If fitness is important to your family, an active vacation might sound appealing. It's a chance to do things your family already enjoys and maybe try something new.
But before you pack the hiking boots, bike helmets, and swim goggles, here's how to plan a trip that will be fun without being exhausting, especially for young travelers.
Lots of vacations are active, but specifically planning an active vacation means you're looking for an extra measure of physical activity. Instead of only going to the beach, for example, you might choose a hotel that offers tennis lessons, fishing excursions, and shuttles to a nearby water park.
For a trip to a big city, an active trip could include walking tours, visits to museums and zoos, ice skating or inline skating in a local park, then ending each day with a dip in the hotel pool. Then there are full-fledged adventure vacations that focus on whitewater rafting, downhill skiing, scuba diving, or mountain biking.
Camping is another popular choice and can be affordable or extravagant, depending on where you go and how much camping gear you already own. The nation's 388 national parks offer a wide range of activities, from nature walks to a program that awards your child the distinction of being a Junior Ranger.
After the adults decide on the vacation budget and a couple of trip ideas, it's a good time to get the kids involved. Older kids might want to vote on the list of possible trips, while younger kids will appreciate seeing photos of where you've decided to go and all the fun stuff to do there.
Because you're trying to focus on activity, it's important to consider each family member's interests and needs. If mom is an expert skier but everyone else is a novice, will that work? Perhaps — if the resort offers ski lessons for the rookies plus other options for when the slopes have grown tiresome, such as toboggan rides, ice skating, and arts and crafts at the lodge.
Travel websites and alumni associations often can provide low-cost deals on trips. Look into vacation packages for families because they will cater to kids of all ages as well as to parents. Finding a family-friendly outfitter is especially important when planning an adventure trip, like biking or rafting, because many of those packages are far better suited to adult travelers.
A family cruise can be a good choice because it's self-contained and there's plenty to do. But the round-the-clock eating so common on many cruise ships could interfere with your plans for a healthy vacation. And there are some challenges if you're looking for a lot of physical activity. While cruise lines do offer activity programs and on-shore excursions, there could be limits to the amount of physical activity you can engage in while onboard.
If you're considering a cruise:
With other types of trips, too much activity can be a problem. Some pre-packaged trips might schedule more than your family can handle, so be sure to review the itinerary before signing up. They also can be expensive. Traveling off-season is an option, but may become impossible once kids are in school.
Once you know where you're going, let kids help map out your trip. Older kids might like researching your destination online or in travel books. Younger kids will like seeing a short list of options and getting to choose something special they'd like to do or see. Letting your child choose some of the family's activities encourages good feelings about being physically active together.
Another way to involve kids is to put each one in charge of some aspect of the trip. Is there a natural photographer in the family? Ask that child to take pictures and create a scrapbook when everyone's back home. Or maybe one of your kids likes maps. Get a child-friendly map and let him or her follow your route as you travel to your destination. Kids also can use maps to help guide you in museums, zoos, or amusement parks. School-age kids might like having a travel journal to record memories in words and pictures.
If you crave an active vacation, leave the electronic games at home — or allow them only during the time in the car or on the plane. Vacations are a great time to be unwired, so grownups too might consider turning off cellphones and detaching from email for the duration of the trip.
Magnetic checkers, license plate bingo, and other travel games work well in the car for older kids. Music and audio books can please a range of ages. If you're headed on a long road trip, designate an hour where each kid — and parent, for that matter — gets to determine what everyone else listens to on the car stereo.
Plan on taking breaks from a long car ride. Scout out parks or other destinations where you can stop along the way and let everyone stretch their legs. A quick game of catch or Frisbee can help burn off some pent-up energy. These stops might slow you down a bit, but kids will feel better — and might even nap — if you get them a little fresh air and activity.
Pack a healthy lunch — or at least some healthy snacks — to keep everyone from getting too hungry during the ride or flight. Younger kids especially will appreciate a little bit of their usual routine. So if it's always raisins and crackers at snack time, bring those on the road with you.
If you're stuck waiting in an airport, use the downtime to take walks from terminal to terminal. Find a good spot for watching the planes take off. Many airports even have activity centers for small kids. And don't forget to tuck a deck of cards and a few good books into everyone's backpack. For younger children, crayons and paper can usually save the day.
The key to having a great time once you arrive can be summed up in two words: Be flexible. Vacations can really throw kids for a loop. Nothing is like it normally is — from the bed they're sleeping in to the food they're eating. Help kids feel comfortable on vacation by keeping them informed.
Younger kids will appreciate knowing that you're going to the zoo, then having lunch, then going to look for shells on the beach. It's helpful to remind them during the day: "We're leaving the zoo, so it's time for lunch. Then we'll go to the beach." Talking to them at the end of the day ("What was your favorite part of our day?") also can help orient them. And talk about what's coming up tomorrow.
Here are some additional travel tips for active vacationers: