Family Vacation Planning Guide

Family Vacation Planning Guide

Brian Cronin
Brian Cronin

The dilemma is strictly 21st century: too many options and not enough time. And the stakes are high, because for parents a family vacation isn't just R&R—it's an opportunity for the family to be together and for the kids to learn something new, broaden their horizons. Of course, budget is a factor; balancing price and profit is the goal. So we did the work for you, calculating the costs of seven great weeklong escapes and then devising ways to economize. The numbers are based on trips for a family of four traveling from a central point in the United States, booked at least 21 days in advance. Rates are approximate (airfares in particular fluctuate from day to day) and do not include tips. Pick your pleasure.

Cruising: Waterworld
Regular Price: $11,895 Discount Price: $8,535

Kids and cruises once seemed an unlikely combination. But families now know that traveling by ship is a way to visit several places on one trip without constantly having to pack and unpack—a big plus for parents whose children have yet to learn the art of folding. Besides, most cruise lines offer children's programs, and kids, of course, relish the freedom of life on board.

Royal Caribbean (800/327-6700; cruises the Inside Passage of Alaska—an itinerary that combines spectacular views with an education in Native American culture and even the odd sighting of a bear or bald eagle.

What it costs: Brochure rates for the seven-day cruise in July, based on a family stateroom that can sleep up to six, start at $8,360 for a family of four ($3,180 per adult, $1,000 per child, plus taxes), which includes dining, entertainment, the Adventure Ocean "edu-tainment" program (an all-day kids' camp), and transportation to and from the Vancouver airport. Factor in $2,160 for airfare from Chicago. It's a good idea to pay an additional $360 for cruise insurance; also figure approximately $1,000 for shore excursions—one or two per port. After all, when will the family have another chance to pan for gold or visit a totem village?(Many passengers on Caribbean cruises save on the cruise line's excursions by booking shore trips independently or simply hiring a taxi for a day of sightseeing. This is not an easy option in Alaska.) Bar drinks and sodas add to the bill, although kids can get $15 unlimited-soda tickets. Total: $11,895 plus.

How to save: Travel agents specializing in cruises and businesses that book blocks of cabins can have substantially lower rates. They also offer helpful advice. For example: family staterooms may not be necessary, because a standard stateroom sleeps four. Best Price Cruises (800/672-7485; quotes $5,700 for a standard ocean-view stateroom on the same cruise in July, including airfare from Chicago and taxes. Total, with the shore excursions and the other extras: $9,235 plus.

Cruise prices are extremely season-sensitive. Alaska's high season is June through August. Parents whose children don't return to school until after Labor Day can cut costs by going late in the summer, when the weather is less predictable but there's a better chance of spotting wildlife. Best Price quotes $5,418 for a late-August booking and seems confident that the price will dip to well under $5,000 as the launch draws near. Total for late August: $8,535 to $8,953 plus.

Cruising Resources
Cruise LinesInternational Association industry info site with links, destination advice, and an agent-finder function.
Cruisemates Cruise hints, opinions, and planning help, in a virtual community setting.
A1SuperCruises; 877/787-8785. Cruise consolidator with special deals and discounts on all cruise lines.

All-Inclusives: A Done Deal
Regular Price: $6,484 Discount Price: $3,572

The term all-inclusive sounds like perfection—cultural experience be damned. A family beach resort with a kids' program, one in which participants can be kept busy morning till night while parents play separately, sounds just fine. So does the idea of never having to open your wallet.

How about spending the week of Presidents' Day at a Florida all-inclusive?Club Med Sandpiper (888/258-2633 or 561/398-5100, fax 561/398-5101;, a riverside family resort north of Palm Beach, has a children's program that's famous for, among other things, its Circus School, where kids can perfect their trapeze acts.

What it costs: The family total for a quad runs $5,922 (plus $170 for Club Med's required annual and lifetime initiation fees), including round-trip airfare and trip-cancellation insurance. Of course, there are always surprises. Sandpiper has several optional excursions, such as a trip to Disney's Magic Kingdom. The kids will insist on going: that's $325 for four. If Dad wants to play a few rounds of golf and Mom decides on a spa treatment, they'll spend $47 more. Drinks at the bar and endless sodas for the kids could also add significantly to the week's bill. And tack on $10 per lost beach towel for two children who can't remember which of the four pools they left theirs by. Total: $6,484 plus.

