The Best Destination to Take Your Kids at Each Age — From Infants to College Graduates
Once a traveler always a traveler. There are folks who believe a baby doesn't have to change a thing about a couple's lifestyle, and others who subscribe to the exact opposite theory. But all can agree on one thing: Those who loved traveling before expanding their family likely dream of continuing to explore the world, little ones in tow. One of the most exciting parts of having children, after all, is the way they enrich and amplify almost every experience. Then, of course, there's the awe-inspiring discovery that goes along with watching curious youngsters see and try new things, from delicious foods to beautiful cultures.
Knowing which places around the globe are most appropriate for kids as they grow into and out of different phases can be tough to anticipate. And yes, it's more daunting to fly or contend with jet lag at certain ages. It's true, too, that as little ones become big, trips become more expensive. But all the challenges are far outweighed by the collective joy that's possible on a family vacation, especially one tailored to the brood's developmental stage and interests.
Here, with the help of a few travel experts, we break it down by age group, pairing each with a dreamy destination for exposure to the wondrous world, but also maximum family fun.
Infants (Ages 0-1): A Mexican Beach Resort
You'll hear it from every parent: Travel while your baby is just that — a baby — because it'll never be easier. Once they start walking, all bets are off. True, you're likely sleep deprived, but doesn't that make it the perfect time to hop on a short flight to Mexico for some R&R and vitamin D?
When planning a first vacation with an infant, Indagare CEO and founder Melissa Biggs Bradley says, "You'll want a warm location with a direct flight, a big beach since infants are still too young to enjoy a kids club, and easy access to good medical care in case of an ear infection or anything more serious."
Expect to bring way too much gear, but don't worry — any parent will empathize. A family-friendly resort in a safe development, like the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita (for West Coasters) or Rosewood Mayakoba (for East Coasters), is a great bet, since they'll happily provide the comforts of home (think: crib, mini fridge for milk, high chair, baby bathtub or diaper pail), meaning you can focus your packing around sun protection and adorable tropical ensembles for your baby. They're also likely to offer babysitting services, in case you'd like to have dinner one night after 7 p.m. As for the new parent exhaustion, a soft, sandy beach is an idyllic place to catch up on Zs, for all of you. There's a reason sound machines come with a blue noise option — the gentle lapping of waves could lull anyone right to sleep.
Toddlers (Ages 1-4): The Island of Hawai'i
To a toddler, there's excitement to be found everywhere. They're like mini explorers, captivated by virtually every landscape and situation. Young kids who have just discovered the freedom of walking, running, and swimming will find pure magic in the Hawaiian islands. The coral reefs, beautiful beaches, Polynesian culture, soulful storytelling, near-perfect weather, and wildlife such as dolphins, whales, and sea turtles hold plenty of appeal for adults, yes, but also for toddlers.
The island of Hawai'i, specifically, offers a diversity of stunning environments, from stark and surreal lava flows to lush waterfalls, as well as resorts with little to no crowds. Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection, with its ancient royal fishponds, outrigger canoes, and calm beach, exemplifies the family-forward approach. Their Holoholo Kids Crew offers thoughtful programming (think: crab hunting, Hawaiian language lessons, petroglyph walks, and natural dyeing, stamping, and feather art). And while it's designed for ages five to 12, three- and four-year-olds can also attend with their parents (a great excuse for grown-ups to experience all the fun, too). Uncle Danny, the resort's cultural gatekeeper whose domain is the vibrant "house of knowledge," is wonderful with children.
"Many Hawaii resorts have protected ponds where you can take your toddlers into the ocean," says Biggs Bradley. "You can enjoy whale-watching cruises, and, in their later toddler years, they'll appreciate learning about the wildlife, maybe attend lei-making classes, or just relaxing by the pool or on the beach."
Elementary School (Ages 5-10): Rome, Italy
Once your kids have reached school age, they begin to hear a little more about the world around them. Basic elementary school lessons typically include ancient Rome, the Colosseum, and gladiators, says Biggs Bradley, so a trip to Rome "will further engage them in the touring, since what they've learned in school will be brought to life."
There are countless exciting activities available for kiddos, and even picky eaters will find something they love in the boot-shaped country known for pizza, pasta, and gelato. "Pizza- and gelato-making experiences are a must," says Access Italy CEO Simone Amorico, who adds that kids love making ceramics and mosaics, too. He says other can't-miss activities include, "treasure hunts in the Vatican and the Villa Borghese, where they can also ride a four-wheel bike and stop for picnics."
Meanwhile, the fairytale-like Hotel Eden is an ideal base for Roman excursions, and it offers a handful of them, including the Little Gladiator and Little Artist, which involves fresco making. The hotel is also not far from Teatro Verde, a theater for puppet shows and musicals, the Explora Children's Museum, and Bartolucci, a traditional wooden toy shop where you can find Pinocchio. "At this age, a typical family tour can be boring, as they tune out and can't wait to leave," says Scott Dunn USA president John Spence. "We had our kids attend a Roman gladiator school so they could gain hands-on lessons in fighting techniques and reenact life as an ancient gladiator — they loved it."
Tweens (Ages 11-13): A Montana Dude Ranch
Between the ages of 11 and 13, kids, or tweens, will likely want some autonomy, but also need boundaries. A dude ranch or guest ranch encompassing hundreds of acres of pristine, wide-open space makes for a wonderful compromise.
"When kids are in their early teenage years, there is nothing better than a vacation that combines adventure with something new," says Spence. "Watching our kids step outside of their element — horseback riding on mountainside cliffs or even just hiking in the beautiful Montana nature — is one of the best parts of being a parent."
