If you’re like me, you have a travel itch that has now rubbed off on your little ones. Years of family friendly vacations will do that!
For over a decade, I had a job that made me eligible for some really excellent hotel discounts and we have surely taken advantage of it with numerous family vacations over the years. To date, my nine-year old has visited nine U.S. states as well as Mexico and the Caribbean – all in her short lifetime.
Then, just yesterday, she asked me if our next vacation could be to Paris. After I ugly laughed for a while and told her she has a “champagne taste on a beer budget,” I started to feel that itch again… where will we go next time?
After all the quarantines and travel limitations that have come along with the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m guessing you’re also catching that travel bug right about now, right? Well, I’m here to help! Today, I’m going to outline some of our top family vacations to date, and discuss some of the highlights and downfalls when it comes to family fun and kid-friendly elements.
But you’re not off the hook! I want to hear YOUR best family vacation stories and your advice in the comments below. After all, I need some ideas for my next vacay since my itch needs to be scratched!
New York, NY
The Big Apple! This was my absolute favorite vacation in the continental U.S.
Manhattan is truly the center of the universe. Not really, but I can see why New Yorkers believe it is. The lights, the bustle, the commerce, and the FOOD were all so enchanting. Here are some highlights:
- Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Tour
- I loved visiting Liberty Island! The boat ride to the island was really peaceful with beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline. We also got some great up-close-and-personal photos with Lady Liberty that we will treasure forever. The tour we purchased included access to both Liberty Island and Ellis Island, but the kids fell apart on the boat ride between the two islands (complete with a tantrum face-down on the floor of the boat) so we had to skip Ellis Island. I forgave them eventually, those rotten kids!
- One World Trade Center
- Visiting ground zero of the 9/11/2001 attacks was incredibly moving. The beautiful fountain display at the location of the fallen towers is so peaceful. The 911 Memorial museum is nothing short of devastating. You will see recorded footage of the fateful day, artifacts salvaged from the wreckage, and you will hear actual recorded phone calls made by victims of the attacks. It was an incredibly moving experience, even for my girl, who was only seven at the time. We will always remember!
- Empire State Building
- The big one! While the lines to ride the elevators up were long, we didn’t actually wait an excruciating amount of time. At the top, you can take in breathtaking views of Manhattan that are unmatched anywhere else in the city. There’s nothing like the view of vast Central Park surrounded by thick rows of buildings. Simply amazing!
- It’s New York so, of course, the food is phenomenal. With kids, however, you don’t always get to opt for the fine dining experiences, but I was OK with that. There is such a wealth of options when it comes to food, you don’t really need to go fancy to get the best food of your life. One of the days, we went to Shake Shack for lunch. I know this is a fast food chain that’s all over the country, but at the time, we didn’t have one in good ol’ Milwaukee so this was on our New York bucket list.
- If you want to avoid eating a lot of fast food and Chinese takeout during your visit, there are plenty of options for cleaner eating as well. There are mini-markets on every street corner and we had one right down the block from where we were staying. We stopped there frequently for fresh fruit and pastries in the morning and deli sandwiches or salads for lunch (which were amazing).
- Aside from that, we grabbed our bites from a lot of street vendors. And, of course, we ate a lot of pizza. Let me rephrase that. We ate an obscene amount of delicious, delectable, cheesy, greasy, thin-crust, New York style pizza.
- Yes, I know this is not a very comprehensive food list from my visit to the food capital of the world. I have no regrets.
Some things to remember in New York:
- Getting around in Manhattan is a bit of an issue. Taking a cab everywhere is super pricey and walking is not always ideal with kids. We got Metro passes and downloaded the MyTransit app (links below) and we used the subway for ALL of our travel throughout the city. It’s a good idea to map out your subway routes beforehand according to your daily itinerary. Remember that you may need to take two or three subways to get to where you need to be. Watch out for subway rats! They exist, trust me.
