Sadie dances on a beach in Jamaica. // © 2016 Monica Storch
Feature image (above): The Pittard children got to play with Maasai children on an Intrepid trip. // © 2016 Sarah Pittard
Not so long ago, children were expected to be seen and not heard. Today, nothing is further from the truth - especially when it comes to family travel. Happy kids equal happy parents, so guardians and travel agents alike are going straight to the source when planning a group journey. In fact, last year's HomeAway Kidfluencer Survey found that 85 percent of U.S. parents involve their kids in the vacation decision-making process.
The following 10 children range in age from 6 to 15 and have been fortunate enough to travel far and often. They took time out of their summer schedules to talk about their top trips and travel moments. Together, their insights provide a special window into what young travelers really love in a family adventure.
ALASKA - Tobias Whitley, 11
After many trips in the contiguous U.S., Tobias says a recent small-ship cruise in Alaska was downright exotic. He and his family sailed from Sitka to Ketchikan with Alaskan Dream Cruises, stopping to explore Sawyer Glacier via Zego boat, have an Alaskan king crab cookout and visit a native community in Kasaan, where he saw totem poles and had a tutorial in wood carving from a local guide. Because Alaskan Dream Cruises is owned by natives of the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan clan, the ship also provides access to native-owned Hobart Bay, where kids can helm their own Zego and disembark for bear viewing and berry picking.
Other Highlights: Whale watching, a sled dog meet-and-greet in Tongass National Forest and a stop in the tiny fishing town of Petersburg
Parent Pro Tip: “Cruising with so few people on a small ship offers a sense of personalization you won’t get on a large ship,” said Amy Whitley, Tobias’ mother and founder of family travel blog Pit Stops for Kids.
AMSTERDAM - Kahlo Smith, 15
While on a two-week European foray with her family, Kahlo explored the parks, bikeways and museums of Amsterdam for a full week. She recommends pedaling around the bike-friendly city as much as you can or perhaps taking the metro to get a glimpse of local life. Best of all, if you need anything, the Dutch are more than willing to come to your aid, she says.
Other Highlights: Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum
Food for Thought: For a sit-down meal, try Restaurant Amsterdam, which is set in a refurbished water-pumping station and specializes in seafood such as steamed mackerel on toast and shrimp croquettes. Afterward, find a street stall selling stroopwafel, crispy waffle cookies stuck together with caramel-like syrup.
AUSTIN, TEXAS - Jacob Friedman, 15
Even though this trip centered around helping his older brother visit a potential college, Jacob was thrilled to be in Austin — he’s an aspiring chef and was eager to dig into the city’s food scene. He particularly loved a progressive feast organized by local operator Austin Eats Food Tours.
“My favorite stop was at La Barbecue,” Jacob said. “Most people wait hours in line, but we got to walk right up.”
Other Highlights: Congress Avenue Bridge, home to the largest urban bat colony in North America
Hotel to Book: Lone Star Court, a retro-inspired boutique hotel set slightly away from downtown Austin. Amenities include fire pits, a pool, on-site food trucks and complimentary bike rentals.
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - Brooklyn and Bailey Stevenett, 11 and 8
The Stevenett sisters have ancestral roots in Denmark — their mother was born in Copenhagen and has siblings still living there today. The girls’ favorite thing to do in the capital is playing at Tivoli Gardens amusement park, which Brooklyn calls “a Danish version of Disneyland.” Bailey recommends trying Danish pastries and chocolate and seeing The Little Mermaid, a bronze statue inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Visiting the original Legoland is a priority for their return trip.
Other Highlights: The changing of the guards at royal palace Amalienborg. The girls loved watching the men march and play trumpets in their fuzzy hats.
Parent Pro Tip: Set aside time to do two things locals do: Explore the 17th-century waterfront entertainment district of Nyhavn and have a picnic on the shoreline of any of Copenhagen’s lakes.
GREAT BRITAIN - Wade Slatcher, 10
Touring Great Britain was magical for Wade. In England, he followed in the footsteps of Harry Potter with local company Muggle Tours and reenacted 17th-century life at Hampton Court. Once in Edinburgh, he and his family participated in the Hogmanay, Scotland’s epic New Year’s celebration.
Other Highlights: Wade loved visiting Warner Bros. Studio outside of London and drinking butterbeer, which he says tastes like “liquid caramel mixed with butter.”
Food for Thought: If you’ve rented a car — which Wade’s mother recommends for those exploring beyond London — consider heading to Exeter to seek out traditional eats such as meat pies and Yorkshire pudding.
ICELAND - Hannah Gruber, 12
Iceland wins Hannah’s vote due to its unique geography and opportunities for animal encounters. While traveling there with her parents, Hannah hiked to hidden waterfalls and joined Dogsledding Iceland for a romp across a glacier, which she says was “a dream come true.”
Hotel to Book: The nautical-themed Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina, which offers family rooms with double-size bunk beds
Parent Pro Tip: Tamara Gruber, founder of family travel blog We3Travel, says that planning in advance is crucial for those bound for Iceland, as family-friendly accommodations are limited and most hotels book up to six months in advance. Also, be prepared for lots of driving.
ITALY - Bennett Slatcher, 12
An avid reader, Bennett regularly prepares for a trip by reading literature related to the destination — take Jane Sutcliffe’s Stone Giant, for instance.
The book tells the story of how Michaelangelo turned an abandoned block of marble into the David statue, and reading it made Florence’s Uffizi Gallery an enchanting stop for Bennett. Similarly, touring Rome’s Colosseum and Forum brought Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians series to life.
Other Highlights: Climbing the stairs to the top of the Duomo in Florence and watching street performers in Rome’s Jewish Quarter
Parent Pro Tip: Because hotels in Italy tend to be small and pricey, Bennett’s mom, Julia — founder of travel concierge Inspire World Travel — recommends that families rent an apartment instead.
JAMAICA - Sadie Storch, 8
Beaches Negril in Jamaica has plenty of on-site entertainment options, but Sadie particularly enjoyed getting off property to volunteer with the Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts International. She delivered school supplies to a nearby school; worked with students her own age on letter and sound recognition; and participated in a beach cleanup at Negril Marine Park.
Food for Thought: Sadie also sampled lionfish as part of the foundation’s mission to teach local fishermen how to safely catch the species, as it has rapidly grown in number and is threatening marine life.
Parent Pro Tip: Don’t sign up for just any voluntourism project: Consider your child’s age, physical capability and interests, and make sure the trip includes down time.
“Sadie loved volunteering and doing some good in the world, but she also felt like it was a vacation, since we had time to explore and play at the resort,” said Monica Storch, Sadie’s mother and editor of the Macaroni Kid Manhattan East Side blog.
KENYA - Will and Charlie Pittard, 8 and 6
The Pittards spent 10 days in Kenya, visiting Nairobi on their own and then Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara on a family adventure itinerary with Intrepid Travel. One year later, Charlie still squeals with delight when she describes petting a baby elephant at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Will loved playing soccer with Maasai kids his age and enjoyed learning about their traditions, from hunting with clubs to eating using stones.
Hotel to Book: All 45 rooms at Hemingways Nairobi, a luxury plantation-style hotel, have balconies overlooking the Ngong Hills.
Parent Pro Tip: “People thought that I shouldn’t bring kids this young to Kenya,” said Sarah Pittard, Will and Charlie’s mother and founder of the Solo Mom Takes Flight blog. “It turned out marvelously. I recommend not waiting until your kids are teens — you miss letting them see things through such an innocent viewpoint.”
NEW YORK CITY - Aden Smith, 12
A lover of big cities and skyscrapers, Aden happily took on the Big Apple with his immediate family, plus his aunt and two cousins. He names Central Park as his top stop, in addition to One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. Tickets to a Broadway show (or two) is another must — Aden’s crew opted for “Something Rotten” and “School of Rock.”
Hotel to Book: Park Lane Hotel, set just across the street from Central Park and an easy walk to sights such as Carnegie Hall, Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center
Parent Pro Tip: Don’t spend all your time (and money) traveling via taxi; try a hop-on, hop-off bus. Aden’s mother, Abby, says this was a great way to actually see the city while moving from one sight to another.