How to save: Club Med often has special deals (see Family Values, . Also—and this goes for any family vacation—think about a midweek departure and return. You'll save significantly on airfare.

All-inclusives Resources
ClubMed; 888/943-9415. Online descriptions of its locations around the world.
Beaches; 888/232-2437.All-inclusive resorts in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos.
Worldwide Vacations; 800/926-6836.Booking site featuring all-inclusives for families.

House Rentals: Do It Yourself
Regular Price: $4,888 Discount Price: $3,976

There are many advantages to renting a house on vacation rather than staying in a resort—total independence, the freedom to set your own pace, and most of all, the chance to really get to know a place instead of a processed version of it. You and your children shop in local markets, chat with merchants, and pick up a few new words—even an accent. While this type of holiday certainly involves more effort than a week at a resort, it shouldn't be too much work: rental villas or condos in the Caribbean, for example, usually include daily maid service and often a cook. Best of all, vacation rentals are usually a great deal. Because owners often put their houses up for rent directly on the Internet, they don't have to cover advertising costs.

A one-bedroom beachfront villa in Jamaica at Negril's Rondel Village (800/544-5979 or 876/957-4413, fax 876/957-4915; comes with pool, Jacuzzi, satellite TV, and full kitchen, and it's close to many of the town's main attractions.

What it costs: For the week of President's Day, you'll pay $2,318 (less if your kids are under 10, since they stay free), which includes all taxes and transportation to and from the Montego Bay airport. Plan on $2,070 for airfare, $300 for groceries, about $100 for a few meals out, and $100 for horseback rides, paddleboat rentals, and snorkeling trips for the kids. The grand total: $4,888.

How to save: By booking your trip with wholesaler GOGO Worldwide Vacations (you must go through a travel agent), you can get a family package rate, including the villa and airfare, of about $4,000. You could also reserve a garden-view villa rather than a beachfront one (about $240 less). But your best bet is to take advantage of seasonal fluctuations: Caribbean prices plummet in low season—mid-April to mid-December. For a Thanksgiving vacation, GOGO's beachfront villa package price is $3,476 for the week. Total, with food and the extras: $3,976.

Rental Resources
There are many large clearinghouses on the Internet that help you find vacation rentals; two of the biggest and best are; both have worldwide inventories and searchable databases.
WIMCO Villas and Hotels; 800/932-3222. The undisputed authority on high-end villas in the Caribbean, with limited offerings in Europe.
Barclay International Group; 800/845-6636. Apartments, villas, cottages, and condos in Europe; last-minute specials.

Resorts: Vacation À la carte
Regular Price: $9,865 Discount Price: $7,774

Hawaii is the land of aloha, and the land of cushy family accommodations, though not of the all-inclusive sort. To explore the islands fully, you need the freedom to make your own schedule, choose your own activities, and eat where and when you please.

A one-week stay at the Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort & Spa (800/554-9288 or 808/742-1234, fax 808/742-1557;(, a low-key, elegant resort on Kauai, has plenty to offer parents and kids (elaborate, interconnected pools, a full-service spa, a super golf course). And it makes good financial sense: the Hyatt helps parents steal some privacy by giving 50 percent off a second room for the kids, and outside the resort, Kauai's natural wonders—which earn it the nickname "Garden Island"—often come free.

What it costs: The hotel's published rates for seven nights in garden-view rooms are $2,450 for the first room, $1,225 for the second; add $420 for taxes. Parents can dine sumptuously, and children happily, for $1,000, but you can spend less by also trying local restaurants and fast-food lunch joints (teriyaki burgers!). You'll need a car to get around: figure on $200 more for a week's rental. Some of the most stunning parts of Kauai are inaccessible by car, however, so factor in $400 for a half-day sail up the Na Pali coastline. A treatment at the resort's open-air spa (you won't want to miss it) adds $100. And a few half-days for the kids at Camp Hyatt will cost $120. Round-trip airfare for four comes to about $3,500. Add trip-cancellation insurance at $450. Total: $9,865.