- Be sure to schedule some time in your daily itinerary for resting up. Even if you take the subway everywhere, there is still a TON of walking and your little ones will get tired, fast! If you schedule too many sites in one day, you’ll end up skipping something great like I did (Sorry, Ellis Island, maybe next time).
Truly, every American should visit our nation’s capital at least once. This is where the magic happens in our country! I felt that patriotic pang in my heart the moment I stepped off the plane…
- The Monuments
- Obviously, the monuments are a must-see. We visited the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. They were really beautiful and peaceful. Plus, we got some great pics for the Insta.
- War Memorials
- Memorials for WWI, WWII, Korean, and Vietnam wars are a great stop, even for the kids. My daughter was really moved seeing all of the tributes to the fallen soldiers and the long, long lists of names. My dad was with us and he found the name of a friend he lost to the Vietnam war. This was a really great way for my daughter to learn about the true sacrifice our service members make for our freedom!
- Holocaust Museum – This was a life-changing experience for me. It gives you such a moving education on this horrible event in history. You may be hesitant to bring the kiddos along on this one, but they actually have a wonderful kid-friendly exhibit called “The Daniel Story” which walks children through the Holocaust from the prospective of a Jewish child. It’s really educational but free of disturbing images, etc.
- Museum of the Bible – This one was really cool! There are a lot of different floors in this museum and we didn’t get to visit all of them. We did get to see some really cool exhibits, though. The one my daughter loved the most was the The Stories of the Bible exhibit which allows you to walk the streets of Nazareth as it would have looked in Jesus’ day.
- Natural History Museum – I can’t speak to this one too much as we only went in to see the Hope Diamond. I did get to see the beautiful gem and I added it to my Christmas list for this year. Here’s hoping!
- White House Tour
- Visit the President’s house? Sign me up! You really only get to see the Residence floor where antique furniture setups are displayed from administrations past as well as some other rooms, but it’s still worth it. Just make sure you book your tour well in advance (like, three months) since you have to get approved by your Member of Congress in either the House or Senate. There’s something about those pearl-white columns that makes your heart soar like an eagle!
Some things to remember in Washington D.C.:
- Your hotel will undoubtedly be a good distance outside of the national mall. While you could certainly rent a car, parking is tricky around the monuments. We took Ubers everywhere and it was actually really economical.
- All the museums are FREE!!!
Want to visit multiple tropical destinations in one fell swoop? Want to do it on the cheap? Cruising is the best way to get the most bang for your buck. It may not be for everyone (seasickness is a thing, guys!), but it really was a great experience for me and my little girl.
- Royal Caribbean 4-Night Cruise (Cococay & Nassau)
- Cococay is an incredibly beautiful island! It’s actually owned by Royal Caribbean and it is simply dreamy. While there is a waterpark on the island, it costs extra so we didn’t do it. However, there is no shortage of free family fun on this island with its white sandy beaches, fun activities, and FREE FOOD! When the ship docks, try to get to the beach as early as possible since the complimentary beach chairs are first-come/first-serve. You can also pay a pretty penny to rent a luxury cabana – I was super jealous of those people.
- Nassau is a little… less enticing than Cococay, if I’m being honest. We didn’t book an excursion so we just strolled around the city and visited a public beach. It was no Cococay, but it was sufficient. Beach chairs and umbrellas were available to rent at the public beach but we opted to sit on our towels. Nassau has a “bustling city” vibe and there were some pretty sketchy areas that we encountered as we strolled around the streets to shop. People drive their cars a bit more aggressively so be on your guard when crossing streets. If you’re going to shop, definitely barter! They know you’re a tourist and they know they can get more money from you than that trinket is worth. Just sayin’. A note from me: If I were to visit Nassau again, I would book an excursion instead of winging it.
Some things to remember when cruising:
- If you’re leaving the country on a cruise, adults will need a passport but children under 16 do not (at the time of this post, of course). You just need to bring a copy of their birth certificate to prove their country of residence. It’s always safer to have a passport for them, of course, but I procrastinated and failed to apply for my daughter’s with enough time.