Visiting a 10-square-mile property like The Ranch at Rock Creek — with a slew of included activities like fly fishing, cross-country mountain biking, photography classes, sapphire mining, and horse roping lessons — is quite a novelty for many families. Most kids, however unique their interests, will be able to find something they are stoked about. The younger ones can also attend the Little Grizzlies Kids Club (up to age 12), which offers pre-booked excursions such as wildlife spotting and treasure hunting. Families can come together in the property's western-styled bar for bowling, table tennis, and karaoke, too.
And perhaps the best part about Montana, home to dozens of guest ranches, is that it's gorgeous and fun year-round. It's a winter wonderland worthy of a snow globe and, at The Ranch at Rock Creek, cold-weather options include skiing (downhill and cross-country), sledding, ice skating, hockey, and snowmobiling. Expect smiles 24/7.
Teenagers (Ages 14-17): An African Safari
"It is all about the thrill of experiencing something so different from what they've ever seen before," says Extraordinary Journeys' founder and CEO Elizabeth Gordon of taking the kids on an African safari.
Biggs Bradley adds, "Safaris are a huge area of passion for me, and I was eager to open my kids' eyes to them when they were young. The sweet spot to take children on their first safari is after 14 because by then you can ensure they will really remember the experience. They'll be able to sit in a vehicle for long periods of time and likely won't be nervous about sleeping in a tent." Plus, many camps also don't allow kids under 13 or 14 years old.
A safari is a special experience for a family to encounter together, witnessing an exciting array of animals in their natural habit — not to mention beautiful traditions and cultures, too. "An amazing guide will teach [the kids] about tracking, get them to think like a detective, and figure out what may have happened in the area by looking at footprints," says Gordon.
As Biggs Bradley says of Kenya, "Cultural exchange is key. The opportunity for kids to meet and interact with Maasai people, for example, can be an incredibly memorable part." Properties like Sirikoi, Basecamp Explorer's circuit, and Angama Mara provide beautiful immersion along with amazing sightings of the world's rarest species.
Another perk? Since Wi-Fi is often sparse or unavailable, families can unplug from technology and simply enjoy being together out in the bush. For even more adventure, consider adding on gorilla trekking in Rwanda (the pricier option) or Uganda (more affordable), especially if doing a safari in nearby Kenya.
College (Ages 18-21): Queenstown, New Zealand
Once kids have gone off to college, it can take a pretty enticing offer to pull them back into the fold for family vacations. Queenstown, New Zealand, is one such attractive proposition. Known as the "adventure capital of the world," it's the kind of all-season destination that offers a scene for everyone — plus, it's English speaking.
The birthplace of bungee jumping is home to countless thrills, from exhilarating jumps (AJ Hackett Bungy from the Kawarau Bridge is the OG choice) to parasailing on bright blue Lake Wakatipu. "Families will love helicopter flights over the Tasman Glacier and along Milford Sound on a sunny winter day, or careening around the bends of the Shotover Canyon on a jet boat in the summer," says Gordon of this "quintessential playground."
For anyone who's not quite as much an adrenaline junkie, there are many hiking — known there as tramping — trails that reveal jaw-dropping panoramas. "New Zealand is a dream destination for a family who loves nature, landscapes, and, of course, adventure," says Biggs Bradley, adding that skydiving, rafting, caving, and fly fishing are also draws.
In the winter, Queenstown's mountains are home to epic skiing and snowboarding. The town itself is walkable and safe, with plenty of places to enjoy a sundowner, lovely meal, or the nightlife. With the kids becoming adults (and the local drinking age being 18), there's also the option to take a day for wine tasting at some of the island country's top vineyards in the Central Otago region about 45 minutes away by car.
To allow your young adults some freedom, try a couple rooms at the boutique QT Queenstown, which is full of art, quirk, and large windows showcasing the Remarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu.
College Graduates (Age 22): Japan
By the time they've graduated college, many young adults will be ready to dive, respectfully, into a culture and country as exquisite as Japan's. "Japan is a country you want to travel to when you know your family will truly be able to appreciate what it has to offer," says Biggs Bradley, pointing out the opportunity for deep cultural immersion in food and drink, museums, temples, and shrines.
In a place where there's a fine art to everything from making tea and arranging flowers to lighting incense, it's best to ensure all parties are prepared to be well-behaved and gracious guests. A more mature — or adventurous — palate is also helpful for fully enjoying all of Japan's culinary treasures. Spence calls it "the perfect place for post-graduates who want new experiences," and Japan certainly excels at providing those.
Tokyo is a dynamic urban center where exploration yields unimaginable exploits. A different energy pervades Kyoto's quieter neighborhoods of Buddhist temples, Shinto shines, bamboo forests, and famous geisha districts. (InsideJapan offers wonderful private tours led by local experts.) "Our kids loved trains, making the bullet train around Japan one of the best parts of the trip," says Spence.
Getting around is indeed a no-brainer — trains and buses are always precisely on time, people are friendly and willing to help despite language barriers, and there are many appealing regions (prefectures) with special attributes, such as places known for sake, hot springs (onsen), and art.
Staying in a traditional ryokan is a must, and the fourth-generation Japanese-owned Hoshinoya portfolio includes several luxury options. One of the most memorable additions to the cities, however, is a couple of days near Mount Fuji, where Hoshinoya Fuji offers spectacular views of the elusive volcano alongside exceptional local cuisine and rugged outdoorsy activities, including firewood chopping, canoeing, and e-biking. At the end of the day, there's no better place for a globe-trotting family to relax and share stories than around a bonfire under the stars, with live acoustic music, s'mores, and Japanese whisky.