Best family vacation ideas for summer
August 11, 2022 15 min read
When you’re looking for family vacation ideas, there’s a lot to consider. Do you want adventure or laid-back fun? Will there be plenty of attractions for the kids? What about activities for parents and grandparents, too? And then there’s the matter of making your trip memorable—without breaking your budget.
The great news is that the U.S. is filled with choices that’ll check off each of those boxes. So get ready to plan a once-in-a-lifetime family vacation—or the first trip to a place that becomes so special to your family, you’ll visit again and again.
- The U.S. has many family-friendly vacation spots, from the bright lights of New York City to the laid-back beach towns of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
- Travel rewards credit cards can help pay for family travel by allowing you to earn rewards when you make everyday purchases.
- Once you’ve earned rewards, you can use them to pay for flights, hotels and more.
- Strategies like setting a budget, booking in advance and limiting travel distance can also help you save money on family vacations.
1. Orlando, Florida
Situated in the center of sunny Florida, the city of Orlando offers nearly endless things for families to do. For starters, the theme parks are world class. They offer everything from enchanted kingdoms to aquatic wonderlands to unforgettable adventures based on the magic of movies.
But there’s much more to Orlando than its famous theme parks. Try ziplining at Gatorland, for example. Learning about the animals at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. Seeing for yourself how truth really is stranger than fiction at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! And meeting wax likenesses of your favorite sports stars and celebrities at Madame Tussauds Orlando.
2. San Diego, California
It’s no wonder San Diego is one of America’s favorite family vacation spots. The weather’s nearly perfect all year round. Plus, miles and miles of spectacular coastline provide plenty of beach options. Maybe Mission Beach, the quintessential boardwalk beach town? Or Imperial Beach, just five miles from the Mexican border?
While you’re in San Diego, be sure to visit the world-renowned San Diego Zoo and the performing arts centers of Balboa Park. And make time to see a few of the city’s coastal neighborhoods. Each has its own personality, from family-friendly Carlsbad to La Jolla, a favorite of surfers.
3. Outer Banks, North Carolina
The Outer Banks of North Carolina—also known as OBX—can be as laid back or as filled with adventure as you’d like them to be. The family can spend the days swimming in the ocean under bright blue skies. And evenings speeding around a go-kart track or climbing Jockey’s Ridge, the largest sand dune on the East Coast, to watch the sunset.
Oregon Inlet can be a great day trip. So can Hatteras Island and Roanoke Island, with its famous aquarium. For history buffs, there’s the Wright Brothers National Memorial dedicated to the groundbreaking flight of Wilbur and Orville in 1903 and the Candlelight Walking Tour of historic Manteo.
4. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The town of Gatlinburg claims there’s no place in the world quite like it—and your family just might agree. This quaint village nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains is surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Dining, shopping and attractions are an easy walk away. And for more intentional walking, there are miles of trails—offering everything from easy strolls to challenging backcountry hikes.
More adventure awaits at Anakeesta Mountain Top Theme Park with its gondola rides, ziplining and Treetop Skywalk. And Gatlinburg SkyBridge, North America’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, offers panoramic views of the mountains. Add in the museums, arcades and vibrant nighttime music scene, and your Gatlinburg vacation has the potential to be filled with memory-making moments.
5. Cape Cod, Massachusetts
What keeps families coming back to Cape Cod year after year? It’s partly the world-famous beaches. Partly the fresh seafood, with a lobster shack seemingly on every corner. And partly the New England charm.
Adults and kids can fill their days on Cape Cod whale watching, biking, hiking, kayaking and playing rounds of golf under the summer sun. The islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are nearby and ideal for day trips. And museum lovers will enjoy the Cape Cod Children’s Museum in Mashpee, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster and the Whydah Pirate Museum in Yarmouth.
6. Bar Harbor, Maine
Speaking of New England charm—you’ll find loads of it in picturesque Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. The town offers all kinds of family fun with movies, miniature golf and historic walks based on ghost stories like the one of Mary Margaret, the bereaved bride who died in her wedding dress.