- Make sure to check the ship’s schedule for family-friendly entertainment and plan your day around it. There were times that I procrastinated on this as well and we ended up missing some fun activities. I had to make it up to my baby girl by letting her eat a ridiculous amount of complimentary soft serve.
- Bring Dramamine. Just do it.
Mall of America (Minneapolis, MN)
To be honest, I didn’t expect this trip to be as fun as it was. It’s just a mall, after all. How fun could it be? Well, it’s not your typical mall, you see.
- Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park
- They have an indoor theme park! My girl absolutely loved it. It’s worth it to get the day pass so the kiddos can enjoy unlimited rides.
- Rock of Ages Blacklight Mini-Golf
- This was super cute! Black lights, retro themes, and nine holes. What more could you ask for from mini-golf?
- Rainforest Café – A tropical paradise with a side of fries, please! My girl loved the dancing gorillas.
- Bubba Gump Shrimp – Run, Forest! Great shrimp. ‘Nuff said.
- Shopping (of course)
- Crayola Experience – See how crayons are made and do some fun crafts with these waxy beauties! You get to make some really unique art projects, like making and naming your own crayon. My daughter named hers “Unicorn Purple.”
- Build-A-Bear Workshop – This was the highlight of my daughter’s trip! I had never been to a Build-A-Bear shop, but it is such a cute experience. The kids pick which animal they want (they have more than just bears!). Then they get to pick out outfits, shoes and accessories which are incredibly adorable. After that, the wonderful team of “builders” walk your child through the process of bringing their animal to life. They put in the stuffing, along with any extras you want to add on, like a scented nose or a beating heart. Then they hand over the new-born animal to their new momma, complete with a birth certificate. So precious. Now my girl has her stuffed unicorn (named “Magic”) forever!
- American Girl – While we didn’t get to buy a doll (Build-A-Bear maxed out our budget for the day), this store was still really fun to walk around. We perused the fun displays that showed the dolls camping, cooking, playing tennis, and working out. Hats off to the creative team behind the floor displays!
Some things to remember at Mall of America:
- There’s not a ton to do in the area outside of the mall. Don’t waste your time – stay inside!
- There are lockers available at entrances for a fee so you don’t have to leave your shopping bags in the car (or lug them around all day).
- Parking is a beast, of course. Many of the hotels around the area have complimentary shuttles to and from the mall which was a really convenient option for us.
While Springfield isn’t necessarily at the top of the most visited cities in the U.S., we’ve visited several times since we have some extended family there. There are actually a few great family attractions in the Springfield area. Let’s dig in!
Lamberts is a super fun, family friendly local restaurant chain that has some pretty unique characteristics. They serve classic Southern American cuisine but you order only your main dish off the menu – side dishes are served table-side by the waitstaff. They walk around the dining area with big pots of fried potatoes, fried okra, and black-eyed peas. Oh, and warm rolls are available upon request but you should probably bring your baseball mitt since they will be THROWN at you from across the dining room. Don’t worry, the wonderful deliciousness of these rolls makes up for the shock you incur in their delivery method. They are super warm, soft, and melt right in your mouth. Heads up!
This one is great for the family, especially since there is NO walking required. Kick back and take a tour of America’s Ride-Thru Cave. Jeep-drawn trams take you through the beautiful and captivating cave formations and you get an educational experience as the guides explain the history and science behind formations like columns, draperies, and pearl stones.
Some things to remember in Springfield:
- If you’re going to Lamberts, plan to wait in line to be seated. I mean REALLY wait in line. Like, in a line out the door with a two hour wait. Outside in the hot sun. If you have young littles, bring some sunscreen, water, and some toys/activities!
- The Caverns get a bit chilly at around 60 degrees (F). Make sure you bring a sweater or a light jacket for the kiddos!
Share your travel stories!
Like I said, I’ve got a travel itch that needs to be scratched – and soon! Leave a comment below with some details on your favorite family vacation. Don’t forget to include a piece of wise advice on things to remember about your vacation spot – you’ll save me some headache, I’m sure.