11 magical places to take your family on vacation (that aren't Disney)
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Let’s face it, many families visit Disney and other amusement parks because they make for an easy an all-in-one vacation that includes on-site accommodations, entertainment galore and restaurants with kid-friendly menus. But there are so many more options out there for family fun.
If you’ve been searching for something a bit different from riding a flume for the umpteenth time, consider these 11 places around the world that are magical for adults and kids alike (in a non-Disney sort of way).
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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is in the southern part of Vietnam and well-known from its history during the Vietnam War. The list of things to do with kids in Ho Chi Minh City is endless, and spending a week there, like we did, may not be enough to cover all the things that you may want to do.
Do note that a visa is required for American citizens going to Vietnam; however, the process can be completed online and your visa emailed to you in just a few days.
Your kids will enjoy visiting the many temples, taking a cooking class, exploring all the local markets (especially the popular Ben Than Market), eating street food and taking a day trip to the Mekong Delta. Excursions are fairly easy to book while in Vietnam, and affordable also, by using the Klook app (similar to Groupon in the USA). If you prefer to have an itinerary beforehand, you can use Klook or a travel agency.
For safety reasons, make sure to carry a backpack instead of a cross-body purse and keep all your belongings close to you at all times. Although Ho Chi Minh is safe, theft does happen.
Vietnamese people love children, so your kids will be happily welcomed everywhere you visit.
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If you're looking for good Southern food, culture and friendly people, then visiting this New Orleans should be at the top of your list. Most people don't think of New Orleans as a kid-friendly destination, but it absolutely is. It's actually my family's favorite U.S. location to visit with kids.
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While in New Orleans, make sure to visit the world famous Cafe Du Monde for the best beignets. We've had beignets all over the world; however, there is just something different about the beignets at this location.
The most affordable way to see the city is to purchase a New Orleans Pass. With this pass you'll be able to visit over 25 top attractions in the city such as the New Orleans Audubon Aquarium, The National World War II Museum, the Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium, Mardi Gras World and more. A one-day New Orleans Pass costs $71 for adults and $55 for kids 3 to 12 years old.
Although a visit to the Whitney Plantation isn't included with the New Orleans pass, I highly recommend that you take your kids there to teach them the truth about slavery. Whitney Plantation offers a tour based on the experiences of slaves, and is the best former slave plantation to visit in New Orleans. You can book a tour online or at the concierge desk of your hotel.
If cruising is your thing, then consider adding on a cruise from New Orleans to extend your vacation.
Famous for its turquoise waters and dramatic limestone karst formations, Phuket is one of Asia's most dreamy and exotic locales. In addition to the island's natural beauty, there are also many cultural attractions such as Buddhist temples like Wat Chalong, which make it a hot spot for families. The beaches are gorgeous and the locals are warm and welcoming. It's the kind of place where you and your family can slow down and reconnect with each other.
Families can frolic on gleaming white beaches, partake in exceptional snorkeling, and spend seemingly endless hours swimming and sunbathing. When the kids are bored with the beach and cultural exploration, there are plenty of other activities to check out. Your kids can learn to surf in a wave pool at Surf House Phuket FlowRider at the southern end of Kata Beach Road, play mini-golf at Dino Park, visit a go-kart speedway or explore the Phuket Aquarium.
Accommodations and meals are affordable in Thailand, and if you can avoid peak season, you’re guaranteed an even more favorable rate. With accommodation costs starting around $40 per night, you can take your time on Thailand's largest island, Phuket.
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Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Mexico is a nation of music and dance and is another solid travel destination for families. In Puerto Vallarta, there are colorful markets and delicious, flavorful fare you can actually enjoy on a budget — even during the peak summer season.
In Puerto Vallarta, attractions such as horseback riding and ziplining can be quite affordable. My family found a great ziplining deal when we vacationed in Puerto Vallarta through Estigo Tours that cost $35 per person, or $175 for our family of five. This is the cheapest zipline tour we've ever booked.
Even with a limited budget, you can book a family-friendly resort featuring a pool with waterslides and a children’s club. And if you have an annual Marriott 35,000-point free night certificate, you can stay at a Marriott resort right on the beach for free. With World of Hyatt points, consider an all-inclusive resort getaway to Hyatt Ziva instead.
Kenya is the epitome of a magical vacation destination, especially for animal lovers, and a logical starting point for families interested in African vacations. Nairobi is known for its sprawling grasslands and the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where you can witness the phenomenal annual wildebeest migration (usually in late November and December). On the other extreme edge of the country, there are unsung beaches along the Mombasa coastline. The culture is diverse, with more than 42 tribes in the area. Visiting Nairobi is the type of adventure your kids will remember for a lifetime.
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When visiting Nairobi with your kids, take them to the David Sheldrick Trust Elephant Orphan Center, a safe space for orphaned baby elephants and rhinos. Here, kids can watch baby animals being cared for and learn more about them. At the Giraffe Centre, kids can even help feed the resident giraffes. Don't skip the Village Market, Maasai Ostrich Farm and Nairobi Arboretum.
For a full safari, consider Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara. Nairobi National Park, inside the city, is also an unexpected option. Although smaller than the other parks, it's still a wonderful place to bring kids for a ride in a private or shared vehicle. Just don't forget to pack safari hats, neutral-hued clothes and binoculars for every member of the family.
