5 Life-Changing Family Vacations to Take With Your Kids Now

Life, as all parents know and feel, moves fast. Too fast. How many mothers and fathers have exclaimed, “They grow up so quickly!”? Yes, it’s cliché but true: The days are long but the years are short. One way to really make the most of the free time we have with our family is to unplug from the digital universe, leave the hustle and hubbub in our dust, and go on an intrepid adventure. Travel helps us bond with our family in a way that proves difficult when bogged down by day-to-day life, full of to-do lists, careers, school, and activities. When out exploring, away from our normal lives, we create memories, we learn about other cultures and ways of life, and we enjoy simply being together. Have we sparked your familial wanderlust yet? For some travel inspiration, check out these global destinations, chosen by families who decided it was high time for their next great adventure.

Three Cities in Spain

Jim and Jennifer Lahti, from Winnetka, are big believers in family travel — they visited Spain with their four children (ages 14, 12, 11 and 9). It was the first time they would be leaving the country together as a family, and they looked to Stacey Loftus Cohen from Royal Travel & Tours in Winnetka — a premier family agency in operation since 1972 — to help them book an adventure of a lifetime that included visits to Barcelona, Marbella, and Madrid.

family vacations: Lahti family in Spain
Photo courtesy of the Lahti family.

“It was important to understand the priorities for this family and to put together a trip with the itinerary to achieve it,” says Loftus Cohen. “For example, I knew that their daughter Charlotte wanted a cooking class for her birthday and knowing that she did not like chocolate, I worked with the chef to ensure that her special birthday treat was a vanilla-based cake.”


In Barcelona, the Lahtis stayed at Hotel Arts and enjoyed the benefits of the Club Level, which included breakfast and snacks throughout the day — an insider’s tip for a good value for big families and a great place to decompress after a long day touring the city. Highlights in Barcelona included a Gaudi architecture tour, a visit to the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, and the aforementioned cooking class.

Imagine walking around a traditional market — seeing fish and hung meat for sale, smelling local flavors — and then going to a cooking school for a hands-on experience preparing traditional Spanish foods like croquettes, calamari, and pintxos.

“The guide really connected with the kids and was so knowledgeable!” says Jennifer Lahti. “We all learned quite a bit.”


In Marbella, the Lahtis stayed at the Marbella Beach Club, right on the Mediterranean, which was a relaxing retreat from the busy urban bustle of Barcelona. Two days were spent soaking up the sun, relaxing on the beach, and enjoying some of the best seafood they’d ever had. They also enjoyed a day included for an excursion to Rhonda

“The drive itself was very pretty, we had to go up into the mountains and it was neat to see the African coastline off in the distance,” says Lahti.

After a private tour of the city, the Lahtis went to see a bullfighting ring, including a tour of the grandstands and bull pens, a high point for the kids. The museum attached to the ring was an excellent place to absorb the history of the sport.


The Lahtis then traveled by high-speed train to magical Madrid, where they stayed at the Hotel Ritz, a lovely traditional hotel in an excellent walkable location.

While in Madrid, the family spent two days touring with the same informative guide — they visited and learned about the Prado, the Royal Palace and Toledo.

“Our guide was able to bring us into buildings we never would have been able to get into on our own,” says Lahti. “We also went to a flamenco show, which was fun and well worth it!”

The family says Royal Travel’s seamless arrangement of their itinerary helped make this most memorable of trips. Jennifer says the personalized tours with the guides completely made the trip, and the fact that all of the details were taken care of — including pre-arranged porter services to assist with baggage and transportation — meant that the Lahtis could focus on enjoying the trip instead of stressing out over the logistics.

“There is no way I could have ever planned a trip like this on our own,” says Lahti. “It was great for our family as it was such an adventure! It definitely made us closer as a family.”

An African Adventure 

Chicagoans Trisha and Kenji Muro visited Africa this past April with their two children (ages 14 and 11). The Muros wanted to make this journey because they decided focusing on experiences was more important that buying more things. They wanted to get their children out of their comfort zones, to try new things, and meet new people, and Africa was one of the many places they wanted to go to together as a family.

family vacations: Muro family in Africa
Photo courtesy of the Muro family.

If you ask the Muros what their trip to Africa was like, they’ll tell you it was nothing short of remarkable.

