18 Summers of Family Travel

Mother and three kids

Eighteen years seems like a long time, but parents of grown children can tell you that the span between celebrating first steps to senior prom can fly by all too quickly. The same is true for family vacations. The window of opportunity for packing the whole clan into a car for a group getaway is surprisingly brief before the kids turn into adults and make exploring the world on their own a bigger priority.

Here’s how to get every smile and memory you can out of those 18 precious summers of family fun.

18 summers of family travel
Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana (Photo: Karisma Hotels & Resorts; Kent Phillips)

Ages 0-3

Nearby Road Trips and the Caribbean

Vacationing with a newborn or toddler quickly changes your travel priorities from museums and five-star restaurants to resorts with babysitting and an indoor pool.

The need for potty stops and avoiding restlessness argues for short drives over long road trips. Under four hours by car from Boston, Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Jeffersonville, Vt., offers child care programs for kids 6 weeks to 3 years old, along with a huge range of family-friendly summer activities, from puppet shows to arts and crafts programming to panning for precious minerals. For cooling down and splashing around, the Little Smugglers’ Lagoon has gentle waterslides, fountains and a lazy river.

Having kids in (or barely out of) diapers doesn’t mean having to forgo more ambitious travel, however. Nickelodeon resorts in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and Mexico’s Riviera Maya have extensive kids’ programs for all ages. In addition to cartoon-themed accommodations, character appearances, water parks and play areas, they make it easy on parents of young children by providing amenities like strollers, cribs, bottle warmers and baby food.

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Ages 4-12

Theme Park and Cross-Country National Park Adventures

This age group falls right in the sweet spot for a trip to Walt Disney World Resort, which still belongs on any family vacation bucket list. Most of the Disney parks in Orlando, Fla., have seen some recent expansion, like the immersive Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience near Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a new TRON-themed roller coaster in Magic Kingdom Park and the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster at Epcot.

Speaking of sweet, Hershey, Pa., appeals to chocolate-loving kids with a factory tour at Hershey’s Chocolate World and thrill rides at Hersheypark. Lodging options run from campgrounds to the AAA Four Diamond Designated Hotel Hershey, which has Kids Night Out programs for ages 5-13, as well as cocoa-infused treatments at the spa for the grown-ups.

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” may have captured the highs and lows of a cross-country family road trip, but there are much better destinations to explore in the family truckster than the world’s “second largest ball of twine.” As your kids head into their tweens, follow the tire tracks of the Griswold family to the Grand Canyon, or go on a guided six-day adventure through Yellowstone and Grand Teton where you’ll see Old Faithful and some of the most spectacular natural scenery the U.S. has to offer.

To avoid the summer crowds at these popular parks, consider a road trip to the less-traveled New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. A highlight of a visit to one of America’s newest national parks is the chance to paddle the New River. The upper part of the river is great for tweens with its long, calm pools and mostly gentle rapids. The park also has hiking and biking trails for all ages and abilities, plus scenic drives and activities like fishing and camping that the whole family can enjoy.

18 summers of family travel
Fishing on the New River. (Photo: The West Virginia Department of Tourism)

Ages 13-18

Rail Travel, Washington, D.C., and Europe

Seeing North America by train has been a family adventure almost since the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and it’s still one of the most laid-back ways to get the pack on the (rail)road. For a long train trip, nothing compares to the Rocky Mountaineer, which has a new Rockies to the Red Rocks route between Denver and Moab, Utah, as well as Canadian itineraries connecting Vancouver to Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.

Another memorable rail journey closer to home is on Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express, which departs daily from New York City on a journey through the scenic Hudson Valley and Green Mountains to Burlington, Vt., on the shores of Lake Champlain.

And if you’ve been waiting to visit the nation’s capital, this is the time. The newly renovated Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, with exhibits focused on everything from the Wright brothers to future expeditions to Mars, may be the most kid-friendly museum in Washington, D.C., but it’s hardly the only one.

The National Zoo is famous for its resident pandas but also shares its conservation mission through daily presentations and animal exhibitions. Families will love the admission price, too; like all Smithsonian museums, the zoo is free, though passes need to be reserved in advance. The interactive International Spy Museum lets teens channel their inner James Bond (or the real-life CIA agent Sandy Grimes).

Kimpton’s The George Hotel on Capitol Hill makes a great base for White House tours and other D.C. explorations. The hotel’s First Family package offers discounts on second rooms and special kids’ amenities, and AAA members get up to 20% off the hotel’s best available rates.

These years are also ideal for creating core memories on a European vacation. Book a group tour for worldview-expanding encounters with art, food and architecture. Older teens will appreciate the history and culture of Europe’s treasures, not to mention plenty of opportunities for epic selfies in front of the most famous attractions throughout the continent.

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18 and Up

Inspo for Traveling With Your Adult Children – and Their Children!

There’s a big side benefit of providing childhood travel memories – your kids may keep exploring with you as adults.

An all-inclusive family cruise has multigenerational appeal. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships (the largest in the world) boast epic slides and zip lines for daredevils and low-key activities grandparents, parents and kids can enjoy together. There are many destinations and cruises that leave from homeports in the Northeast.

If active and adventurous travel is your family’s style, Club Adventures by AAA specializes in small group tours, featuring immersive experiences at unforgettable destinations. Take your entire crew on a Botswana Family Safari or the Iceland Northern Lights itinerary, filled with hot springs, glaciers, volcanoes and maybe an aurora or two.

Turn your dream family trip into a reality. Take advantage of member benefits and savings when you plan with a trusted AAA travel advisor.

Featured image: IMGORTHAND / Getty Images

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