family vacation ideas

The 16 best places to go on vacation with a baby or toddler

Oct. 28, 2013 at 7:28 PM ET

If you've always loved travel, there's no need to check your wanderlust at the nursery room door. Believe it or not, now -- while your baby is still, well, a baby -- is a great time to get up and go on a getaway. After all, babies and toddlers are lightweight and portable. Best of all, most airlines and hotels give them a free ride! Not all family vacation spots are created equally, though, if you've got young kids in tow. Here, our tips and picks for the best in baby-friendly destinations.

Hit the beach

Beaches are one of the most popular destinations for all travelers. When tot-friendliness -- not ocean views -- is your prime concern, look for beach spots with plenty of family attractions and services.

Where to go: Paradise Island, Bahamas

Cool option: Atlantis

Why mama will love it: "Prompt Response Line," allows parents to order anything they need to care for their baby; custom meals for severe food allergies; Johnson & Johnson Gentle Travel Kits; Atlantis Kids Adventures (AKA) and Sea Squirts interactive marine animal program and feedings for kids ages 3 and up; CPR certified babysitters; luxurious Mandara Spa.

Why kids will love it: 141 acres of water attractions including Splashers, a waterplay area just for tots; 50,000 fish and sea creatures; make-your-own stuffed animals at Atlantis Pals; free nightly family movies.

Cost: $$$$

When to go: Year-round with great rates during fall months

Best for: Families who love water activities, particularly those with at least one school-aged child.

More great options: The Breakers Palm Beach, Palm Beach, Fla.; Isla Verde Beach Resort, San Juan, Puerto Rico; Winnetu Oceanside Resort, Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

Explore a national park

A national park is the perfect place to cultivate a lifelong love of nature. Tots will be wide-eyed and wondrous at the towering trees, blue sky and curious critters they encounter in these great green spaces -- best seen from the stroller, child carrier or bike trailer.

Cool option: Olympic National Park, Port Angeles, Wash.

Why mama will love it: With mountain vistas, tropical rainforests, and coastal tidepools, it's got three eco-systems to discover; there are several bike paths and stroller-friendly hiking trails (get suggestions from the visitor's center); East Beach has a shallow swimming area with sandy shore for digging and castle making; Sol Duc Hot Springs has a toasty mineral water wading pool (and day use rates), so you can soak with your little one safely beside you; picnic areas are scattered throughout the park for alfresco meals; and there's lodging in and outside the park.

Why kids will love it: In the forest they'll discover bright yellow banana slugs and skittering salamanders, and glow worms after sunset; the tidepools are filled with sea stars, crabs, snails and tiny fish; the Discovery Room in the park's main visitor center has interactive touch tables and a pint-sized Ranger Station playhouse, with puppets, dress-up clothes and more.

Cost: $-$$

When to go: Summer and Fall

Best for: Outdoorsy families

More great options: Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, Calif.; Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Me.; Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Colo.

On a farm

Little kids love feeding baby animals and helping to bake homemade cookies, two of the many activities that are often part of farm stays. In addition, visiting a family-friendly farm can be a fun, economical getaway for your whole gang.

Where to go: New York's Catskill region

Cool option: Hull-O Farms

Why mama will love it: Escaping the hustle-bustle of the city for a relaxing change of pace; enjoying warm hospitality and delicious food; teaching kids about farm life.

Why kids will love it: Feeding baby animals; milking cows and goats; playing with kittens; hay rides; fall corn mazes; bonfires and s'mores; fishing; kite flying.

Cost: $ - $$

When to go: May through October

Best for: Families who enjoy animals, nature and home cooked meals -- particularly those who need an escape from the big city.

More great options: The Inn at East Hill Farm, in Troy, New Hampshire; Weatherbury Farm in Avella, Pennsylvania

Cruise control

Cruise lines have expansive indoor and outdoor play areas, children's programs and a variety of activities and family-friendly restaurants. These floating resorts can be a good value, since most of the vacation costs (like meals) are included in the price.

