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Active Vacations

If fitness is important to your family, an active vacation might sound appealing. It's a chance to do things your family already enjoys and maybe try something new.

But before you pack the hiking boots, bike helmets, and swim goggles, here's how to plan a trip that will be fun without being exhausting, especially for young travelers.

What's an Active Vacation?

Lots of vacations are active, but specifically planning an active vacation means you're looking for an extra measure of physical activity. Instead of only going to the beach, for example, you might choose a hotel that offers tennis lessons, fishing excursions, and shuttles to a nearby water park.

For a trip to a big city, an active trip could include walking tours, visits to museums and zoos, ice skating or inline skating in a local park, then ending each day with a dip in the hotel pool. Then there are full-fledged adventure vacations that focus on whitewater rafting, downhill skiing, scuba diving, or mountain biking.

Camping is another popular choice and can be affordable or extravagant, depending on where you go and how much camping gear you already own. The nation's 388 national parks offer a wide range of activities, from nature walks to a program that awards your child the distinction of being a Junior Ranger.

Step 1: Choose Your Destination

After the adults decide on the vacation budget and a couple of trip ideas, it's a good time to get the kids involved. Older kids might want to vote on the list of possible trips, while younger kids will appreciate seeing photos of where you've decided to go and all the fun stuff to do there.

Because you're trying to incorporate activity, it's important to consider each family member's interests and needs. If mom is an expert skier but everyone else is a novice, will that work? Perhaps — if the resort offers ski lessons for the rookies as well as other options for when the slopes have grown tiresome, such as toboggan rides, ice skating, and arts and crafts at the lodge.

Travel websites and alumni associations often can provide low-cost deals on trips. Look into vacation packages for families because they will cater to kids of all ages as well as to parents. Finding a family-friendly outfitter is especially important when planning an adventure trip, like biking or rafting, because many of those packages are far better suited to adult travelers.

A family cruise can be a good choice because it's self-contained and there's plenty to do. But the round-the-clock eating so common on many cruise ships could interfere with your plans for a healthy vacation. And there are some challenges if you're looking for a lot of physical activity. While cruise lines do offer activity programs and on-shore excursions, there could be limits to the amount of physical activity you can engage in while onboard.

If you're considering a cruise:

  • Ask about the pools, climbing walls, classes, and other offerings. Are they easily available, or are there waiting lists or long wait times?
  • Find out if the cruise line offers active programs for kids of all ages, or just a childcare service.
  • Sign up early for on-shore excursions and other activities that could fill up quickly.

With other types of trips, too much activity can be a problem. Some pre-packaged trips might schedule more than your family can handle, so be sure to review the itinerary before signing up. They also can be expensive. Traveling off-season is an option, but may become impossible once kids are in school.

Step 2: Get Kids Involved in the Itinerary

Once you know where you're going, let kids help map out your trip. Older kids might like researching your destination online or in travel books. Younger kids will like seeing a short list of options and getting to choose something special they'd like to do or see. Letting your child choose some of the family's activities encourages good feelings about being physically active together.

Another way to involve kids is to put each one in charge of some aspect of the trip. Is there a natural photographer in the family? Ask that child to take pictures and create a scrapbook when everyone's back home. Or maybe one of your kids likes maps. Get a child-friendly map and let him or her follow your route as you travel to your destination. Kids also can help guide you using maps in museums, zoos, or amusement parks. School-age kids might like having a travel journal to record memories in words and pictures.

Step 3: Get There

If you crave an active vacation, leave the electronic games at home — or allow them only during the time in the car or on the plane. Vacations are a great time to be unwired, so grownups too might consider turning off cells phones and detaching from email for the duration of the trip.

Magnetic checkers, license plate bingo, and other travel games work well in the car for older kids. Music and books on tape can please a range of ages. If you're headed on a long road trip, designate an hour where each kid — and parent, for that matter — gets to determine what everyone else listens to on the car stereo.

Plan on taking breaks from a long car ride. Scout out parks or other destinations where you can stop along the way and let everyone stretch their legs. A quick game of catch or Frisbee can help burn off some pent-up energy. These stops might slow you down a bit, but kids will feel better — and might even nap — if you get them a little fresh air and activity.

Pack a healthy lunch — or at least some healthy snacks — to keep everyone from getting too hungry during the ride or flight. Younger kids especially will appreciate a little bit of their usual routine. So if it's always raisins and crackers at snack time, bring those on the road with you.

If you're stuck waiting in an airport, use the downtime to take walks from terminal to terminal. Find a good spot for watching the planes take off. Many airports even have activity centers for small kids. And don't forget to tuck a deck of cards and a few good books into everyone's backpack. For younger children, crayons and paper can usually save the day.

Step 4: You Made It!

The key to having a great time once you arrive can be summed up in two words: Be flexible. Vacations can really throw kids for a loop. Nothing is like it normally is — from the bed they're sleeping in to the food they're eating for lunch. Help kids feel comfortable on vacation by keeping them informed.

Younger kids will appreciate knowing that you're going to the zoo, then having lunch, then going to look for shells on the beach. It's helpful to remind them during the day: "We're leaving the zoo, so it's time for lunch. Then we'll go to the beach." Talking to them at the end of the day ("What was your favorite part of our day?") also can help orient them. And talk about what's coming up tomorrow.

Here are some additional travel tips for active vacationers:

  • Travel can be exhausting, especially if you're changing time zones. Give yourself a day to rest up before jumping into strenuous physical activity.
  • Consider the weather reports. Juggle activities if you can to avoid bad weather. Your preschooler might love the nature hike on a beautiful sunny day, but might get pretty weary of it if it's rainy and windy. Include several indoor activities on your list of things to do — and save them for bad-weather days.
  • Stagger different activities to accommodate different ages, abilities, and interests. For instance, you don't have to ride a bike all day. You could bike in the morning and take a lazy canoe ride in the afternoon. If you've been hiking or biking all day but your toddler has been in the backpack or tucked inside a baby seat, head to the nearest park or playground where your baby can get some welcome exercise.
  • If you didn't schedule enough time for a favorite activity, don't rush through it just to move on to the next item on the agenda. Be open to changing your plans if you find something more fun or interesting. At the same time, be willing to call it a day if the kids — or adults — are just worn out and ready for some downtime.
  • An "anything goes" approach can be tempting, but letting discipline slide on vacation isn't a good idea. Though all parents lighten up a bit on vacation, try to enforce the same rules that apply at home. If it's not OK for a child to hit his brother at home, it's not OK on vacation either.
  • Plan some downtime — and make sure kids get enough sleep. Be especially sensitive to younger kids and try to stick to their usual routines as much as possible. The time you spend adhering to normal nap schedules will pay off because kids will feel more secure and less cranky. And when kids are less cranky, parents are less cranky, too!

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2011