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Once, with my first niece, I made a totally rookie mistake. She was just 4 years old, and I decided I wanted to be her favorite relative so I took her to Disneyland for the day. When we got there, the rides scared her, and all she wanted to do was go on the carousel. I realized my niece would have been just as happy if we walked down the block to her neighborhood park.
Sometimes a special outing — or a vacation — might look good on paper, but it can be a complete bust if the grown-ups fail to take into account the kids’ ages and desires. In fact, matching the perfect trip to the right age is a key benefit of using a savvy travel planner.
“We specialize in all age groups,” said Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder and CEO of travel agency Ciao Bambino. “The first question we ask is how old the kids are, as that impacts every component of the trip.”
Agents are also invaluable when arranging a multigenerational vacation or working with a family that spans multiple ages. The key is to avoid shoehorning everyone into one activity, says Cari Gray, founder and director of family tour operator Gray and Co.
“We cater to all ages and are very used to the concept of ‘trips within a trip,’” Gray said. “For instance, parents might go off on a long biking excursion while the grandparents go hiking and the kids play in the chateau and learn about real knights and princesses.”
Tour operator Backroads recently began offering itineraries for three different age groups. This enables the company to focus on the specific needs and interests of young families, as well as activities for 9- to 17-year-olds on its teens and kids program.
“We’ve found that families with similarly aged kids enjoy traveling together,” said Liz Einbinder, public relations coordinator for Backroads. “A very wide range of interests and activities can sometimes separate teenagers and kids. By offering age-appropriate activities and levels, we are bringing the kids together instead of dividing them.”
One common mistake happens at the very beginning of trip planning, according to Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association (FTA).
“When making plans for a big trip, too many parents start the process determining where they want to go,” Jenss said. “Instead, they should begin by deciding on what they want to do, because when parents pick a place, it eliminates a lot of possibilities.”
Following is targeted advice for increasing the joy — and reducing the pain — of family vacations for different ages.
Ages 0-5Many people might consider a vacation with young kids to be more difficult, but our family travel experts disagree.
“Especially with babies between the ages of 0 and 2, parents can pretty much travel wherever they please — as long as they are able to bring along provisions and keep the routine of an infant consistent,” Jenss said. “And there are a lot of hotels and resorts that will cater to little ones.”
Gary Sadler, senior vice president of sales for Beaches resorts, says that his properties provide a kids’ club for infants and children through age 12. Meanwhile, certified nannies are available to care for infants (ages 0-2), along with toddlers (ages 3-5).
“By including a lot of different activities and childcare options, Beaches ensures that all of its guests have the perfect family getaway,” Sadler said.
Small children are often more predictable in terms of their routines, and they are relatively easy to carry along on mellow outings. At this age, health and safety is a concern, and parents will want to make sure they pick a destination that has plenty of access to clean water.
Another important consideration for families is room configuration.
“Optimal room layouts for sleeping are key, and many families with young children need at least some sort of kitchenette,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It can also be helpful to have a separate living space so parents can put young kids to bed and still have a place to hang out together.”
Danny Genung, owner of Harr Travel and a former teacher, says that a cruise is perfect for little kids.
“You have all of your food at hand with tons of choices — many lines will order food specifically for you — and diapers and wipes can be delivered as well,” he said. “For families with babies, I recommend larger ships that have programs and dedicated space for toddlers. Then, once they hit 3 and are potty trained, all of the major lines work well.”
Adolfo Perez, vice president of sales and trade marketing for Carnival Cruise Line, says ships definitely have more resources dedicated to little ones. In addition to kids’ clubs for various ages, the new Carnival Horizon will have the first Dr. Seuss-themed waterpark.
“Everyone loves Dr. Seuss,” Perez said. “And we even serve green eggs and ham as part of the Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast with The Cat in the Hat and Friends.”
According to our experts, top destinations for this age group include Italy, Hawaii, the Caribbean, France, Spain and Portugal, as well as Christmas markets in Germany.
