Traveling Mom’s Tips on Easy Family-Friendly Destinations

Locations in this article:  San Diego, CA Santa Barbara, CA

Crying kidDoes the term “family vacation” sometimes seem like an oxymoron? Ever return from a family trip so exhausted you needed a vacation to recover from your vacation?

Unless you have a full-time entourage—including someone to lug the diaper bag, someone who can assemble and disassemble a stroller in under 30 seconds, and one person entirely dedicated to handing out snacks—traveling with kids is no easy task.

However, for regular moms on the road, a restful-yet-memorable family vacation is entirely doable. It just takes some serious planning, seeking out a mix of activities and down time, and targeting destinations that embrace families.

But with so many destinations claiming to be kid-friendly, it’s not easy to track down the right place for you and your little ones. So, here are some tips on planning and what amenities to look for from the pros who have trudged the road before you.

Planning for Your Trip

  1. Book your travel for off-peak or shoulder seasons (and, for that matter, plan to eat at off-peak hours). Service people are much more accommodating to your special needs when they don’t have to deal with a crowd.
  2. Whenever possible pick a hotel with a pool. The kids will be happy, it will keep them occupied until their skin shrivels up—and you might get to relax in an adjacent hot tub.
  3. Road trip? Share one suitcase for the entire family. It’s far easier to track one large bag than several small ones. Inside, separate clothes into individual packs for easy access.
  4. Pack no more than four days clothes for each person. If you’re staying longer, find a Laundromat. That’s an adventure itself and opportunity to sit still for an hour.
  5. Find accommodation that offers free continental breakfast. Not only is it a great way to start the day and load up with snacks for later (bring a large purse), a big, free breakfast also lops a good sum off the daily dining bill.
  6. Speaking of snacks, bring them. Wherever you go. Kids live for them and, in the end, it’s cheaper than buying them a lunch they won’t finish. When you’re on the road, you just can’t count on getting what you need for your kids, when they need it. This is also where you’ll learn to love Ziploc bags.

What is a Family-Friendly Restaurant?

Dining at restaurants—yes, in public— is a major component of any vacation. Plenty of resorts and family-oriented destinations offer restaurants that claim to be family-friendly, but what does that really mean? Hint: It’s not just offering a high chair and handing out a few crayons.

  1. A family-friendly restaurant needs to have more than one high chair. Lots of high chairs is preferable. And if the chair straps actually work (more than half are typically broken), that is much appreciated.
  2. A changing station in the bathroom is a must. Better yet, there ought to be a changing station in the unisex bathroom and, ideally, in the men’s room.
  3. When the hostess sees a child enter, it’s a mega-plus if someone brings him or her something to eat immediately. The Cheesecake Factory, for example, immediately brings out a plate of bananas and sliced bread—and earns families’ undying loyalty.
  4. Since half of the kids’ food is going to end up on the floor, no one should raise an eyebrow. Appreciative families can and will tip big. But that’s only if the servers can be sincere and not roll their eyes as they say, “don’t worry about it” when referring to the chicken finger lodged in a chair.

As a traveling mom who has toted around a child since his early days, a few destinations have lived up to their claims of being family-friendly, and offered inspiration on what amenities to seek out in our future travels.

La Costa Spa and Resort – Carlsbad, CA

La Costa Resort room interiorFor those on a higher-end budget, La Costa offers a solid mix of kid appeal with luxuries that parents crave. With balmy weather year-round, its new Splash Landing features three pools and three water slides, plus a water play zone, sandy beach, dive-in movie screen and poolside Splash Café. And with the hip Vibz center for teens and the expansive Kidtopia children’s center, the kids will be well entertained. The famous Legoland, Sea World, San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park are all a short drive away.

For adults, La Costa built its reputation on its spa, two championship golf courses, 17-court tennis center and a state-of-the-art athletic club. Family-friendly activities include crafting, outdoor concerts and family yoga.

Several on-site restaurants offer menus that appeal to both adults and kids: Blue Fire Grill, for example, offers foie gras and filet mignon for adults and mac and cheese for the kids; Legends Bistro’s breakfast buffet can satiate even the pickiest palate. Rates start at $320 (plus a $22 per night resort fee);

Take-Away Tip: Babysitting! La Costa offers two hours of babysitting daily at Kidtopia, giving tired parents an opportunity to nap. Now, that’s priceless!

Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort – Northwest Florida Gulf Coast

Sandestin resortOffering beaches and golf in a year-round destination, Sandestin, Florida is a prime location for family getaways. There are five resort areas—by the beach, the bay, and in the village—and you can choose between hotel-style accommodations or vacation rentals, so there is probably an option that will suit your needs.

The resort offers a family package that includes several free outdoor activities including: bicycling for four hours daily, canoeing and kayaking the Choctawhatchee Bay, an hour of tennis daily, and boogie boarding. There are also several nature trails available for hiking and bird-watching. Rates start at $101 per night;

Take-Away Tip: Golf resorts are great if you’ve got a family member who needs to escape to the greens, but otherwise it’s an extraneous amenity. The free sporting activities, however, are usually well worth it.

Vacation Village – Laguna Beach, CA

Vacation VillageVacation Village in Laguna Beach offers some of the most reasonably-priced beachfront lodging in all of Southern California. Casual, relaxed and even pet-friendly, the resort is situated on a pristine stretch of beach with amenities that include two heated swimming pools, a hot tub, a game room, easy beach access and an adjacent oceanfront restaurant. Centrally located, guests can park the car when they arrive and never drive the entire weekend.

The only drawback is that with the casual atmosphere comes a do-it-yourself attitude. That means no room service, no bellhop, and no continental breakfast. Rates begin at $129 a night.

Take-Away Tip: Along with fast-food restaurants, there is a grocery store just across the street. A nearby store makes it easy to find the kids’ favorite treats at reasonable prices.

Seasons at Sandpoint Resort – Sandpoint, Idaho

The small town of Sandpoint, Idaho is surprisingly delightful, filled with art galleries, boutique shops and funky little eateries, and no corporate mega-stores to spoil the environment.

The Seasons at Sandpoint is a lakefront community that offers apartments looking out onto Lake Pend Oreille. The view is spectacular and apartments are beautifully decorated with huge windows and an ample terrace.

Sandpoint has a well-maintained private sand beach (calm waters, easy access, towels) with a huge pool, a kids’ pool and hot tub that overlook the lake. Unfortunately there are a few down sides, like the fact that the check-in desk is not on property, and there is no room service nor are there any on-site restaurants (but lots of eateries are within walking distance). Rates begin at $300 a night,

Take-Away Tip: A walkable town can go a long way for families. Not only can you spend a delightful afternoon wandering in and out of shops and boutiques, but it will tire the kids out. And, if they get cranky, just stop for ice cream!

The Franciscan Inn – Santa Barbara, CA

Franciscan InnA boutique hotel with a Mediterranean courtyard, the Franciscan is located just one block from the beach, one block from a large park, and three blocks from Stearns Wharf. Fresh-baked cookies, tea and coffee are an afternoon tradition. Rooms are comfortable, clean and come with a little kitchenette. The Inn features a continental breakfast and friendly staff along with a small but well-maintained swimming pool. Rates start at $140 per night;

Take-Away Tip: Location, location, location! Being close to the beach and the park was great, but getting to the restaurants requires walking a few blocks, which is no treat when you’re dealing with a starving kid.

Quail Lodge – Carmel Valley, CA

Quail LodgeNestled on 850 acres in the heart of Carmel Valley, Quail Lodge offers a mix of spa, relaxation and outdoor activities for family adventure. The grounds are spectacular, with wildlife, fragrant gardens and abundant natural beauty.

Families are welcome at the Lodge’s casual restaurant with a wide range of menu choices and a dozen flat screen TVs showing various sporting events. Though this place might be a bit too sophisticated for some kids, its calm atmosphere is a definite plus. Prices start at $199 a night, plus a $21 per night resort fee;

Take-Away Tip: The knowledgeable concierge is an enormous help in keeping kids occupied and interested. Quail Lodge also offers the Lifestyle Academy, through which you can arrange activities like high-speed driving lessons, yacht sailing, beach bonfires or off-road four-wheeling.

Find out How to Make Sure Mom Gets a Break on Vacation.

Get more tips for harried moms in our Women’s Travel section. And don’t miss our new Family Travel section.

For families whose kids are a bit older, don’t miss Traveling with Tweens as well as Hiking Getaways for You and Mom.

By Margot Black for