Vacationing in Las Vegas may not seem all that magical at first glance, but scattered across the city are a number of rides, games and theme parks that delight families (OK, this one is a little Disney-esque). You can visit the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay to experience marine life in the middle of a desert, or you can take a turn on the new High Roller observation wheel, which gives you an epic view of the city and beyond. You could even take a gondola ride at The Venetian and have your kids entertained by Italian crooning without having to take a flight to Italy. The Discovery Children’s Museum also gets high marks from parents.
A family can enjoy a vacation to Las Vegas without ever visiting the Strip. There are plenty of free outdoor activities, such as hiking at Red Rock Canyon and visiting the Hoover Dam (though the official dam tour is neither free nor appropriate for small children). Another free place to visit with a family is the Downtown Container Park, which has a few outdoor areas for kids and restaurants where families can eat and relax.
Although many shows and attractions in the city have an adult theme, there are family-friendly options, including the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur, the Fall of Atlantis at Caesars Palace, the Mac King Comedy Magic Show at Harrah’s and the Blue Man Group show at Luxor.
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Hotel prices vary widely in Las Vegas, but you can usually find decent accommodations starting at $100 per night. If you are spending a little more and have The Platinum Card® from American Express, try and make use of the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts perks such as late check-out, resort credits and free breakfast. Alternatively, there are low-cost timeshare rentals available, so your family can really spread out.
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Sweden's laid-back atmosphere and family-friendly capital should be on your family's travel radar. Plus, Stockholm has a variety of hotels you can book with points, such as the Hilton Stockholm Slussen, where kids even eat free.
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There are plenty of free museums to visit in Stockholm, including the Medieval Museum, Moderna Museet, The Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum. And don't miss the public parks scattered across the city, such as Rålambshovsparken, Tessinparken, Vasaparken, Stora Blecktornsparken and Bryggartäppan. Your kids will love a chance to run around in these lovely green and "magical" spaces.
When riding the bus or train in Sweden, kids under the age of 7 can travel for free with an adult, and up to six children under 12 can travel for free during weekends with an adult. If you prefer to be away from the city, Sweden is full of stunning landscapes, including quiet forests and medieval towns such as Visby. The rugged beauty of the country makes for fantastic outdoorsy (and thrifty) activities such as hiking, camping and fishing.
There are roughly 20,000 temples on the island of Bali, and the rice-terraced landscape is probably unlike anything your kids have ever seen. Bali's beaches are ideal for surfing and diving, and if spirituality is important to your family, you can easily join others in the practice of meditation and yoga. If you love fresh tropical fruit and Indonesian cuisine, you will be in heaven here.
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There are two seasons in Bali: the wet season, which runs from October to March, and the dry season, which runs from April to September. When visiting with kids, travel during the dry season to maximize your time outdoors. A few fun things that your children may enjoy are the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Bali Bird Park, Tirta Empul Temple and Elephant Safari Park. There are also several family-friendly beachfront resorts in Kuta, such as Cheeky Monkeys, which offers child care.
Although flying to Chile can be expensive, the country is affordable once on the ground. The long coastline provides for a land of extremes. From the driest desert in the world to old-growth rainforests and ancient glaciers framed by towering mountain peaks, Chile offers a wealth of experiences for every type of traveler. The Chilean people are very friendly, and the wine is excellent for parents.
There are hotels in Chile, but to get the best deal, I recommend booking a home on Airbnb for your stay. In Santiago, we stayed in a property in the heart of downtown, within walking distance to several restaurants and public transportation.
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You can book tours ahead of time or wait until you arrive to map out your time. Many Airbnb owners have connections with tour operators and can offer a generous discount when booking through them. We booked all our tours once in Chile and, though they were private, we still enjoyed reasonable rates.
You might be surprised to find Cairo on the list, but Egypt is actually an amazing place to visit with your family. Not only is Egypt inexpensive but it's also a breathtaking place to explore. You’ll be able to stay in five-star luxury hotels for a remarkably affordable price using cash or points. For example, there are several Hilton hotels in Egypt available for just 5,000 Hilton Honors points per night. With coral reefs and striking deserts, Cairo is a destination your children won't soon forget.
Of course, you can't fly to Egypt without visiting the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, where you and your children will learn about how the tomb of one of the most famous pharaohs of Egypt, King Tutankhamen, was unearthed.
On your family's visit, you can also learn about the nation's livelihood, culture and food as you take a boat cruise along the Nile. The beaches along the Red Sea are wide and ideal for a family beach day. During our family's trip to Cairo, we had no safety concerns and roamed the streets without issue. Security guards patrolled the perimeters of the hotel and ensured that only hotel guests are allowed in and out.
Yosemite National Park
Camping can help your family break free from the daily grind, de-stress and connect with the magic of nature and each other. The trick is to find a good campground. Yosemite has options for RVs, camper-vans and tents. Build a campfire to enjoy with the kids in the evening as you take in Yosemite's unparalleled natural beauty. At night, don't forget to look skyward to see twinkling stars.
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Yosemite National Park has several popular and family-friendly campgrounds that book up far in advance, so you'll want to reserve your space as soon as the date becomes available. Campsites range from $8 to $16 on a first-come, first-served basis and from $26 for family or group reservations. Three of the most popular campgrounds at Yosemite National Park for families are Upper Pines, Lower Pines and North Pines.
When booking a campground, call in advance to confirm what amenities are available. Access to showers, bathrooms, a river, pool or a play area go a long way when camping with kids.
The world is big, beautiful and full of natural magic and wonder. Take that trip to Disney, but don't stop there. Keep going around the world with your family to experience a breadth of experiences and destinations waiting to be discovered.