Imagine Christmas in Europe and summer on a white sandy beach. Now picture what it will be like if you stay home: A messy house overrun with play dates, squabbles over the TV remote, and the constant whine of "I’m bored!" Luckily for you school vacation doesn’t have to feel like house arrest. Those breaks from the classroom are the ideal time to explore a new place and learn about a unique culture. To find out where to go, we talked to some of our favorite travel experts, who also happen to be parents. Read on for their top picks.
Learn about different cultures, even on a budget
"In America, the landscape has changed so much that you don’t have to go overseas to experience the foreign," says Keith Bellows editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine and author of 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life. If you live in a major city, like Chicago or Washington, DC, check out Chinatown, Koreatown, or Little Italy. For a more authentic experience, ask locals where they go to eat or shop, and then follow their advice, suggests Bellows. Smaller cities across the US have thriving ethnic neighborhoods as well (visit your Chamber of Commerce’s website for details).
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Explore abroad for a new perspective on the holidays
Venture overseas during Christmas for a valuable lesson in cultural traditions (try Paris, Rome, or Istanbul). "Everything is beautifully decorated during the holiday season, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about how people in another country celebrate," says Debbie Dubrow of DeliciousBaby.com. To save money on accommodations, consider a house swap through an agency online or Craigslist. You’re sure to find a range of places to stay since so many other people will be traveling as well.
Catch some rays to beat winter boredom
"During winter, we are sun chasers," says Anne Taylor Hartzell, who writes HipTravelMama.com, and soaks up the sunshine with her family in Maui, Palm Springs, and Los Cabos. "Sticking closer to home with small kids has allowed us maximize our vacation time and travel more frequently while it’s dark and rainy here in Seattle." For East coasters, several Caribbean islands are just a short hop away, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Turks & Caicos. Hotel rooms and flights are more expensive at this time of year, so look for deals before you book; Hartzell uses Expedia for hotel bookings and Bing Travel for airfare.
Plan a spring break without the party crowd
Head to Europe—London, Dublin, Algarve, Portugal, and Andalucia, Spain are especially wonderful this time of year. "There are local spring festivals to enjoy and typically prices are low and crowds are sparse," says Michelle Duffy, author of Wander Mom. If traveling with young children, rent an apartment where you can cook meals and avoid housekeeping interruptions during naptime (try vrbo.com and homeaway.com). Before you make your reservation, consult a city map and familiarize yourself with the area; you want to stay near key attractions and public transportation. Comparison shop airfares online, and aim to book your flight five to six months in advance
Take a road trip the whole family will love
Head to a National Park, in late summer or fall, suggests Amy Whitley of Pit Stops for Kids. You can take her family’s favorite parks tour, traveling to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park, in one trip. Or, for an alternate route, drive down California‘s storied Highway 1, to Monterey, Big Sur, and San Simeon. But be careful not to over-schedule things, she cautions. "A trip where you reach a different destination each day can get exhausting more quickly than a trip where you spend multiple nights in one location," she says. "We tend to do a mixture, with two to three nights in one place, then perhaps a quick overnight to reach our next longer stay." Camping is most economical. For less rustic accommodations, look for family-friendly campgrounds with yurts, cabins, or even teepees.
Find a beach that isn’t packed with tourists
Go to the Caribbean over the summer for less-crowded beaches and greater savings. If your family loves to scuba dive or snorkel, try the Cayman Islands. To save money, think Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic. You can also find good deals in Costa Rica and Belize, in Central America, this time of year. (Caveat: You may have afternoon rain showers on these islands because it’s rainy season.) But if you find an amazing hotel deal, snap it up. Otherwise, make a room reservation that you can cancel at any time without a fee. "Then watch for deals as your trip gets closer and cancel your original booking if you find one," explains Dubrow.
Go on that dream vacation—while school is in session
It used to be that schools wouldn’t allow parents to take their kids out of class for a trip, however, times are changing, says Bellows. "As long as you structure your trip around learning opportunities, the schools are jumping onboard." Start with a dream destination, say, China, and then let your kids help plan every leg of your trip. Once you’re there, collect interesting finds along the way, like menus and funny glasses, and make a game of finding unusual storefronts or street signs. Have your kids write about their journey in journals, or make videos of some of their experiences on an iPhone, he suggests. After all, a week exploring China offers lessons that can’t be learned in any classroom.
Photo Credits: Tight Budget: Little Italy via Shutterstock; Explore Abroad: Losevsky Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com; Beat Winter Boredom: Jay Spooner/iStockphoto; Spring Break: Sebastien Cote/iStockphoto; Road Trip: Pdamai | Dreamstime.com; Beach Getaway: s20110509_Grand_Cayman_A_0072 by Doug FinneyAttribution-NoDerivs License; Dream Vacation: Getty Images/iStockphoto