“Since we come from a fairly northern latitude, the difference in sunlight intensity is stunning,” says Trisha Muro. “Twilights are fast, and of course the entire landscape is just plain awesome, grand and expansive.”

Animal Encounters

Of course, you can see some stunning animals at the zoo, but for the Muros, seeing animals in their natural habitat in Kenya was an experience like no other. The Muro family witnessed incredible animal life — and death — something that Trisha says was awe-inspiring. They saw a newborn giraffe take its first steps to drink its mother’s milk, a trip highlight, and they also saw a lion gnawing on a zebra it had just caught in its claws.

“In Africa, you wake up to bird songs like you’ll never hear in Chicago, and middle-of-the-night conversations between hippos, hyenas, and lions,” says Trisha.

The family’s full-time guide was invaluable to their enriching experience — he traveled, navigated, and educated the Muro family and proved to be quite the comfort in such an unfamiliar locale. Their guide taught them about the many different animal species, including some of the less popular ones like hyrax, Thomson’s gazelles, and dik-diks.

“We might have been able to see Kenya without him, but doing so would’ve been a far paler visit — he made all the difference in the world,” says Trisha.

Accommodations on the trip, which was planned by San Francisco-based travel company GeoEx (Geographic Expedition), were rustic-chic, taking into consideration the landscape. The Muros stayed in a variety of places, including semi-permanent tents — a new experience for the family.

“The people who welcomed us were warm, highly knowledgeable, friendly, and generous,” says Trisha. “A tribal woman welcomed us into her hut so that we could see how native people build their homes, and Maasai men accompanied us on walks to share with us their incredible knowledge and skill.”

Visiting an elephant orphanage in Nairobi, learning about the wildlife rangers who protect rhinos, and attending a school in Laikipia were, as Trisha puts it, “beautiful moments of connecting with people making a difference in their communities!”  

Transformative Travel

Jessica Silber, who oversees Africa and Middle East travel at GeoEx, notes Africa’s richness in lessons for families, especially children, who often return with confidence and a newfound adventurous spirit after the experience of sleeping in a tented camp, meeting local conservation heroes, and connecting with kids in local schools.

“We have arranged for families to be greeted at their camp by a group of Maasai warriors, coordinated private safaris on exquisitely remote islands in the Okavango Delta, and surprised families with aerial views of the Great Migration in a charter flight over the Serengeti,” says Silber. “We are lucky to have such great friends in Africa as camp managers, drivers, and guides who welcome our guests immediately as part of the GeoEx family.”

Silber says GeoEx helps to enhance families’ African adventures by maximizing the time spent on safari and minimizing the time spent in a 4 x 4, with activities like swimming excursions in Kenya, meerkat encounters in Botswana, and rides on camels to special campfire dinners. Travel experts can also schedule special excursions in the community like a trip to a local school or a pickup game of soccer. Silber also says it’s important to choose guides carefully — the really good guides will not only entertain and educate, but they will also share enlightening stories about their own lives or unscripted stories about the animals they’ve encountered. She also notes that timing is key: The U.S. summer falls during the safari high season when it’s cool and dry in sub-Saharan Africa, while arriving in December or April may afford viewers a chance to see colorful birds and baby animals.

As part of their involvement with Tides (formerly known as the Thoreau Center for Sustainability), GeoEx delivers on a promise to promote energy conservation, recycling, and environmental sustainability. One initiative that GeoEx has undertaken is to provide guests with water-filtration bottles instead of single-use plastic bottles, which are damaging to the environment and global resources.

A Multigenerational Venture in Montana

What if you want to travel with your entire extended family? You’ll want a destination that combines accessibility with entertainment and enjoyment for family members of every age. Take the Ost family from Saint Charles, for example — they traveled to Montana with four sets of families, totaling 18 members, to get a slice of the cowboy culture out west.

“Our client wanted to put together a memorable multigenerational family trip to help celebrate his mother and father’s anniversary,” says Bonnie Minutillo, travel expert at Andrew Harper Travel, a luxury boutique travel company based in Westmont. “Mr. Ost wanted a destination that would offer activities for the various age groups — from ages 5 to 72 — and he wanted to stay in the United States.”

Minutillo and her client together decided that a luxury ranch experience would be just the thing to celebrate the big anniversary, and Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana fit the bill perfectly.