One of Bar Harbor’s major claims to fame: It’s the gateway to the 49,000 acres of Acadia National Park, where you can hike and bike. If you’re visiting during the winter, you can try your hand at snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. For a scenic drive, take Park Loop Road with its ocean cliffs, mountain forests and famous attractions like Thunder Hole and Sand Beach.
7. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
You’ll find Harrisburg—Pennsylvania’s capital city—on the banks of the Susquehanna River. While you’re there, be sure to visit the state capitol building with its opulent dome, modeled after the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. You’ll also want to see the science exhibitions at the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, and take in a show at the Planetarium at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
Hersheypark, just east of the city, is a must-see for the kids. The theme park is dedicated to all things chocolate—plus it has rides, roller coasters and a water park. Kids will also enjoy nearby ZooAmerica, the 11-acre, walk-through park spotlighting the plants and animals of North America.
8. Grand Canyon, Arizona
It’s not hard to imagine that the Grand Canyon—one of the seven wonders of the world—might be on your bucket list. Of course it is. The rugged beauty of the place is breathtaking.
Try the South Rim of the canyon, located in Arizona, for what’s generally known as the traditional Grand Canyon experience. It has sweeping views, lots of visitor services and nearly endless choices for family activities. Want to hike the South Rim? Take a mule ride? Experience the canyon by airplane or raft down the Colorado River? Here’s an idea: How about them all?
9. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
The Grand Strand. It’s a great name for a great string of sandy beaches lining the South Carolina coast. Perhaps the most famous of the Grand Strand beaches is Myrtle Beach. What’s there for a family to do? A little of everything.
Watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. Stroll down the boardwalk. Go deep-sea fishing. Enjoy some friendly competition during an afternoon of miniature golf. And watch the night come alive from the top of a Ferris wheel at one of the beach’s many amusement parks.
10. Branson, Missouri
No doubt about it. Branson is well known for its live shows—in fact, Branson calls itself the “live entertainment capital of the world.” But while the shows are great—with everything from comedy to nationally known musicals—they’re just part of what makes Branson ideal for families.
There’s also a historic downtown area that offers free trolly rides, plus museums, golf courses, go-kart tracks, amusement parks, arcades and aquariums. There’s plenty of natural beauty to enjoy, too, since Branson is located in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. That means lots of opportunities for hiking, biking, canoeing, horseback riding, rock climbing and boating on one of Branson’s three lakes—Table Rock Lake, Lake Taneycomo and Bull Shoals Lake.
11. Custer, South Dakota
Custer, the oldest town in the storied Black Hills of South Dakota, has a quirky appeal that should be experienced on its own. But what’s also appealing about Custer is that some of the state’s biggest attractions—Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial and Wind Cave National Park—are just a short drive away.
Additional Black Hills attractions include Wildlife Loop Road, where you’ll wind your way through 18 miles of prairie and—fingers crossed—spot buffalo, elk and antelope. Sylvan Lake offers aquatic adventures like kayaking and paddleboarding. And hot air balloon rides and Jeep safaris are a great way to experience the wide-open spaces that make the Black Hills such a national treasure.
12. Fort Myers, Florida
Located on the Gulf Coast in southwest Florida, Fort Myers has vacation appeal in abundance. Your family can spend long days strolling miles of its beautiful beaches, swimming in sparkling waters and enjoying the island-paradise vibe.
There’s plenty of fun waiting away from the beach, too. You can tour the winter estates of celebrated innovators Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, board a chartered boat for deep-sea fishing, or join a kayak excursion. And the 105-acre Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium invites you to connect with nature through its hiking trails, bird aviary, planetarium and butterfly garden.
13. New York City
It’s pretty safe to say that your family will never run out of things to do in New York—after all, it’s the city that never sleeps. New York is a genuine melting pot of interesting people, fantastic food and exciting things to do.
