Gardens for a pony ride.

As rewarding as it is, family travel presents some unique challenges. It's not easy to accommodate a wide range of ages and interests on vacation, but it's not impossible either. Here are five ways to make sure everyone has fun.

1. Don’t just stand there

Unlike adults, kids need to interact with their environment in order to enjoy it. Beautiful scenery is not enough. Take Table Mountain in Cape Town for example. To adults the breathtaking 360-degree view is the main event. To kids—who prefer the very steep and surprisingly swift cable car ride to the summit—it’s just a footnote.

Seek out dynamic ways to see the sights. Instead of admiring Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge from dry land, jump in a kayak and skim over its streams. Don’t just hike through the jungles of Belize, fly over them on a zip line.

2. Take a walk on the wild side

Kids and animals go together like peanut butter and jelly. Seeing elk, moose, and bald eagles in the wild is undeniably exciting, but why not get even closer? In Yellowstone, you can catch and band songbirds. On the southernmost coast of Spain, you can ride horses on the beach and swim with sea lions. These are the things your kids will remember.

A word of warning: Don’t promise animals if you can’t deliver. Last summer, I persuaded my reluctant 6-year-old to take a 2-hour hike through the fantastic limestone formations at El Torcal in Andalusia by telling him we would “almost definitely” see mountain goats. We didn’t, and those were two of the longest hours of my life.

3. Be flexible

When you’re packing for your trip, be sure to leave your unrealistic expectations at home. Kids can’t cover as much ground as adults, and tire more easily. Also, they’re not particularly interested in old buildings, and you never know where or when they’ll hit the wall.

On that same trip to Spain last summer we only got to see about half of the Alhambra due to blisters, heat, and lack of kid interest. After staggering around for an hour or two, we cut our losses and retreated to our hotel. Playing chess in the shade by the pool wasn’t quite what I had planned, but it wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon either. Family travel is all about compromise.

4. Do your homework

Tying your trip to your child’s school learning is another great way to capture their interest and enrich your journey. Investigate the ruins of ancient civilizations in Egypt or Peru. Introduce your budding wildlife biologist to a marine iguana in the Galapagos Islands. The world is your classroom.

If you’re heading to a foreign country, pre-trip language lessons are another way for your kids to connect with their destination. Even mastering a few simple phrases will add fun and build confidence.

5. Go with an expert

How much do you know about Moorish history? What about the feeding patterns of grizzly bears? The mating habits of great white sharks? The social lives of African penguins?

An experienced guide can tailor your itinerary to your family’s specific ages and interests, and handle all the transportation details too. You’ll learn more, see more, and relax more than you would on your own. And after all, isn’t that the whole point?

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