“They offer so many different activities, have luxurious accommodations, and the staff and service are truly exceptional,” says Minutillo.

The concierge at Ranch at Rock Creek, with Minutillo’s guidance, assisted the Ost family in setting up special activities. Andrew Harper Travel was able to assist the family with their air travel from Chicago and get them all on nonstop flights, making the experience easy as a slice of Montana pie.

Jennifer Ost says that the privately-owned ranch, nestled along either side of Rock Creek, southeast of Missoula, was relaxed but high end, with something to do for everyone. The family was able to see an abundance of nature — deer, moose, vast mountain ranges, Aspen trees, and even shooting stars at night. And the log cabin accommodations, with private porches, daily housekeeping, and full kitchens, were luxurious but also full of Montana country charm.

family vacations: Ost family
Photo courtesy of the Ost family.

Bikes were also available for the guests to use at will, making it easy for everyone to get around the property. “A bike wrangler brings the bike back to your house if you decide you do not want to ride bikes back from an activity,” says Jennifer Ost. “My mother-in-law was given a golf cart to ride around in all week because she was recovering from a knee replacement surgery — she loved it.”

Each family member received a custom itinerary for the week — wagon rides, horseback riding, geocaching, ropes courses, range shooting, hiking, fly fishing, archery, barn dancing — and then they met up each night as a group to talk about the day and all the different experiences they enjoyed.

Each night after dinner, the Ost extended family spent time together at the main lodge or in the game room where they bowled and played chess and pool and sat by the fireplace. “One night, Sam, a concierge at the ranch, taught a group of us how to play Texas Hold’Em, which none of us ever played before — we are hooked now and planning poker nights together now that we are home,” says Ost.

The kids’ programs included crafts, playing games, and eating meals at the Kids’ Club. The ranch also brought in a rodeo, with professional riders from all over the state, to entertain guests.

A highlight for Jennifer was the inclusive locally sourced gourmet meals. “Some were home-style ranch meals cooked outside as a picnic buffet and others were fancy high-end five-course chef tasting menus at the main restaurant,” says Ost.

Andrew Harper Travel also coordinated with the ranch to help the Ost family arrange a special off-ranch activity. “My father-in-law, Larry Ost, is a survivor of the 1959 earthquake in Montana near Yellowstone in which 29 people died,” says Ost. “We rented a large private bus for a day trip to the Quake Lake Visitors Center and to West Yellowstone. This day trip was a highlight for our family because many of the children in our group learned about our family history and connected with their grandfather’s experiences by visiting the site and hearing his stories.”

It’s All About the Journey, Not the Destination

Sometimes it not about where in the world you should go and more about making the effort to simply leave home. Just ask Gil Dowd from the Bay Area — he’s traveled with his kids (ages 18 to 24) to Belize, Greece, and the Galapagos Islands with REI, an adventure company that focuses on family travel and specialty nature-infused active trips. In 2018, REI will celebrate their 10th year of planning stellar family vacations across the globe.

“REI’s Family Adventures are the perfect escape from the mobile age of distraction,” says Janel Jensen, REI Adventures program manager. “It’s device-free time to help multigenerational families connect more deeply in the outdoors.”

family vacations: Dowd family
Photo courtesy of the Dowd family.

Gil’s daughter Annalise has gotten a lot out of the trips because of the in-country educated guides. “One of my favorite things about the REI Adventure trips is having local tour guides who were able to provide a much more authentic experience than if we were traveling on our own,” says Annalise Dowd. “They are able to take us to the local shops and restaurants that are often overlooked by the average tourist, and they had tremendous knowledge about the culture, past and present.”


In 2007, the Dowd family went to Belize — staying on lighthouse reef. Gil and his three adventurer kids snorkeled in warm azure waters, body surfed, went sailing at the Blue Hole, and spent a lot of time relaxing and connecting on the beach. The Dowds even caught barracuda with fishing line and their bare hands, instead of a rod and reel. Nighttime was spent playing games, swimming, and sleeping in two-person tents on the beach, for an inimitable experience.

“I decided to try an adventure trip with REI and couldn’t believe how refreshing it was for me as the parent,” Dowd says. “Since I didn’t make up the itinerary, the kids never once complained or asked to do other things.”