How to save: Hawaii is a year-round destination—rates aren't generally seasonal (they vary marginally, if at all), but most resorts have special packages as well as kids-stay-free deals for families who can squeeze into one room. The Hyatt's Sunshine on Sale package (available all year except around Christmas and New Year's) includes breakfast for two, all taxes, and a sixth night free. If you book through a tour operator that includes car rental and airfare in the package, such as Pleasant Holidays (800/742-9244; www., the price bottoms out at $5,954. Total with meals, Camp Hyatt, the sail, spa treatment, and other add-ons: $7,774.

Resort Resources
In addition to Hyatt, many kid-friendly hotels and resort groups give breaks for families, including Hilton (; 800/445-8667), Wyndham (; 800/996-3426), and the Pacific chain Outrigger (; 800/688-7444).; 517/381-0751.This massive resort listing is searchable by activity, location, and type of accommodation.

Urban Escape: See the City
Regular Price: $4,016 Discount Price: $3,492

With the world's cultural capitals frantically re-creating themselves as child-friendly tourist destinations—take a look at New York City's Times Square—and transatlantic airfares dropping as low as or lower than many domestic ones, parents don't have to wait until their children are grown up to introduce them to a European city. A week in Paris or London might not be the most relaxing one of your life, but even stressed-out urbanites may be willing to trade lounge chairs for the pleasure of getting to know the treasures of somebody else's back yard. And there's nothing like Christmas in London: magical holiday windows, Christmas pudding, the uniquely British, traditional pantomimes.

Scores of airlines, in collaboration with hotels, offer modestly priced family packages to European cities. Some of the best, like the Spotlight on Family package to London from Virgin Atlantic Vacations (888/937-8474;, include airfare and a choice of hotels in various price ranges, plus transfers and vouchers for selected attractions (Madame Tussaud's, the London Planetarium, the Tower of London).

What it costs: If you opt for the Jarvis Kensington hotel (where kids stay free), the Virgin package comes to $2,416 for six nights—$789 for each adult, $419 per child—including taxes. Factor in an extra $1,200 or so for meals and snacks (breakfast is included with the room) and $200 for public transportation. On top of that, assume you'll discover at least a few attractions more exciting than those included in the package, so add about $200. Total: $4,016.

How to save: A city vacation can be more economical, not to mention more spontaneous and rewarding, when your outings aren't dictated by a package. Virgin's London Experience offers the same choices as the Spotlight on Family, minus the vouchers, and costs about $125 less per person—more than enough to pay for admissions to the sights you want to visit, especially since many of the best (Regent's Park, Portobello Road, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, jugglers at Covent Garden) are entirely free. London Transport's Travelcards, which cost $176 for four, cover all public transportation and include discounts to attractions and restaurants.

Real cost-effectiveness is attained through flexibility. Christmas, Easter, and summer are the peak seasons in Europe, but the week of President's Day has no significance there. Postponing your London trip until February (no Christmas lights, but no two-hour lines for the Dome, either) means you pay $2,116, including taxes, for the six-night London Experience. By booking it 90 days in advance, you earn an additional discount of $50 per person. Add the restaurant bills, Travelcards, and admissions for a total of $3,492.

Urban Escape Resources
Tickets to . .; 800/869-8184. European city tour packages at bargain-basement prices, plus guided tours and discount rail passes.
Hotel Reservations; 800/964-6835. Hotel consolidator with discounted rooms in 68 North American and 12 European locations. Air, hotel, and car discount site updated daily.

Adventure Travel: A Wild Ride
Regular Price: $7,476 Discount Price: $6,501

These days, adventure vacations are no longer just for daredevils—or even just adults. You can safely take a young child rock climbing, hiking in the wilderness, or white-water rafting with an outfitter that specializes in family adventure vacations. These trips are designed to teach novices basic skills and respect for the environment. Naturalist guides who have ample experience with kids lead the best trips, which include nature walks, fishing, storytelling, and games, along with plenty of water play. The level of comfort varies by outfitter. Some arrange nights at inns along the way; most provide equipment for sleeping under the stars. Outdoor dining can be basic or offer both children's fare and adult menus.

A summertime rafting vacation with River Odysseys West (800/451-6034; on Idaho's Lower Salmon River is a great choice. The river has easy rapids and is bordered by Indian sites and sandy beaches perfect for camping and swimming. All equipment is provided, and you'll get three hearty meals a day, plus wine at dinner.

