When the kids are in school, your head is probably not in vacation mode. But if you do some legwork now, you’ll be all set up for a great prime-time family getaway later. Oh, and you’ll save money, too!
Think Beyond Florida
School-break hotspots (Florida, the Caribbean, Southern California, and Hawaii) come at a premium. Our five under-the-radar ideas deliver the thrills without the sticker shock — or crowds.
Catamount, New York
If your fam loves skiing, you can still enjoy it at prime time. Just stay away from those monster resorts with amenities you don’t need (like spas and ice skating). They tend to come with monster bills, too. Smallish mountains like the Catamount Ski Area straddling New York and Massachusetts (Catamountski.com) are less crowded and offer a better value than the nearby high-profile options in Vermont.
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Stretching 100 miles along the coast, Georgia’s barrier islands are (inexplicably) off the tourist track. Uncrowded beaches, southern charm, and primo fresh-air activities woo outdoorsy families. The little kid–friendliest is Jekyll Island (Jekyllisland.com), the home of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. You’ll also find Captain Phillip’s Charters & Tours (Captainphillip.com) at the wharf. Hop on a boat ride through the marshlands in search of alligators or try a harbor cruise to spy bottlenose dolphins.
San AntonIo, Texas
If a vacation’s just not a vacation without a theme park, go southwest! Get your fix at San Antonio’s SeaWorld or Six Flags. Once that’s out of the way, hit the El Mercado Market for some fun souvenir shopping, mariachi music, and authentic Mexican candy. Take a narrated river cruise along the San Antonio River Walk to hear about local history and — more important — to let the kids rest their tootsies. (Visitsanantonio.com) Finally, remember the Alamo! (Sorry. Couldn’t resist).
Where else can you be guaranteed sunshine virtually any time of year? Scottsdale (Scottsdalecvb.com), the more hometown-y neighbor of Phoenix, is another family destination to watch in the Southwest. You’re guaranteed an Insta-moment at the new Butterfly Wonderland, where kids hold nectar sticks in an atrium filled with thousands of flutterbyes. It’s the largest such habitat in the country, complete with a 3-D theater, so plan on spending a whole afternoon.
Our nation’s capital (Washington.org) is a bargain before the cherry blossoms bloom. Yes, it’s cold. But consider: Almost all of the attractions are indoors. Get schooled in quirks of currency and watch millions of dollars being printed at the free tour of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Daily tickets are limited, so make this your first stop. Later, touch a real piece of the moon at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (Airandspace.si.edu).
Try Hotel Alternatives
If you want an affordable stay during high season, look where everyone else isn’t (read: pass on big resorts).
Snag a Suite Deal
All-suite hotels save bigger families from having to book two rooms. They often include breakfast, too. Homewood Suites by Hilton (Homewoodsuites.com) also has a free dinner buffet Monday through Thursday. Other good bets: Embassy Suites (Embassysuites.com) and Springhill Suites by Marriott (Springhillsuites.com).
Renting a house is an overlooked alternative. These usually cost less than hotels, especially when you factor in savings on restaurants. Best of all, no more rushing to get everyone to the breakfast buffet 10 minutes before it closes. Check out Homeaway.com.
Not all B&Bs are for couples. If the owners welcome little ones, this is a great (underused) option. The website will say whether or not they are family-friendly. The homemade breakfasts blow away anything you could get at a diner. And you’ll have access to a fridge, a microwave, and a washer/dryer. Visit Bnbfinder.com to search for possibilities.
Lock in Those Plans!
Going online? To save money on airfare, book at least seven weeks out. Don’t make reservations on weekends. That’s when prices are highest. Wait for Tuesday. At 3 p.m. EST, to be exact. Those low fares tend to hang around into Wednesday, too. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are the cheapest days to fly, while Friday and Sunday are the priciest. Sign up with Airfarewatchdog.com to get an alert if your fare goes down. If you’ve bought the ticket, some airlines will refund the difference.
Going old school? Travel agents are still around. And there’s a reason families use them: They’ve got inside info — which attractions, hotels, even restaurants really welcome kids, and what other clients raved about. They can score a promotion you may have missed. And if something goes awry — a botched hotel reservation, a missed flight — your agent is just a call away. Just make sure your choice is ASTA certified. You can search for ASTA-affiliated agents on its consumer site, Travelsense.org.