“Destinations with resort infrastructure — where accommodation options are plentiful and there is enough to do without traveling great distances — are ideal,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Agents need to keep kids' ages in mind when planning trips, but parents may be surprised by how much their kids are willing to do on vacation. // © 2017 Getty Images
Many African lodges offer more options for families. // © 2017 Getty Images
Teens usually like to travel with other teens. // © 2017 Getty Images
Tour operator Backroads now offers family trips for different ages. // © 2017 Backroads
Infants can be easy to travel with, as long as parents stick to routines. // © 2017 Backroads
Cruising can be an ideal option for families with young kids. // © 2017 Backroads
Structured activities such as surf lessons can be great bonding experiences for teens. // © 2017 Getty Images
Ages 6-11This is the sweet spot of family travel: Kids at this age begin to appreciate travel destinations and experiences. The accommodation setup is still important for a lot of families, but there’s an increasing focus on activities. This is also a good age for kids’ clubs. Kids want to learn, but the goal should be to keep it interactive — don’t plan a museum visit, make it a treasure hunt. An entertaining tour guide can be a lifesaver for this age group, too.
“Childcare is so important,” Gray said. “If the kids are having fun, so are the parents.”
The FTA’s Jenss thinks this is a great age for all-inclusives, accommodations with a pool and cruises.
Perez says variety is a major benefit to a cruise family vacation for parents with kids this age.
“The size of our ships provide a huge canvas that allows us to create unique spaces for kids,” he said. “We offer spectacular waterparks, outdoor attractions such as basketball courts, mini-golf, a ropes course and, on Carnival Vista, the groundbreaking SkyRide bike-ride-in-the-sky aerial attraction. The idea is to provide kids and parents with their own space while at the same time offering activities that appeal to everyone.”
Sally Black, founder of the travel agency Vacationkids, says this is the fun time when parents can, and should, engage kids in travel planning. At times, she’s even asked to work directly with the kids to plan elements of the trip, which leads to greater independence for the children and more trust from the parents.
“At this age, it’s all about engaging curious minds and building itineraries that evoke a child’s specific interests,” she said. “Parents want education, and kids want entertainment. So, it’s about making learning fun.”
Einbinder at Backroads says that one of the best parts of a family trip with kids this age is getting out of the usual rut and experiencing the world.
“Our family trips allow kids to have fun and interact with their peers without being in front of a video game or phone for hours at a time,” she said.
In terms of destinations, Black says it’s really about experiences, such as seeing a real castle, riding a dog sled in Alaska or learning a life skill such as golf, tennis or scuba diving.
O’Shaughnessy says Africa is a go-to for her for kids this age.
“More safari lodges are offering extensive kids’ wildlife and conservation programming,” she said. “This is particularly true in South Africa where malaria-free options are plentiful.”
Gray says Australia is fun for this age group “since there’s so much furry, fuzzy and hopping there.”
Ages 12-17Kids age 12 to 17 can be picky travelers, but they are also the most independent, which gives parents more freedom, too. This is a good time to plan trips that incorporate socialization skills, an appreciation for cultural awareness and adventure. Everyone needs a bed at this stage, so room configurations still matter, but there is more flexibility in terms of the setup — rooms can be adjacent instead of connecting. It’s also a good idea at this age to involve teens in the vacation planning, so they feel more engaged.
“Kids start to become more discerning about what they are willing to do once they reach 12,” said O’Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino. “To that end, parents should engage them earlier in the planning process to help choose the destination.”
She also warns parents not to underestimate their teens. She says activities such as cooking classes and surf lessons can lead to memorable bonding experiences for a family.
Jenss agrees: Too often, parents underestimate what their children will like.
“They will often eat new foods, try new things and not be bored if you just give it a try,” Jenss said.
At this age, travel can have a major impact on teens’ world views, making it an ideal time to introduce the importance of giving back to local communities. Sadler says that Beaches offers Island Impact, a “volun-teenism” program that gives teen students the chance to give back to the local area and earn community service hours while they are on vacation. Then, at night, they can have fun at Club Liquid, a teens-only dance club with a South Beach vibe, where they can hang out with people their own age — no kids and no one over 21 allowed.
For this age group, our experts recommend active travel, such as small-ship expedition cruising or scuba diving in Palau, Fiji or the Philippines. Other destinations they suggest include Iceland, Belize, Cambodia, Vietnam, Morocco, Peru and even Antarctica.
“My son has been to 36 countries, and his trip to Antarctica last year is by far his most memorable experience that he’ll talk about forever,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Gray advises that agents should begin by helping clients make sure they truly want a family vacation in the first place.
“There’s a time, and a trip, for romance,” she said. “Clients shouldn’t bring kids unless it’s a family trip where they really want to be with the kids. If the kids are just an add-on and the parents really want a romantic trip, they should probably just leave the kids at home.”