Cool option: Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy

Why mama will love it: Super selection of staterooms; including indoor cabins with "magical" portholes that offer real-time virtual outdoor views complete with animated characters (watch for swimming Mickey); family-friendly movies, shows and restaurants; a beach day at private Bahama Island Castaway Cay; childcare for ages 3-36 months (extra fee and advance reservations required) and free kids camp for kids 3-10 years old; adult-only retreats at the spa, Quiet Cove pool, Italian-themed Palo and French-cuisine Remy restaurants, and a nighttime entertainment area with five unique lounges.

Why kids will love it: Character meet and greets; wet and wild fun in Nemo's Reef toddler splash zone and Aqua Lab splash zone (on Fantasy only), Donald's Family Pool and AquaDuck water coaster slide (note: kids have to be at least 54 inches tall to ride alone, or 42 inches if they're accompanied by another rider); enchanted artwork magically comes to life in the halls; Crush the Turtle surfs around Animator's Palate restaurant's huge LED screens, conversing with families; princess makeovers at teh Bobbidi Bobbidi Boutique; buccaneer games at Mickey's Pirates in the Caribbean deck party; and a fireworks-at-sea show.

Cost: $$$ - $$$$

When to go: Year-round. Best rates tend to be in the late summer and fall (hurricane season) and late spring shoulder seasons.

Best for: Families with young kids seeking constant entertainment and activities both on-board and off.

More great options: Carnival Breeze; Royal Caribbean's Allure and Oasis of the Seas; NCL's Nickelodeon All-Access Cruises

Theme parks

With their tot-tested appeal, Disney World (check out the New Fantasyland!), Disney Land (don't miss the new Cars Land in Disney California Adventure) and Legoland (now in Florida as well as California) are often seen as the standard bearers. Families visiting Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter can stop at Seuss Landing for tot-friendly rides. At the nearby Nickelodeon Suites Resort, complete with Nick Jr. characters and a little kids' spa, kids under 3 eat free.

Where to go: Langhorne, Pennsylvania

Cool option: Sesame Place

Why mama will love it: Many creative opportunities for young kids, all rides and attractions are designed for kids ages 2 to 7; and a special 10,000-sqare-foot pool for babies and toddlers.

Why kids will love it: Sesame Street characters; nine tot-sized water rides; Elmo's World, a 21,000-square-foot playland with cute character shows; the rockin' daily Neighborhood Street Party parade.

Cost: $ - $$

When to go: Daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, weekends from early May through late October.

Best for: Families with little ones looking for a day of fun outdoor activity.

For tips on visiting a theme park with your kids, check out the Theme Park Insider.

Lounge at the lake

With their calm waters and family attractions, lakes are popular vacations for families with little ones. Lakes can also be great spots for family road trips, saving big bucks on travel costs.

Where to go: Lake Champlain, Vermont

Cool option: The Tyler Place Family Resort

Why mama will love it: All-inclusive resort with lots of opportunities for "me" time; nine unique programs for newborns to kids up to 30 months of age; kids camp program for toddlers; Parents' Night Out -- whenever you wish; parents' only candlelight cocktails and dining; one caregiver to every one to two children; special activities for families with young children; art and water sports activities, bikes with baby seats; parents' helpers and evening sitters available for extra charge.

Why kids will love it: Playhouse Playground; fishing for perch; Splash Pad and indoor/outdoor water play areas; theme parties; campfires; storytelling; teepee and tree house.

Cost: $$$ - $$$$

When to go: Open late May through mid-September. Special rates are available in May, June and September.

Best for: Water-loving families, parents of little ones seeking some romantic time alone and families who prefer all-inclusive vacations.

More great options: Woodloch Pines, Hawley, Pa.; Point Sebago Resort, Casco, Me.; Timber Ridge Lodge, Lake Geneva, Wisc.

Ranch time

What kid doesn't love pony rides, cowboys and sing-a-longs?

