How to travel with kids of all ages

Image: LEGOLAND Water Park
Water parks, such as this one at Legoland, can provide hours of fun for kids of all ages.Sandy Huffaker
/ Source: Family vacation

Large families often have a wide age range of children, and even small families can have kids that are rather spread out in age. What's a family with a 4-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 15-year-old to do? Families with kids in multiple age groups know how hard it can be when a teen is giving you the silent treatment, sulking with their headphones on as a cranky, whining toddler who needed a nap hours ago is throwing a fit. Is it possible to have a great family vacation for everyone in the family? Of course it is!

According to Leslie Overton, Conde Nast Traveler's top specialist for family travel in Asia and general manager of luxury tour company Absolute Travel, "the key to making everyone happy is finding a place that can offer great relaxation, physical activities and cultural interest." She recommends getting a great indoor pool at a city hotel and going on stimulating tours that feature walking, rowing, climbing ... anything that gets your kids moving. Families sometimes shy away from cultural experiences, thinking that they will be too daunting, overwhelming or boring for kids, but oftentimes children enjoy being around different people, learning unfamiliar customs and exploring new territories. So go ahead and try immersing your family in another culture. Overton notes that a strong support system for younger kids and plenty of activities for older kids will go far in satisfying everyone in the family.

Kids' programs and childcare
Kids' programs and quality babysitting make up this support system for small children. Nothing can top a good kids' program at a hotel. You're looking for a wide array of children's and teens' clubs at one hotel — preferably clubs that cater to multiple age groups. Notice how kids are split into age groups per program. For instance, a hotel can say that they have kids' activities for children ages 4 to 17. What you need to find out is if they are divided into two groups or assembled into one, which can be stressful for little ones or dull for older teens. Typically, the most enjoyable kids' programs are those that run different clubs for at least three separate groups of kids, in clusters of four-year (or less) age differences. If your children are outgoing, this is less of an issue, as they will probably fall in with many ages of peers easily.

Try to book all your kids in clubs that take place at the same time if possible. That way when they are done for the day, the entire family can be together in the evening. Oftentimes, fun experiences with new friends promote congenial times with siblings when back together again.

Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman is one example of a resort that offers programs for all ages. The Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ambassadors of the Environment allows children to explore the Caribbean ecological surroundings — wildlife and native foliage — of the Cayman Islands. Kids gain an appreciation of nature and learn how to live more environmentally-friendly upon returning home. Six three-hour eco-tour programs are offered each day (seven days a week), so there's no excuse for kids to not be interested in at least one adventure during your stay. Kids are grouped into programs of ages 4 to 7 and 8 to 18. Teens from 14 to 17 can also receive massages at the spa with a parent present. For kids younger than age 4, the resort offers babysitting on request and there is kiddie pool onsite.

Smugglers' Notch in Vermont is another family-favorite, known for its diverse kids' programs for toddlers up to teens. While the resort's summer programs will entice kids of all ages, we especially love their winter activities. Kids can learn to ski at the early age of just 2.5 years, and trainers are some of the best in the nation. Group lessons and one-on-one sessions are available for kids of any age and skill-level. For children who would rather avoid the slopes, there's ice skating and dog sledding. Swimming lessons, building sand castles, biking and hiking are also available in the summer months. Teens will enjoy climbing, kayaking, ziplining or mastering the rope obstacle courses onsite. Babies as young as 6 weeks can be part of the Treasures All-Day Childcare.

Water parks
Theresa Jorgensen, owner of SixSuitcaseTravel, a website that details hotels especially for large families, says the trick to pleasing all the kids is finding a resort with a water park. "The bigger the better! These hotels can be a vacation destination in themselves." Typically, water parks have enough features to keep kids of just about any age busy, wet and having fun. Little ones can hang out supervised in splash pads while older kids can go wild, zooming down the water slides or running beneath 1,000-gallon dumping buckets.

Great Wolf Lodge offers year-round indoor water parks with lazy rivers to float on connecting tubes for two, super-slick slides, sprinkling buckets, zero-entry pools and activity clubs. Rent a cabana for the day and use it as a meeting point for the family to rejoin in between water adventures. Great Wolf usually offers nightly story time, morning educational walks, crafts and club activities, too. Select properties provide spa treatments for young girls, like mini-facials and toe-nail painting. The water park resort chain has properties all across the U.S. and Canada, including the Poconos, Williamsburg, Va.; and Niagara Falls.

Another resort water park, Wilderness Hotel & Resort in Wisconsin Dells offers five-story tube slides accented by fog machines, expansive bumper boat areas, horse-drawn wagon rides and family raft rides. Spray mats and mini slides are for the little ones. An indoor water park is beneath a 70,000-square-foot glass dome, covering the largest wave pool in the country. Outdoor water parks are also at the resort, featuring dinosaur themes, lazy rivers, racing slides and evening miniature golf. A children's club hosts rubber duck races, scavenger hunts and movies, too.

Get enough space
Though not directly related to the amount of fun you'll have, getting enough space for everyone in the family is important. It may not be able to drastically improve a sleepy town with nothing to do, but without it, the family vacation can be irritating and filled with unnecessary bickering about sides of the bed or television programs. Getting enough space is especially important for families with teenagers. Everyone knows that teens like a bit more privacy than younger kids; not to mention the difference in sleep schedules can be difficult to address in small hotel rooms. Units with multiple rooms promote a good night's sleep and minimize grumpiness in the mornings, so you can start the day off right.

Publisher of the independent family travel site Travel Savvy Mom, Jamie Pearson sticks with family-friendly chains like Homewood Suites. Though there are no kid-friendly gimmicks, often found at brands like Kimpton Hotels (another favorite chain), Homewood's all-suite properties offer separate bedrooms, full kitchens, complimentary breakfasts and free dinners on weeknights. Most locations have a pool and/or hot tub, which typically appeal to all ages on some level. Some of our favorite Homewood Suite properties are in Orlando, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; Williamsburg, Va.; and San Diego.

Head to the beach
The downside to kids' clubs is that families are split up. Most families want to at least see each other on vacation, if not spend the entire time together. The beach is a perfect family-friendly destination, because families do not need to split up to have fun, and as Overton mentions, there are physical outlets and cultural touring possibilities. Sure, teens may want to spend most of the time in the water, while small children may take the day to build a sand castle, but both parties are in each others' view. Lunch breaks can be spent together and family walks along the coastline are a must. Essentially, you are all enjoying the same attraction at the same time.

Head to a dude ranch
Teens may not like it at first, due to the lack of WiFi and video games, but soon they're sure to get infected with the cowboy style, campfires and outdoor activities. Dude ranches are places where families can escape the real world in both place and time. Ranches create an enclosed environment that fosters family togetherness. Oftentimes, dude ranches have activities for children as young as age 2, such as pony rides and campfire songs. Teens are also typically provided with junior wrangling programs, rodeos and horseback riding. Usually, ranches are built in some of the most scenic parts of the country, like Yellowstone National Park. Some of our favorite dude ranches are Triangle C Dude Ranch of Dubois, Wyo., and the Drowsy Water Ranch in Granby, Colo.

Visit area attractions
Wherever you go, your hotel's surroundings do matter. Yet, they need not be complicated or overly impressive to satisfy kids. Zoos, aquariums, grassy parks, movie theaters, candy stores ... there are many things to explore in a new destination that will bring new light to a familiar attraction also found in your own hometown. Even something as commonplace as a nearby mall may intrigue a teenager, while younger kids may consider the resort itself enough of an attraction. Debbie Dubrow, mother of three (5, 4 and 1) and creator of kid-friendly travel site DeliciousBaby, enjoys The Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. Besides the outdoor pools and waterslides, the hotel is located across the street from a huge shopping mall where teenagers can hang out with friends. A teen's club also runs games and an onsite spa also offers relaxing services to younger guests. Toddlers can enjoy a shallow wading pool with spraying fountains or participate in activities at the children's club. The resort even offers one- and two-bedroom Casita Suites. In a sense, the resort has just about all the pieces of the puzzle.

Family Vacation Critic fan and mother of three children (16, 12 and 5), Kelly Fraser Longo tries to take her family to places that will have "something for everyone." Orlando is a family favorite, as the area offers attractions for all ages and isn't far from her hometown. She admits to often "suffering through" what one child wants to do and then moving onto the next kids' wishes, occasionally splitting up for short periods. Like so many things, balance is the key, and each child must be able to do something fun for them. Looking forward to his or her own special activity will make it slightly easier to be patient with a brother's or sister's choice of activity. Still, it's not so bad that the Longo's feel they need to take two separate trips ... and let's be honest, that wouldn't be as fun.

Finally, accept compromise
It's important to remember that the family vacation, like any family time, may require some compromise. And there's nothing wrong with that. As mothers have said to their children time and time again, it builds character. Accepting compromise show kids by example to consider others' feelings, be selfless and strive for the ever elusive patience.

Family Vacation Critic forum-member host Lisa has two daughters ages 14 and 7. Taking into consideration the age gap when planning a vacation, she recognizes that there will be some compromise, as families want to stay together but "are only as fast as the one with the shortest legs." Her family only splits up when absolutely necessary, like at theme parks when rides are grouped by age in different sections of the park. While in London, smartly taking advantage of the world-class theater, she and her oldest daughter saw "Les Miserables" while her husband and younger daughter went to "The Lion King." Though not ideal, these experiences can be fun for the kids and coming together afterwards can be fun for mom and dad.