Damon Parrish/©REI

From underwater expeditions to immersive safaris and camping trips, these groups offer vacations that really are fun for the whole family. 

Amy Tara Koch

Sure, a beach vacation is fun. But, just like your tan, it’s forgettable. What’s trending for families that want activity, discovery, and memorable experiences? Small-scale, culturally minded tours that specialize in engagement and adventure—and the kind of excitement that makes kids dump their digital devices to focus on the here and now.

We’ve combed through the offerings to pick five family-friendly companies that have transformed the travel game. While in the past, kids had to suffer through unappealing wine tastings, sightseeing, and other adult-oriented happenings, they now get itineraries specifically tailored to their age and interests.

A hike in a national park has a hands-on geology component with a forest ranger. Video microscopes are part of a Galapagos adventure, so that kids can capture killer interactions with nature. In Africa, they watch nocturnal wildlife habits via flashlight safari—and parents aren’t left in the dust, either. Curated tours with expert guides schooled in the art of storytelling will give the whole family a new level of cultural immersion. These trips are so much fun that the kids will never realize what their vacation is really giving them: an educational experience they’ll remember forever.


Classic Journeys

Why It’s Great Classic Journeys is known for walking tours that offer “leisurely immersion in local life,” which promises engagement with culture instead of physical exertion. Their family programs (there are 27 of them) are a perfect balance of investigation and age-appropriate downtime. Translation? After the day’s experience, kids are absorbed in kid-oriented activities (often tapping into regional culture with a guide) while parents can chill out with a wine tasting or gourmet dinner. Accommodations are on the swanky side: Five-star hotels and upscale inns.

Where to go The Galapagos, where you get a close-up look at penguins, giant tortoises, and lava tunnels, as well as the chance to snorkel and sea-kayak.

Price: From $4,700.


Thompson Family Adventures

Why It’s Great As one of the first companies to get into the adventure travel game, Thompson Family Adventures excels at standout experiences in exotic destinations. During any given day, there are multiple itinerary options to accommodate grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, and children. Thompson offers a pen pal program where your child is paired with a similarly aged one from the country you’re visiting. After first corresponding, the children meet during the trip and enjoy a fun outdoor excursion. Accommodations are mid-range, selected for their proximity to activities and ability to house families. Since Africa has been a prime destination for Thompson for more than 30 years, they own and operate their own camps there.

Where to Go Tanzania, where you can choose from four safari itineraries that vary in focus and degrees of physical activity.

Price: From $5,290.


REI Adventures

Why It’s Great For outdoor enthusiasts who love intense physical activity, REI Adventures delivers outstanding jaunts to some of the most spectacular spots on the globe. The perfect starter trip? A guided trip to one of America’s National Parks. Expect to bike, hike, kayak, raft, swim, and venture off the beaten path to spot wildlife with guides (and rangers) well-schooled in all things nature. Camping is the pillar of this REI experience. Their “signature camping” platform adds a touch of luxury to the average tent. Staff sets up the camp—complete with cots, padding, and lighting. Meals are taken in a communal Safari-style dining tent.

Bonus: 2016 is the United States National Parks Centennial. There will be enhanced experiences throughout the country to celebrate.

Where to Go You can’t go wrong with visiting the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, or Great Smoky Mountains National Park—all national U.S. treasures.

Price: From $700.


Lindblad Expeditions

Why It’s Great For an experience that channels the daredevil spirit of Swedish explorer Lars-Eric Lindblad (exploring fjords by kayak, hopping on a Zodiac to get up close and personal with a Weddell seal lounging on an ice floe), this ship-based voyage is for you. Lindblad Expeditions joined forces with National Geographic a decade ago. The resulting partnership offer travelers the unique opportunity to interact with National Geographic explorers, researchers, photographers, and filmmakers, along with Lindblad’s own leaders and naturalists. It also means that kids can engage with high-tech toys like underwater cameras, remote-controlled crow’s nest cameras with real-time footage broadcast, and a hydrophone to listen in on whales.

Where to Go: Antarctica, where this polar location offers unmatched wildlife, iceberg exploration, and ‘undersea’ adventures.

Price: From $12,970.


Austin Adventures

Why It’s Great Inspired by parenting his own daughter, founder Dan Austin developed family trips under Austin Adventures that merge enjoyment and education. Kids (and their parents, for that matter) won’t recognize they’re engaged in geology, geography, and social studies-spiked fun. Austin curates teams of indigenous guides in 17 different countries to inject maximum local flavor into their programming. Trips are kept small, and accommodations range from beautiful rustic cabins on a private island to five-star hotels.

Where to Go Alaska, where families can bike along the Kenai Peninsula, kayak by orcas, and traverse the 300-square-mile Harding Icefield.

Price: From $3,498.

Amy Tara Koch writes about family travel and Chicago for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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