Where to go: Highland, New York

Cool option: Rocking Horse Ranch

Why mama will love it: All-inclusive resort vacation; childcare nursery for kids under 4; in-room babysitting; and custom meals for severe food allergies.

Why kids will love it: Over 100 indoor and outdoor activities; pony and wagon rides for kids ages 2 and up; interactive playground for babies and toddlers; new Big Splash indoor waterpark; tubing and ski programs for toddlers; a comprehensive nursery program.

Cost: $$

When to go: Open year-round.

Best for: Families who love all-inclusive resorts, a wide variety of family activities and lots of good old-fashioned fun.

More great options: Lost Valley Ranch, Sedalia, Colo.; Paradise Guest Ranch, Buffalo, Wy

All-inclusive resorts

It's comforting to know exactly how much your vacation is going to cost before you go, especially when you have picky eaters and other little kid issues to consider. Family-focused all-inclusives -- hands down -- offer the most extensive family amenities of any type of destination, including nannies, suites with separate kids' rooms, baby meal programs and more.

Where to go: Riveria Maya, Mexico

Cool option: Azul Beach Hotel by Karisma

Why mama will love it: Special Toddler & Baby Inclusive program; Gourmet Gerber meals; Fisher-Price Little People themed family suites; Mom's Morning jogging/yoga program; anytime babysitting and nanny services for extra fee; baby equipment and a toy loan program; personalized Family Friends Vacation Planner; beach and pool butlers; private beach dinners; and new spa and seaside massages.

Why kids will love it: Azulitos Play House Kid's Club with Fisher-Price toys; Mini Mayans cultural program; My Gym Fitness Center equipment; Kids' Spa Suites with Strawberry Ice Cream manicures; in-room family movie nights.

Cost: $$$ - $$$$

When to go: Best temperatures in winter and spring, best rates and family packages in the fall.

More great options: Beaches (Jamaica/Turks & Caicos); Club Med (Florida, Mexico, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic)

Best for: Families who want to be pampered and enjoy lots of amenities like yummy fruit smoothies without the constant worry of how much things cost on vacation.

For more insights on great all-inclusives for babies and toddlers, visit Vacation Kids.

Indoor water parks

Most kids love water, so it's no surprise that hotels and resorts with waterparks are incredibly popular with families. According to a study by Hotel Waterpark Resort Research and Consulting, the number of indoor waterpark resorts grew by more than 225 percent in five years. Parents love the self-contained nature of these indoor waterparks, and there are many areas where babies and toddlers can splash around safely.

Where to go: Gurnee, Illinois

Cool option: KeyLime Cove

Why mama will love it: Gated Play Pond area; Lil' Limers zero-entry area specially for small children; slide for side-by-side riding; award-winning aquatics staff; spacious rooms and suites.

Why kids will love it: Cute kids club with games and activities; arcade with fun activities for toddlers; kids' spa; make-your-own stuffed animal at Pinki's Pet Palace.

Cost: $ - $$

When to go: Year-round

Best for: Water-loving families and those seeking an escape from neighborhood pools.

More great options: Noah's Ark Water Park, Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.; Great Wolf Lodge (nationwide)

Head for the mountains

Snow-capped peaks don't leap to mind when you think of vacationing with babies, but many of these vacation spots offer four seasons of family fun and daily kids programs for infants and toddlers. Best of all, these mountain resorts are self-contained vacation destinations with great rates off-season.

Where to go: Jeffersonville, Vermont

Cool option: Smugglers' Notch Resort

Why mama will love it: Year-round Treasures Child Care Center with programs for Fireflies (6 weeks to 16 months); Little Dippers (17 months to 2 ½ years) and Little Rascals (2 to 3 years); pagers and security cards for parents; ski programs for potty-trained kids ages 3 and up; introductory ski program for ages 2 ½ - 3 years (no potty-training necessary) and full-day ski programs for potty-trained kids ages 3 and up; babysitters; and extensive kids' and family programs.

