For Relaxers: Cruises
Why They're Crowd-Pleasers: Up-front pricing means you can control your budget. A full roster of activities keeps every family member entertained: Kids can learn to DJ at teen-only clubs, and seniors can relax with bridge games.
Where to Set Sail
Alaskan Adventure: Princess' Alaska cruises have teamed up with the California Science Center for a Science on the Seas program, complete with marine biology experiments. The highlight of the journey is a day of cruising through Glacier Bay National Park, where epic icebergs dramatically drop ice into emerald-green waters as you spot black bears and bald eagles. Junior chefs can take cooking classes while adults stay busy with intriguing talks from the likes of a former Iditarod champ. Eleven-day Alaska cruise, round-trip from San Francisco on the 2,600-passenger Star Princess, princess.com, from $998 double occupancy
Caribbean Castaway Dream: Disney's seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise offers up to four destinations: San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas/St. John; St. Maarten; and Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. The latter has all the charms of the Caribbean: You can board a glass-bottomed boat at Marge's Barges & Sea Charter Dock, or send the kids to Teen Beach for biking and kayaking while you relax on the sand at adults-only Serenity Bay. Seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise, round-trip from Port Canaveral, Florida, on the Disney Fantasy, disneycruise.disney.go.com, from $1,085 per person
Siesta and Fiesta on the Mexican Riviera: Norwegian Cruise Lines' "freestyle" concept means everyone can do what they want, whenever they want—including dining. The entire family can enjoy a whale-watching tour of Banderas Bay, which has one of the world's largest concentrations of humpbacks. Seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise on the Norwegian Star, departing from Los Angeles, ncl.com, from $479 per person
Smooth Sailing Tip: Be sure to experience everything on your list by prebooking tickets to complimentary comedy shows and Broadway-style musicals, and make reservations for specialty restaurants and spa services.
For Outdoorsy Types: National Parks
Why They're Crowd-Pleasers: Families have flocked to national parks for decades to experience stunning natural wonders firsthand—and to save some bucks, since camping or rolling in with an RV can reduce lodging costs. Plus, the great outdoors practically forces you to unplug, so it's a surefire way to get your clan out of their daily routine and reconnect.
Glacier National Park: Glacier offers all the dramatic mountain vistas and abundant wildlife of Yosemite, without the crowds. For a novel way to view the park (also great for those with physical limitations), sign up for a boat tour of one of the area's four major lakes.
Shenandoah National Park: The Blue Ridge Mountains are a stunning backdrop to the gorgeous Skyline Drive. Shenandoah has 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The easiest is the 1.3-mile Limberlost Trail, a circuit hike for all ages with a 5-foot-wide crushed greenstone walkway on a gentle grade with plentiful benches, a boardwalk and a bridge.
For DIY Explorers: Road Trips
Why They're Crowd-Pleasers: The journey is the destination—and driving is cheaper than flying as a group. The adventure lies in the unexpected. Plus, road tripping is a great way to see the U.S. Multiple cars allow everyone to travel at their own speed.
Where to Hit the Road
California Coast: The third-largest state is road-trip nirvana: California has the second-most total miles of highway in the U.S. Cruise up the coast on scenic Highway 1, starting from Big Sur. Stop at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant for a picnic lunch before hitting Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which features an 80-foot waterfall that drops from granite cliffs into the ocean from the Overlook Trail. On the next leg, visit the historic Point Reyes lighthouse and watch for sea lions (and migrating gray whales from January through early May). At Redwood National and State Parks, stand in awe of 600- to 2,000-year-old trees.
Cowboy Country: Hey, dude! Round up the gang for a Dallas-to-Oklahoma City road trip that packs major yeehaw. Stop by the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, spread over 66 acres. In Norman, Oklahoma, visit the dinosaur exhibits at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History—teens, tweens and grown-ups will love the "dino-vator," a glass elevator that takes you 26 feet into the air so you can look the Apatosaurus in the eye. Then swing by Oklahoma City's historic Stockyards City district for live cattle auctions and cowboy-boot shops.
New England Retreat: You'll gasp as you gaze out the car window at the Northeast's glacier-tinged mountains, lush forests and craggy coastline on a jaunt from Bar Harbor, Maine, to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to Burlington, Vermont. Indulge in the famous popovers at The Jordan Pond House Restaurant in Seal Harbor, just 7 miles from Bar Harbor, then drive Acadia National Park's Park Loop Road for a 27-mile scenic route where mountains and forests touch the ocean. Once you get to the White Mountains, zipline through them or ride the roller coaster at Cranmore Mountain. In Burlington, let someone else do the driving as you take in the views of the Adirondacks.
Before You Set Cruise Control: If you want to travel at your own pace, plan stopping points and meeting places in advance so that everyone can rendezvous at the end of the day.
Travel Tip: To save serious dough, skip the hotels and opt for a condo or house rental instead. Websites like HomeAway.com and Airbnb.com make it easy to find and book all types of accommodations across the country, from beach houses to mountain cabins to city townhomes.
Grandparent and Grandchild Camps
Age is just a number at these activity-filled summer camps dedicated to grandparent-grandchild bonding.
Great Grands Camp (Raquette Lake, New York): Have a girls' week at the Grandmothers & Granddaughters camp—complete with arts and crafts, storytelling and a campfire—and let the boys in on the fun for the Grandparents & Grandchildren sessions. roadscholar.org
Grand Camps (Browns Summit, North Carolina): From daytime activities like hiking, fishing and canoeing to toasty nights by the campfire, the delight never stops at Haw River State Park. ncparks.gov
Intergenerational World of Theatre (Ashland, Oregon): Enjoy three shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—including Into the Woods—go behind the scenes to meet the actors, learn the ins and outs of set building and participate in a performance. roadscholar.org
Just for Grandparents and Grandkids (Nevada City, California): For a nature-filled experience, hike some of the Pacific Crest Trail, go kayaking and swim in mountain lakes at Tahoe National Forest. sierraclub.org
Save Money on Family Vacations
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Family Circlemagazine.