What it costs: River Odysseys West charges $4,230 for its five-day, four-night Family Focus trip ($1,095 per adult, $895 per child, plus taxes). Since the adventure begins bright and early on your first morning, and you can't count on returning in time to catch an evening flight on your last day, the outfitter recommends booking pre- and post-trip accommodations; this will also give you some extra time to explore the area on your own. Add $146 for two nights at the Quality Inn and about $100 for two days' dining and trailside picnic lunches. Airfare for four to Lewiston comes to about $3,000. Total: $7,476.

How to save: Flying into Spokane, Washington, instead and renting a car (approximately $450 per person for airfare, $225 for the rental) saves $975 and means you'll have a car for the extra days in the Lewiston area. Total: $6,501.

Reputable outfitters won't skimp on professional-grade equipment and well-trained guides, especially when children are involved; this elevates the costs of operators such as River Odysseys West. However, an environmentally oriented nonprofit organization, the American River Touring Association (800/323-2782;, attracts families by offering special youth rates on its excellent, if less elaborate, adventure packages. Alternatively, families can save time and money by booking their trip through an adventure-vacation specialist and wholesaler, such as Gorp (877/440-4677;, which makes arrangements with a reputable outfitter; books pre- and post-trip accommodations, insurance, and airfare; and tracks fares to watch for airline sales.

Adventure Resources
Family Adventure Travel Directory Worldwide listing of adventure travel trips specifically for families, from Alaska to the Amazon.; 800/439-7567. Go online or call to speak with an adventure travel specialist who has family expertise. Special deals, too.

Camping: At Home on the Range
Regular Price: $391

No vacation gets a family working and playing together as closely as a camping trip. Without TV and organized activities to keep everybody busy, the thing to do is enjoy one another. And although gathering firewood is a labor-intensive way to start dinner, planning the vacation is easy. You don't even have to invest in a tent: many national parks, as well as state parks and forests, have cabins.

At Lost Lake Camp (reserve through Wild Rivers Realty; 800/650-2842), six hours by car from Chicago in Wisconsin's Nicolet National Forest, eight one-room cabins are set among tall trees on the shore of an 89-acre lake that's great for swimming, fishing, and boating. Each has electricity, bunk beds, a table and chairs, a fire pit outside, and access to bathhouses. Campers bring everything else, from utensils to bedding.

What it costs: Cabin rental is $220 for the week, and the park's vehicle permit costs $21. Recreation is free: hiking on forest trails, swimming in the lakes, playing on the beaches, gathering blackberries. Three meals for four at local restaurants might cost $150. There's no refrigerator to stock; you bring non-perishables and spend practically nothing on groceries. The total: $391. The bargain hunter is stumped. There's no way to save on this one.

Camping Resources
National Park; 800/365-2267.Links, descriptions, and comprehensive information on every national park with camping facilities in the United States.
Camp-a-Roo planning tool with a first-timer's guide to camping with kids.


The Web has started to transformcoupons from "clip and save" to "click and save." All you have to do is print the e-coupons and use them like any others.

To track down travel-related coupon sites, visit a search engine such as or and enter words like "coupon hotel," "coupon rental car," and other appropriate terms (e.g., "special" or "discount"). Refine your search by adding a city or state.

Be sure to read the fine print for expiration dates and other details. Here, some worthwhile cyber-coupon sources:



  • Learn about deep discounts from some 5,000 hotels, motels, and resorts at At Seven Hills Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, you can cut your bill in half by using the Roomsaver coupon for a nightly rate of $55.
  • Also check in at A night at TownePlace Suites by Marriott in Fort Worth, Texas, for example, goes for $69, but it's $49 with the site's coupon.


  • Goodbye Neon, hello Grand, Dollar Rent A Car's site, has a free one-class upgrade coupon.
  • Check out local outlets too.,Web site of the Budget Rent a Car near Chicago's O'Hare, gives you a fifth day free.


  • has slopeside specials at dozens of resorts. Click for a fifth night free when you book four nights at Colorado's Château at Vail.
  • Connection.htmgives 20 percent discounts on weekday California rafting trips.
  • has a roundup of trail-ride discounts. Tour Alaska's Tongass National Forest with MoonsShadow Equestrians for $25 off the regular $100 price tag. Ride 'em, coupons!

Explore More

More from T+L