Why kids will love it: Wintertime snow tubing and learning to ski on the Magic Carpet lift; summertime splashing in pint-sized pools with spray zones and mini water slides; year-round fun in the 4,000-square-foot playground and FunZone indoor family entertainment center, and at nightly story times and sing-alongs.

Cost: $$ - $$$

When to go: Year-round, although some of the best deals are available in the fall.

Best for: Families who love winter sports as well as hiking, biking and the outdoors.

More great options: Boyne Mountain, Boyne Falls, Mich.; Deer Valley Resort, Park City, Utah. Find more suggestions of family-friendly mountains for winter and summer at Ski.com.

Hot spots

Desert resorts have ultra-cool pools set against the spectacular backdrop of cacti, canyons and bright blue sky.

Where to go: Scottsdale, Ariz.

Cool option: Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North

Why mama will love it: Cribs, bibs, washcloths, wipes, lotion, diapers, strollers, playpens, high chairs, and in-room fridges and microwaves are all provided at no charge upon request; kids under 5 eat free, and resort chefs will prepare fresh pureed baby food to order; you and your tots can play together at the "Kids for All Seasons" center, which also has supervised programs for ages 5 and up; the family concierge will arrange babysitting for date nights.

Why kids will love it: The baby wading pool features pint-sized lounge chairs and robes and fresh fruit served al fresco; Saturday night s'mores making at the Saguaro Blossom restaurant fire pits; bunnies, woodpeckers and roadrunners can be spotted on the property; nearby McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Phoenix has a carousel and antique train rides (free with a paying adult).

Cost: $$$-$$$$

When to go: Temperatures are mildest in spring and fall, but best deals are in the sizzling summer.

Best for: Families who enjoy golf, pool time, nature treks and southwestern scenery.

More great options: Rancho Las Palmas, Palm Springs, Calif.; Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, Phoenix, Ariz.

City adventures

Exciting, cosmopolitan and chock-full of kids' activities, cities are especially great for weekend getaways.

Where to go: Boston, Mass.

Cool option: Colonnade Hotel

Why mama will love it: Stylish Back Bay boutique hotel with the city's only rooftop pool; "Kids See & Do" package includes breakfast, children's fanny pack and welcome gifts, parking, late checkout and tickets to either Boston Children's Museum or the New England Aquarium; conveniently located near museums, charming Newbury Street, Fenway Park, and a quick subway train ride from major historic sights.

Why kids will love it: It's a short stroll from the Public Gardens, where they can run through splash fountains, climb the Make Way for Ducklings statues and ride Swan Boats; Boston Children's Museum has interactive exhibits; New England Aquarium has sea lion shows; it's fun to follow the Freedom Trail and watch street performers in Quincy Market.

Cost: $$$

When to go: Spring, summer and fall are best for sightseeing and strolling.

Best for: Families who love exploring a bustling urban setting.

More great options: New York; Chicago

Walk on the wild side

You can never go wrong at a zoo. Young kids love animals, and special children's sections have interactive areas for petting and feeding the critters. Plus, most are located in cities with other family-friendly sights to explore.

Where to go: San Diego, Calif.

Cool option: Loews Coronado Bay

Why mama will love it: The newly renovated resort has a secluded private-island feel but is minutes away from the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and many other downtown attractions; rooms can be childproofed in advance and a special door sign tells housekeepers when baby is sleeping; Getaway Gear program provides cribs (and a goodie bag of baby care products), swings, potties, play yards and step stools; the chef will whip up homemade baby food upon request.

Why kids will love it: Animal shows and singalongs; a playground for blowing off steam; separate kiddie pool; adjoining Silver Strand State Beach for sandcastle building; ample supply of free pool and sand toys; Kids Closet for borrowing Fisher-Price playthings; rides around the island on the back of a rental bike.

Cost: $$-$$$

When to go: Year-round, with best rates in the fall.

Best for: Families seeking to combine a day at the zoo with a quiet, off-the-beaten-path seashore vacation.