Amazon Basin/Galapagos

In 2012, the intrepid Dowds journeyed to the Amazon Basin and Galapagos Islands, where hiking, rafting, snorkeling, sea kayaking, and biking were on the must-do list. That, and a very special 50th birthday celebration, which was spent whooping and hollering on a rafting expedition.

“This was another great trip with very different geography,” says Dowd. “The Amazon Basin was lush with many plants, rivers, and bugs.”

After the Amazon Basin, the Dowds explored two of the islands in the Galapagos, where they saw iguanas, tortoises, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and more sea life — and even took a kayaking trip to search for sharks.

“REI trip leaders take care of all the day-to-day decisions and logistics so adults can truly immerse [themselves] in the activities with their youngsters,” says Jensen.

Annalise says that she not only loves spending time with her family, but also getting to know different people from around the world. Plus, the activities and adventures that REI plans get Annalise excited to keep exploring and learning more.

“There is such an excitement about waking up to a new and unexpected adventure each day and going to bed exhausted and happy,” says Dowd.


Greece isn’t just for couples on romantic vacations; it’s also a destination for thrilling adventure. In 2014, the Dowds were at it again, visiting Europe for the first time by hiking and kayaking their way through Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, and Oia. They visited the top sites with a knowledgeable guide and learned about the history, culture, and food, which is part of what makes Greece such a wonderful destination for families.

“The cafes, churches, and labyrinth streets were amazing,” says Dowd. “One day we hiked 10 miles from Santorini to Oia to enjoy the fabulous sunset, fine food, and great wine.”

As Down explains, REI puts the main focus on the locations and active experiences and then builds the trip around that, instead of picking out a fabulous hotel first and then planning the activities.

“We will be on another REI Adventure vacation in the near future,” he says. 

Asia: From Elephants to Sushi in Thailand and Japan

Shawna Huffman Owen, president and CEO at Chicago-based Huffman Travel Ltd., a trusted family-owned-and-operated luxury travel agency, booked an educational spring break travel experience for the Cole family from Lincoln Park.

“The Cole family defines what it means to ‘educate through travel’,” says Huffman Owen. “They give their kids the gift of wanderlust and believe that by doing and experiencing you learn — I knew we’d be able to take advantage of all that Japan and Thailand have to offer.”

One of the trip’s highlights included a visit to the Elephant Life Experience boutique elephant camp at Maetaman Valley north of Chiang Mai in Thailand. The Coles watched the elephants bathe in the river, learned basic verbal commands, participated in the animal care, and watched the elephants paint a picture with their trunks.

“The highlight of the trip by far was the Elephant Experience,” says Elizabeth Cole. “We had a blast riding them and then giving them a bath in the river where they were so playful and fun — it was like nothing I have ever seen in my life.”

family vacations: Cole family
Photo courtesy of the Cole family.

Other experiences that Huffman Travel Ltd. planned for the Coles included biking through rice paddies in Chiang Mai, dressing up in traditional Kimonos, riding the bullet train, boating through the national parks off Koh Samui, and visiting the famous Tokyo Fish Market.

“Their oldest, Brendan, who never liked sushi before, is a convert — he loves it now!” says Huffman Owen.

A cooking class, Thai Secret Cooking School, was a favorite activity for mom, Elizabeth, a health and wellness expert. She was fascinated by the visit to the organic garden because she wanted to learn about the Eastern medicine approach and also loved seeing her children take pride in what they made.

Of her children’s newly adventurous palates she says, “Our kids are now quite sophisticated sushi eaters — no California rolls for them anymore.”


More from Make It Better: 

Wendy Altschuler

Wendy Altschuler is a seasoned travel and lifestyle writer with more than a decade of clips in various publications: MSN, Delta Sky, Modern Luxury, Sun-Times Media, Tribune Brand Copy, Parents Magazine, Yoga Magazine, The Daily Meal, Spafinder, Red Tricycle, Eluxe Magazine and many more. She is happiest when out exploring and adventuring or on a trail with her family and pup. Follow her on social @wendyaltschuler or visit her website: wendyaltschuler.com

Wendy is a big fan of volunteering with her kids and The Honeycomb Project, a sort of nonprofit aggregator that sets up family-friendly service projects for all ages. “We can sign up for community events around Chicago that help protect animals and the environment; fight hunger, poverty and homelessness; and offer joy and support to those in need. Doing good feels good,” Wendy says. 



  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate