Family vacations: Tips for maximizing the fun

Rafts piloted by guides from Far Flung Outdoor

Rafts piloted by guides from Far Flung Outdoor Center emerge from Heath Canyon, carved by the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park in Texas. (March 25, 2011) (Credit: AP)

After handling the logistical hurdles of flying with children, perfecting your family packing system and searching out the best bargains available, the main objective is to start having fun once you get where you're going. These tips represent some of my favorite ways to maximize family vacation getaways.

PARKS

If you haven't experienced the national parks lately, you may want to give them a second look. Typical offerings include ranger-led hikes, educational wildlife experiences and, in many cases, phenomenal food. That's right, fine dining is an option when visiting a number of national parks, including gourmet rafting trips at Big Bend and lodge dining at Shenandoah with wild mushroom ravioli and blackberry cobbler.

PERKS

These days, family resorts face steep competition for your travel dollars, resulting in fab perks that ease your bottom line. For example, at the Isla Verde Beach Resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico, room rates can drop as low as $129 a night.

This price includes the resort's complimentary children's programming, which features chef-led cooking lessons, salsa dancing classes, movie nights and more. For parents trying to successfully implement a working vacation, the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa offers discounted pool cabana rentals for hotel guests.

PASSES

Many hotels include passes to on-site or nearby theme and water parks to sweeten the family travel deal. At Wisconsin's Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort, for example, off-peak travel rates are as low as $99 a night, and include guest passes to the four indoor water parks and a four-story dry play area. Add-on tickets for access to the resorts' other activities, including laser tag, a ropes course and bumper boats, are only $19.

TRANSPORTATION

The type of transportation you choose between daily activities can add a significant amount of "Wow!" factor for your kids. Teens, for example, tend to tune in for a Segway ride much more than a standard walking tour. Hiking through the jungle mud in Thailand forecasts a high likelihood of tears. Riding the same trail on an elephant instead? Huge hit. Ditto with camel riding versus walking in Petra, Jordan.

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