More great options: National Zoo, Washington D.C. (check out the Panda lodging packages); Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, La.

Barrier island getaways

Barrier islands provide refuge to wildlife, giving little kids lots to discover.

Where to go: Captiva and Sanibel Islands, Fla.

Cool option: Captiva's South Seas Island Resort

Why mama will love it: Laid-back, quiet vibe' fully equipped beach villas and homes are steps from the shore, maknig it easy to get back to the room for nap and lunch breaks; warm, calm Gulf of Mexico water; on-site restaurants, shops and a hot dog boat that often pulls up on the south-end beach at lunchtime; many kid-friendly dining options outside the resort in Captiva Village and on sister island Sanibel; amazing sunsets.

Why kids will love it: Best shells ever (great for decorating sand castles); ultra-fun family water park pool; learn-to-swim school for ages 6 months and up; Turtle Tots crafts center for toddlers and parents; and entertaining wildlife -- pelicans dive bomb for fish, crabs scurry across the sand, dolphins cruise by and manatees hang out by the docks.

Cost: $$$$

When to go: Year-round, but the best deals are in the summer.

Best for: Nature-loving families who are content to chill at the beach or pool and don't require lots of structured activity or nightlife.

More great options: Outer Banks, N.C.; Wild Dunes Resort, Charleston, S.C.

Check the inn scene

You might think your bed and breakfast days are over, but a surprising number of inns throughout the country welcome babies and toddlers.

Where to go: Stockbridge, Mass.

Cool option: The Williamsville Inn

Why mama will love it: Personalized attention and service; the owners are parents themselves; you can stay in main house rooms and suites, stand-alone cottages or rent out the spacious four-room barn; cribs are provided; the on-site Taste of Germany restaurant has an award-winning chef, kid-friendly menu and relaxed vibe (high chairs provided); you can hike the grounds and nearby trails with little ones; babysitting can be arranged for nights out.

Why kids will love it: There’s a pool, playground, rope swing, and acres of yard and gardens to explore; the innkeepers’ children (now 11 and 13) are great playmates; the nearby Berkshire Museum has aquarium adventures (feedings, story time, animal meet and greets), children’s theater performances and guided discovery time at Innovation Emporium; in spring, kids can cuddle baby animals at Hancock Shaker Village.

Cost: $$$

When to go: Spring, summer and fall

Best for: Families who enjoy homey accommodations in a country setting.

More great options: Check out the family-friendly listings at BnBFinder.com.

Say "Aloha" to Hawaii

It's tropical, it offers foreign flavor without leaving the U.S., and children (called keiki in Hawaiian) are especially beloved here. And if you're on the West Coast, you can get good deals on flights to the islands.

Where to go: Oahu

Cool option: Aulani, Ko Olina, Ohau, Hawaii

Why mama will love it: You'll feel immediately relaxed on the soothing, serene grounds, surrounded by lush mountains and lagoons; it's the perfect combination of Hawaiian culture and Disney magic; rooms have Pack 'n Plays and small fridges (bottle warmers and high chairs can be requested, if available, and strollers and swings can be rented); poolside cabanas (extra fee) are handy for nursing and napping; Laniwai spa offers infant massage lessons; parent-child playdates (with character meet and greets) at Aunty's Beach House, which also offers childcare for potty-trained kids 3 and up.

Why kids will love it: Character breakfasts give them quality time with Mickey, Minnie, Lilo, Stitch and the gang; they can dig for treasure and build sandcastles during Toddler Splash and Play on the beach, wade in the zero entry Waikolohe Pool, and boogie with Disney Characters at the Shaka Shaka Pool Party.

Cost: $$$-$$$$

When to go: The weather is good year-round; you may find fewer crowds if you visit when school is in session.

Best for: Families who love tropical islands and Disney characters.

More great options: Napili Kai, Maui; Grand Hyatt Kauai; Fairmont Orchid, Big Island of Hawaii


A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.

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