So, where to start? Catch a cab to Times Square, where the lights dazzle 24 hours a day. Take in the live theater of Broadway. See the city skyline from the Empire State Building’s observation deck. Watch the world go by at Central Park. And—by all means—take a boat ride to New York Harbor to see the Statue of Liberty, the iconic symbol of America’s welcoming spirit.
14. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
When work deadlines and weekday soccer practice make life a little hectic, the ideal solution might be to step into another world at Yellowstone National Park. At Yellowstone—the world’s first national park—the family can enjoy spectacular hiking trails, sun-soaked prairies and abundant wildlife including bison, wolves and grizzly bears.
You’ll want to see Old Faithful, of course. Yellowstone’s famous geyser is indeed faithful—it’s erupted more than a million times since the park was established in 1872. And while Grand Prismatic Hot Spring isn’t as well known, it’s just as memorable in its own way. It’s big—the third-largest spring in the world, in fact. And it’s beautiful, with bright blue water at the center rimmed by successive bands of bright green, yellow and orange water.
15. Williamsburg, Virginia
Together with Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg forms Virginia’s Historic Triangle—so named for the major role the three cities played in the early history of the U.S. Many of Williamsburg’s attractions shine a light on that history, including museums dedicated to the country’s colonial and American Revolution eras. And then there’s Colonial Williamsburg—on more than 300 acres, it’s America’s largest living-history museum—with costumed actors bringing the 18th-century version of the city to life.
Yes, Williamsburg is a blast from the past. But that’s not all it is. Today’s city is also modern and fun, with a major theme park, plenty of restaurants, miniature golf and public parks for enjoying the great outdoors.
16. Ocean City, Maryland
Ocean City is one of America’s quintessential family-friendly resort towns. It’s got a world-renowned boardwalk that’s perfect for biking on warm summer nights. It’s got 10 miles of sandy beaches, free to the public for swimming, boating and jet skiing. And it’s got amusement parks, arcades, water parks, miniature golf and more.
Pencil in a day for leaving the fun of Ocean City behind for the wild beauty of Assateague Island National Seashore—it’s just a short drive away. The seashore is known for its solitude, camping, recreational activities and wildlife—including the famous wild ponies that wander its beaches and marshes.
17. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Dells in southern Wisconsin is all about family-friendly vacations. One big reason? Waterparks. The city calls itself “The Waterpark Capital of the World” and for good reason—it’s home to an abundance of them, including the largest in the U.S. Other Wisconsin Dells attractions include amusement parks, trampoline parks, ropes courses, petting zoos and horse stables for trail rides.
Scenic tours of all kinds are big in Wisconsin Dells—sunset boat tours, jet boat tours, lost canyon tours, fishing tours, zipline tours and after-dark ghost tours. The Mid-Continent Railway Museum is a popular family destination, as is the Dells Scenic River Walk with beautiful views of the Wisconsin River and its sandstone bluffs.
18. Washington, D.C.
One thing that’s often true about family vacations in Washington, D.C.: No matter how long your stay is, it won’t be long enough. That’s because D.C. is brimming with art, history, culture and adventure. So put on your walking shoes and plan to see as many of the city’s monuments, museums and neighborhoods as you can.
Start with the Smithsonian museums like the National Air and Space Museum—because they’re America’s museums, there’s no charge to get in. Check out the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. Explore the National Mall and visit the nearby memorials honoring Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln. Take in the lively atmosphere of Georgetown. Head to Penn Quarter and see what events are happening at Capital One Arena. And go back in time in the Hall of Fossils at the National Museum of Natural History—it’s a D.C. must-see for kids who can’t get enough of dinosaurs.
19. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains was designated in 1890. The country’s third national park is perhaps best known for its waterfalls like Horsetail Fall on the eastern edge of El Capitan—for two weeks in February, the water glows deep orange as the sun washes over it while setting. Your visit to Yosemite will also include Ice Age glaciers, vast stretches of wilderness, deep valleys, lush meadows—and the park’s world-famous giant sequoia trees.
The sequoias live in three groves in Yosemite. Mariposa Grove is home to more than 500 of the trees and generally considered the easiest grove to access. Other activities at Yosemite include camping, hiking, fishing, wilderness backpacking, birdwatching, stargazing—and so much more.
20. Niagara Falls, New York
With its majestic beauty, Niagara Falls thrills visitors from around the world all year long. Niagara Falls isn’t just one waterfall, but three—American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls, the largest—collectively grouped under a single name. The falls span the border between the U.S. and Canada, with the U.S. side located in western New York.
When you visit the U.S. side, plan to spend lots of time at Niagara Falls State Park. The park offers sightseeing boat tours on the iconic Maid of the Mist, giving you the chance to see the falls from on the water. Or go deep into the Niagara Gorge to the Cave of the Winds, where you’ll experience the falls in extreme close-up from an observation platform. Be sure to catch the spectacular nighttime fireworks show if you’re at the park during warm-weather season, and the illumination of the falls, which begins at dusk every night of the year.
How to save on a family vacation this summer
When it comes to family vacations, a big budget can certainly add to the fun. But it’s not a deal breaker.
Check out these strategies for saving money on your next family trip. Plus, get even more inspiration with these 16 money-saving ideas from Travel + Leisure magazine.
Use travel rewards
If you don’t already have a travel rewards credit card, it might be an idea worth considering. They allow you to earn rewards when you make purchases—and then use those rewards to pay for airline tickets, car rentals, stays at your favorite hotels and more.
With a travel rewards card, you generally earn rewards by making everyday purchases—groceries, gas and electronics, for example. It may help to compare travel rewards cards before you apply for one—that’s because each has its own combination of rewards structure, benefits and special perks.
Book in advance
According to Travel + Leisure, booking in advance may help you save money on things like flights and hotels. There might also be times when waiting to book could help you save. But getting plans settled early could be especially helpful if you’re planning a vacation around a major summer holiday, like the Fourth of July. Plus, it’s one less thing to worry about.
Set a budget
When you take a family vacation, it can be tempting to throw caution to the wind so that you can see and do everything. After all, this is your time together, and you want it to be the best it can be. But it’s possible to save money on travel and still have a great time.
One way to save on travel is to plan ahead. So decide where you’ll go, where you’ll stay and what you’ll do on your trip. Research the cost for flights, hotels, food, activities and attractions so there are no surprises. Then create a budget for your vacation—and resolve to stick to it.
Save on food and activities
When you travel, you have costs associated with getting to your destination—like airline tickets and rental cars. And costs associated with being there—things like food and activities—which can add up quickly.
Because restaurant prices can drain a family vacation budget, think about staying somewhere with a kitchen. That way, you can make your own meals and avoid restaurants. And consider trading expensive touristy attractions for simpler, more local experiences. It could make your family vacation less expensive and, at the same time, more authentic.
Limit travel distance or take a staycation
If you’re looking to save money on gas or flights, it could help to limit the distance you travel. Plan to vacation in a nearby state, for example, rather than jetting off to the other side of the country.
You may also want to consider taking a staycation, which can make memories that are every bit as good as those made on a traditional vacation. And it gives you more time to plan and save for one of the destinations above.
So pitch a tent and camp out in the backyard. Have a family spa day. And play tourist in your own town and see sights that are new to you.
Family vacation ideas in a nutshell
When it comes to family vacation spots, the U.S. has nearly endless choices. Love New England? Consider a week in Cape Cod. Want to see one of the natural wonders of the world? Plan a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to the Grand Canyon. Never been to Mount Rushmore? Then book a trip to Custer this summer.
While you’re planning your trip, you can also think about strategies for making it easier to afford. Set a budget and try to stick to it, if you can. Book in advance, especially if you’re traveling over popular summer holidays. And consider using a travel rewards credit card to help pay for things like flights, hotels, rental cars and more.
Check out how travel rewards cards work to see if one might make sense for you. Then finalize your family vacation plans and have a great time.